In May 1926, a Jewish watchmaker approached a middle-aged man sporting a cane and attending his favourite restaurant in the Rue Racine in Paris. The watchmaker asked the man his name and, after hearing the response, pumped five bullets into him, adding two more as he lay dying on the pavement. The dead man was Symon Petliura, the head of the Ukrainian state in its struggle for independence between 1919 and 1921. His assassin was Sholom Schwartzbard who had lost more than 20 relatives in the massacres in Ukraine following the October revolution.
In the armed conflict between Ukrainian nationalists, the Bolshevik Red Army, the Monarchist White Russians and a host of free-lance irregulars, it is estimated that a possible 150,000 Jews were killed – the greatest mass-murder of Jews before the Shoah. Many Jews at the time held Petliura responsible for a large number of these pogroms and certainly did not mourn the manner of his passing. An editorial in the Yiddish daily, Der Morgen Zhurnal, in New York – where many East European Jews lived – commented:
“We are not grieved by this incident. Nor are we afraid of the possible consequences. Would that every pogrom leader feel unsafe.”
Schwartzbard’s pregnant mother had been killed in an earlier pogrom. His uncle Israel was killed as he left synagogue in Baloskow during Passover 1919. His mother’s brother and all his family had been killed in Balta, where the women were raped beforehand.
These were not exceptions – the Proskurov pogrom left over 1,200 dead and more than 3,000 orphans.
In Uman, the Jews had dug their own graves. At Laszkow, most girls over the age of 15 were raped. In Mariampol, the age fell to 12.
Schwartzbard, who had fought for France at the battle of the Somme during the First World War and been awarded the Croix de Guerre, wrote to a friend in London a few months before the assassination. He said that many would wish to be in his place with a wonderful wife and a thriving business. “What more could one wish for,” he asked.
But, in recalling the historic massacres in the Ukraine by forces under the command of Chmielnicki and Gonta and contemporary ones by Bulak-Balachovitch and Denikin, he also wrote:
“They call upon me to avenge them. What does the world know of all the libels at Damascus, Kiev, now at Lemburg and thousands of others? To many this is all past history, done with and forgotten. To me it is an open wound, bleeding and sore which can never be healed.”
A defence fund for Schwartzbard was immediately established. Large numbers of Jews generously contributed to this cause célèbre as did Chaim Weizmann and H. G. Wells.
Albert Einstein, Leon Blum and Maxim Gorky all volunteered to give testimony for the defence at the trial. In Britain, Jewish leaders such as Moses Gaster spoke out in support. In Poland, the grandson of the Polish national poet, Adam Mickiewicz said that he, too, would appear for the defence.
During Succot 1927, French synagogues held services for the victims of the massacres. On the opening of the trial in October 1927, the inhabitants of Tel Aviv demonstrated, carrying Torah scrolls and black-edged flags.
Ukrainian nationalists did not see the killing of Petliura in the same light. He was regarded as a freedom fighter, someone who had struggled to bring independence to his homeland. In nationalist circles, Jews were often perceived as clandestine Bolsheviks since the upper echelons of the party boasted a disproportionate number of Jews. Some accused Schwartzbard of working for the GPU (the forerunner of the KGB) – and said that the assassination had been part of a Judeo-Bolshevik plot.
Moreover, the Ukrainian peasantry periodically regarded their Jewish neighbours as Christ-killers. In the confusion of these times, as an independent Ukraine shrank before the assaults of the Red Army, Petliura was deemed by his supporters to have had little control over events.
At his trial, Schwartzbard pleaded not guilty and was unrepentant. He was defended by the eminent Jewish lawyer, Henri Torrès, whose team travelled to the Ukraine to interview survivors. Funds raised by American Jews also allowed Torrès to bring both witnesses and experts to Paris. Torrès was able therefore to read out a letter in court from the wife of an Orthodox priest, Katchorovsky, who went to the aid of Jews and was slain for his efforts. The central issue for the court was not whether Schwartzbard had carried out the act –- this was not in question as he made no attempt to leave the scene of the assassination. It was whether Petliura was responsible, morally and practically, for the pogroms.
The American Jewish Committee “advised” the defence that they should argue that Schwartzbard had carried out the act on grounds of “mental irresponsibility”. The defence rejected this and also rebutted any suggestion that Schwartzbard was a Soviet agent.
A central witness for the defence was the historian Elias Tcherikower, who headed the historical division of YIVO, the Jewish Research Institute, which was dedicated to reclaiming and recording the history and culture of East European Jewry. Tcherikower had headed a team of Jewish scholars that had gathered documentation during the period of the pogroms in Ukraine and managed to bring out his archive to Berlin, following the victory of the Red Army.
Tcherikower presented documentation and testimony in the trial that indicated that Petliura was only marginally interested in the fate of the Jews. Petliura, Tcherikower argued, did not wish to upset his military command and create disunity in difficult times. The pogroms stiffened “army discipline”. He told the Jews of the village of Yaruga that “the soldiers must amuse themselves”.
Tcherikower argued that Petliura’s public condemnation of pogroms was mere subterfuge for foreign consumption. He said that Petliura was not powerless in this situation, that he did not exert his full authority and that few pogromists were prosecuted. All this was hotly disputed by the prosecution. Yet it took less than 30 minutes for the jury to acquit Schwartzbard.
Schwartzbard was unable to assume his previous existence in a France where large numbers of Russian and Ukrainian émigrés had settled. Death threats abounded.
In March 1928, the British authorities in Palestine rejected his application for a visa. The Colonial Office stated that he had neither the means nor the skills required by an employer to be allowed to enter the country despite an endorsement by the leaders of the Yishuv.
Schwartzbard eventually settled in Chicago, where he lived on his reputation. He died in Cape Town in 1938 at the age of 50 while on a lecture tour.
Thirty years later, his remains were brought to Israel and re-interred on Moshav Avihayil, north of Netanya.
In Beer Sheva, there is a street named after Schwartzbard. In Kiev, there is one named after Petliura. In 2016, different renditions of this saga continue.
Petliura is remembered in folk-song and poetry and in his birthplace of Poltava. Ten years ago, on the 80th anniversary of his assassination, several volumes of his writings were published in the Ukraine.
Ninety years on, there will no doubt be further commemorations in the coming week to cast him in the image of a national hero.
Sholom Schwartzbard was undoubtedly a product of his time. In a letter to a New York periodical before his trial, he wrote that he had opened a new chapter “in our sombre and bloody history”.
He added: “Enough of slavery, enough outpouring of tears, an end to supplication, crying, bribery. Lifting our heads, sticking out our chests, we demand herewith our right – that of living equal to all.”
Today, the history of these pogroms is known to few and Schwartzbard is a forgotten figure. In killing Petliura, he believed that he was striking a blow for freedom for his own – and past generations of Jews. History will pass judgment but, as the Baal Shem Tov commented: “Forgetfulness leads to exile; remembering is the key to redemption”. It is for this reason that his story deserves to be retold.
Jewish Chronicle 20 May 2016