The trial of Sholom Schwartzbard for the murder of General Simon Petlura, which began on October 18, 1927, is one of the most famous trials you probably never heard of. The trial, among the most sensational in French history, is comparable to the O.J. Simpson trial here in America in terms of the raw emotion it engendered and the broad international interest it provoked, as all of France focused obsessively upon the trial and the international media went wild.
Atypical of its era in that Jewish sensitivities were respected, Jewish interests ruled the day, and Jewish blood was avenged, the trial stands as the first time in world history that the victimization of a national group was acknowledged in a court of law.
Born in a Bessarabian shtetl in 1886 to a chassidic family – ironically, as he often liked to point out, on Shabbat Nachamu (the Sabbath of Comforting), Schwartzbard was a brilliant Talmudist before he abandoned the piety of his youth and became a passionate socialist. Nonetheless, particularly due to his love and respect for his father, Itse, he struggled to reconcile tradition and revolution and maintained a lifelong loyalty to his faith and his people, which led inexorably to the controversial act that ultimately made him famous.
Schwartzbard was jailed by the Russian Tsarist government for “provoking” the Ukrainian pogroms in 1905. Upon his parole he moved around through Austria-Hungary before settling in Paris, where he continued his trade as a watchmaker. A volunteer in the French Foreign Legion during World War I, he suffered a near-fatal wound that left him the use of only one hand and was awarded the Croix de Guerre, France’s greatest military honor.
After the war he went to Odessa, where he organized cooperatives and education programs, including Jewish religious initiatives for children; volunteered to treat wounded Jews who had survived the Ukrainian pogroms; and personally adopted one such child-survivor.
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A renowned Ukrainian hero, Simon Petlura was a nationalist leader who, as head of the Directorate of the Ukrainian National Republic, led a Ukrainian separatist movement that opposed both the Tsarist and Leninist regimes, and helmed the provisional Ukrainian government after the Ukrainian puppet state set up by the Germans fell in November 1918.
The Ukrainian state had promised Jews full equality and autonomy; indeed, Arnold Margolin, a Jewish minister in Petlura’s government, declared in May 1919 that the Ukrainian government had given Jews more rights than they enjoyed under any other European government.
However, these fine declarations did not seem to even minimally interfere with the Ukrainian murder of Jews, as large-scale pogroms continued to be perpetrated on Ukrainian territory throughout Petlura’s term as head of state.
During their retreat before the Red Army in the winter of 1919, Petlura’s units killed more than 50,000 Jews, including fifteen members of Sholom Schwartzbard’s family. Schwartzbard witnessed the massacres of his people while fighting with the Bolshevik forces that ultimately succeeded in ousting Petlura.
Petlura, much as Schwartzbard himself, remains an ambiguous and controversial historical figure. Some historians and commentators still argue that he never demonstrated any personal anti-Semitism; in fact, they allege that he had actively sought to halt anti-Jewish violence on numerous occasions, even introducing capital punishment for perpetrators of pogroms.
Some well-known Jews defended Petlura, including the writer Israel Zangwill, who blamed the pogroms on general “rampant anarchy.” Remarkably, another Petlura defender was Ze’ev Jabotinsky, the father of Revisionist Zionism, who signed an agreement with Petlura’s representative in Prague, Maxim Slavinsky, regarding the formation of a Jewish brigade that was to accompany Petlura’s forces on an expected invasion of Ukraine and protect the Jewish population from pogroms. Jabotinsky’s “pact with the devil” was severely criticized by most Zionist groups and, though the agreement never did materialize, he stood by it and claimed to be proud of it.