On this day in 1927, the sensational murder trial of Sholom Schwarzbard came to an end in Paris, with a jury taking half an hour to acquit the Ukrainian Jewish immigrant of the murder of the head of the Ukrainian government-in-exile, Symon Petlura.
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Petlura had been the head of the revolutionary government, the Directorate, that took control of the newly independent Ukraine in 1918. In the years that followed, a variety of forces, including the Bolsheviks and White Russians, fought over Ukraine, resulting in the division of the country between Poland and the newly formed Ukrainian Soviet Socialist Republic. Petlura became a wanted man by the Soviets, so he fled, finding exile in Paris in 1924.
The exact role of Petlura in anti-Jewish pogroms during the period of 1919-1920 remains a source of debate today, but what is not in doubt is that up to 50,000 Jews were killed during the civil war, when the Directorate was sovereign in the region. Among the victims were 14 members of the family of Schwarzbard, born in 1886 in Bessarabia. Schwarzbard, a poet, Communist revolutionary and watchmaker, had fought on the Soviet side in the Ukrainian civil war, before taking refuge in Paris in 1920, where he was active in anarchist causes. It was there that he heard of the death of his family in the pogroms.
When Schwarzbard learned of Petlura’s presence in the French capital, he resolved to kill him, holding him responsible for his personal loss. He did so on the Rue Racine, in the Latin Quarter, on May 25, 1926, shooting Petlura seven times. When police arrived on the scene, Schwarzbard admitted to the killing, reportedly saying “I have killed a great assassin.”
That was his defense -- punishing the perpetrator of racial murders -- and it was what he presented in his trial the following year. His lawyer was Henri Torres, known for defending clients accused of politically related crimes. The joint criminal and civil prosecution argued that Schwarzbard had been acting as an agent of the USSR, bringing evidence that he had met with representatives of the Soviet secret police in Paris, and that Petlura did not bear personal responsibility for the Ukrainian pogroms that took place under his government.
The jury deliberated for 35 minutes before finding Schwarzbard not guilty, although it did award damages of 1 franc each to Petlura’s widow and brother.
The following year Sholom Schwarzbard tried to immigrate to Palestine, but was refused entry by authorities of the British Mandate. Eventually, he moved to South Africa, where he worked on production of a Yiddish-language encyclopedia. He died in Cape Town in 1938. His body was reinterred in Israel in 1967, at Moshav Avihayil, and today there are streets named for him in Jerusalem and Be’er Sheva.