(In) Famous Cases: The Trial of Sholom Schwartzbard

Sholom

France. 1927. Murder. Genocide. Justice. The Trial of Sholom Schwartzbard. A radical yiddish anarchist is a lonely parisian. Years earlier his entire family had been murdered by Ukrainian nationalists during pogroms, along with thousands of other Ukrainian Jews. In Schwartzbard’s mind, blame rested on the shoulders of the movement’s leader, Simon Petlura. So Schwartzbard killed Petlura on the streets of Paris, using a pistol. Here is Time magazine’s rendering of the trial from 1927.

 
 
Monday, Nov. 07, 1927

FRANCE: Petlura Trial

Court. In the dim court of Assizes, in Paris, during the past fortnight, more  than 400 spectators saw the beginning and the end of one of the most  gruesome, bloodcurdling, impassioned trials ever to be held in that  vaulted hall of justice. Quivering flappers sat to gasp with  astonishment beside white & black bearded Jews who exchanged shocked  glances with flat-faced Slavic Ukrainians under the noses of red &  black-robed judges. Within and without the courtroom was a triple guard  of gendarmes to prevent disorder.

 

Culprit. The accused man, who not only admitted committing the crime but  even boasted of it, was a young Jewish Ukrainian, now a naturalized  Frenchman, Sholem (Samuel) Schwartzbard, a watchmaker by profession.  Short, ugly, he yet commanded the attention of the whole court, for he  told his story, not as do many prisoners, shamefaced and haltingly,  forced to reveal their crimes and motives by harassing lawyers—no,  Watchmaker Schwartzbard openly confessed with gleaming eyes and  hysterical mien, his body trembling with passion, how he slew  “General” Simon Petlura to avenge the deaths of thousands of Jews slain  in pogroms, which he charged “General” Petlura instigated.

 

Victim. Simon Petlura, in the opinion of many, was an adventurer. The  son of a Russian cabman, he is said to have been active in plotting  against the Tsar. In 1918 he entered Kiev, capital of the Ukraine, with  the Austrian and German armies, under whose auspices he took the lead  in trying to separate that province from the rest of Russia. He not  only promoted himself a general but also declared himself ruler of  the Ukraine. He failed and was obliged to flee. Two years later he  reappeared, this time under the Poles, becoming president of a  short-lived Ukrainian republic. He played off the Poles against the  Bolsheviki and the Bolsheviki against the Poles and, eventually, again  fell from power, this time to flee to France, where he lived in Paris  until slain there by M. Schwartzbard. Under his regime, it is  charged, more than 50,000 Jews were killed.

 

Lawyers. Henri Torres, chief counsel for the defense, florid, bloated,  dynamic, put his histrionic abilities to the test when, leaping past  his colleagues into the middle of the courtroom, he brandished a  revolver, produced from under his voluminous black gown. Shrieks of  terror mingled with gasps met this display. Flappers sat with blanched  faces; bewhiskered Hebrews rocked back and forth with supressed  excitement; Ukrainians, more pallid than ever, glanced nervously through  their narrow eyes. Maitre Torres, aiming at a chair, pulled the  trigger—there was a dull click, followed by sighs of relief. He was  attempting to prove that M. Schwartzbard could not have shot Simon  Petlura as he lay , prone on the ground.

 

Cesare Campinchi, flaccid, verbose, excitable, chief prosecution  lawyer representing the Petlura family, particularly Widow Petlura, who  was in court, proved himself the equal of Maitre Torres in oratorical  and theatrical ability. Accused of suppressing evidence by M. Torres,  he roared: “Don’t accuse me of suppressing evidence, Torres!”*  “Don’t  force me to place in evidence your personal pedigree!” yelled Torres.  And thus they continued.

Crime. Simon Petlura was shot at the corner of the Rue Racine, and the  Boulevard St. Michel, on May 25, 1926. As M. Schwartzbard described the  murder to the court:

“Here’s my chance, I thought. ‘Are you Petlura?’ I asked him. He did not  answer, simply lifting his heavy cane. I knew it was he.

“I shot him five times. I shot him like a soldier who knows how to  shoot, and I shot straight so as not to hit any innocent passerby. At  the fifth shot he fell. He didn’t say a word. There were only cries and  convulsions.

 

“When I saw him fall I knew he had received five bullets. Then I emptied  my revolver. The crowd had scattered. A policeman came up quietly and  said: ‘Is that enough?’ I answered: ‘Yes.’ He said: ‘Then give me your  revolver.’ I gave him the revolver, saying: ‘I have killed a great  assassin.’

 

“When the policeman told me Petlura was dead I could not hide my Joy. I  leaped forward and threw my arms about his neck.”

“Then you admit premeditation?” asked the judge.

“Yes, yes!” replied M. Schwartzbard, his face lit with fanatical  exultation.

 

Trial. The case opened with M. Schwartzbard telling the court in a high  pitched voice and halting French, his beady eyes gleaming, his face  suffused with joy, how he had tracked Petlura down. With a photograph  of his intended victim in his pocket and a loaded pistol in another, he  was wont to roam the street peering into the faces of passers-by to see  if they were Petlura. All this, he said, he did to avenge the  assassinations of his coreligionists. Finally, he found and killed  him.

 

One Reginald Smith, an Englishman, a reputed eye-witness of the crime,  was called to describe the crime. Quoting Shakespeare, he ended his  testimony by referring to Schwartzbard’s expression as Petlura fell:  “He wore an expression of ‘exaltation mixed with anguish.’ “

 

Many witnesses called by the prosecution declared that Petlura was not  an enemy of the Jews, but Maitre Torres insisted that “Petlura’s  proclamations expressing indignation over the pogroms were mere  blinds. While murdering Jewish men, women & children, he had to  maintain a straight face before the opinion of the world. He also  wanted money from Jewish bankers.”

 

“No,” said a massive Slav, “Petlura was not antiSemitic. He was a  humanitarian—a friend of the Jews.”

 

“No, no, no, he lies!” chorused a dozen people in the court in as many  languages.

 

“They cut them down with naked blades,” screamed M. Schwartzbard.

 

“I accuse that man of being an agent of Moscow. I swear it a thousand  times!” roared another witness for the prosecution, pointing an  accusatory forefinger at M. Schwartzbard.

 

“You—! You—!” yelled Schwartzbard, jumping to his, feet,  incoherent with rage, his shoulders quivering in spasmodic jerks.  Recovering his powder of speech, he continued:

“Do you remember the terrible days of 1910 and 1911 at Kiev? Do you  remember the accusations that Jews were using Christian blood for  Easter ceremonies? You hate me because I am a Jew!”

“No,” screamed the other in a high falsetto, “because you are a  Bolshevik!”

“Prove it! Prove it, then!” flung back the defiant Schwartzbard,  dropping limp, into his seat.

 

A squat Slav, called by the prosecution, who described himself as an  “historian, a man of letters and at present an assistant to a stone-mason,” gave evidence in Petlura’s philo-Semiticism, denying with a  grief-contorted face that the “General” had ever killed Jews or  caused them to be massacred.

 

“Yes! Yes! He massacred them!” shouted Schwartzbard, unnerved.

 

The most notable witness called, however, was Mile. Haia Greenberg,  29, a curly bobbed-haired nurse. In a soft, low voice, she told of the  carnage and rapine ordered by Simon Petlura and of the blood-bathed  home of her grandparents. Murmured she:

“I shall never forget the reddened snowsleds, filled with the hacked  bodies, going to the cemetery to desposit their sad burden, in a common  pit. They brought the wounded to the hospital— armless and legless  men, mutilated babies and young women whose screams became faint as  their wounds overcame them.”

 

Then breaking down and sobbing convulsively she screamed: “Oh, no, no!  I cannot go on! They are before my eyes!”

 

“Petlura was responsible. Even Ukrainian officers said so. His soldiers  killed our people, shouting his name. One regiment had a band and it  played while knives fell on the heads of innocent babies. Petlura could  have stopped it, but he wouldn’t listen to our pleas.”

 

Verdict. Amid tense excitement, after an absence of 35 minutes, the jury  returned a verdict for the young, pale faced Jew’s acquittal. Frenzied  cheering greeted the decision. M. Schwartzbard, calm, kissed his  lawyer, Maitre Henri Torres. “Vive la France!” shouted somebody. “Vive  la France!” echoed some 500 voices.

 

In addition to setting M. Schwartzbard free, the verdict ordered the  Petlura family, represented by Maitre Caesare Campinchi, to pay the  costs of the trial, but awarded damages of one franc each to Mme.  Petlura, widow of the slain “General,” and to M. Petlura, his brother.

 

The outcome of the trial, which gripped all Europe, was regarded by the  Jews as establishing proof of the horrors perpetrated against their  co-religionists in the Ukraine under the dictatorship of Simon Petlura;  radical opinion rejoiced, but the conservatives saw justice flouted and  the decorum of the French courts immeasurably impaired.

 

Schwartzbard, free, went into hiding, fearing assassination at the hands  of anti-Semites.

 

*It is customary in French courts to employ the title  “maitre,” a term of respect.

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