The Schwartzbard trial was a sensational 1927 French murder trial in which Sholom Schwartzbard was accused of murdering the Ukrainian immigrant and head of the Ukrainian government-in-exile Symon Petlura. While the defendant fully admitted to the crime, in the end the trial turned on accusations of Petlura's responsibility for the massive 1919–1920 pogroms in Ukraine during which Schwartzbard had lost all 15 members of his family. Schwartzbard was acquitted.
In 1919, whilst fighting in southern Ukraine as part of the Bolshevik Revolutionary Insurgent Army of Ukraine (RIAU) led by Grigori Kotovsky, Sholom Schwartzbard was told that he had lost 15 members of his family in pogroms that took place in Odessa, Ukraine that year. He held Symon Petlura, who was at that time head of the Directorate of the Ukrainian National Republic, responsible for their deaths.
According to his autobiography, after hearing the news that Petlura had relocated to Paris in 1924, Schwartzbard became distraught and started plotting Petlura's assassination. A picture of Petlura with Józef Piłsudski published in the Encyclopedie Larousse, allowed Schwartzbard to recognize him.
On May 25, 1926, at 14:12, by the Gilbert bookstore, he approached Petliura, who was walking on the Rue Racine near boulevard Saint-Michel in the Latin Quarter, Paris, and asked him in Ukrainian, "Are you Mr. Petlura?" Petliura did not answer but raised his cane. Schwartzbard pulled out a gun shooting him five times and after Petliura fell to the pavement twice more. When the police came and asked if he had done the deed, he reportedly said, "I have killed a great assassin."
It is reported that he had previously planned to assassinate Petlura at a gathering of Ukrainian emigrants marking Petlura's birthday, but the attempt was foiled by anarchist Nestor Makhno who was also at the function. Schwartzbard had told Makhno that he was terminally sick and was about to die, and that he would take Petlura with him.
The French secret service had been keeping an eye out on Schwartzbard from the time he had surfaced in the French Capital and had noted his meetings with known Bolsheviks. During the trial the German special services also alleged to their French counterparts that Schwartzbard had assassinated Petlura on the orders of Galip, an emissary of the Union of Ukrainian Citizens. Galip had received orders from Christian Rakovsky, an ethnic Bulgarian and a Soviet ambassador to France (1925–27), a former revolutionary leader from Romania, and a former prime minister of the Ukrainian SSR. The act was according to the prosecution consolidated by Mikhail Volodin, who arrived in France August 8, 1925 and who had been in close contact with Schwartzbard.
Schwartzbard turned himself in to a nearby gendarme and was arrested at the site of the assassination on May 25, 1926.
The trial began on October 18, 1927. His defense was led by the well known French lawyer Henri Torres.
The core of Schwartzbard's defense was to attempt to show that he was avenging the deaths of victims of the pogrom, whereas the prosecution (both criminal and civil) tried to show that:
- (i) Petlura was not responsible for the pogroms and
- (ii) Schwartzbard was a Soviet agent.
Both sides had prepared many witnesses, including many prominent historians and historic figures.
For the defense, Henri Torres, grandson of Isaiah Levaillant, the man who founded the "League for the Defense of Human and Civil Rights" during the Dreyfus Affair. Torres was a renowned French left-wing jurist who had previously defended anarchists such as Buenaventura Durruti and Ernesto Bonomini and also represented the Soviet consulate in France.
For the prosecution there was the Public Court Commission that was preparing the claim. It was consisting of several Ukrainian statesmen such as Oleksander Shulhyn (former Minister of Foreign Affairs, at that time professor at the Ukrainian Free University), M.Shulhina, Vyacheslav Prokopovych, М.Shumytsky, І.Tokarzhevsky, and L.Chykalenko. The Commission gathered around 70 witness reports including L.Martyniuk, Lieutenant Colonel Butakov, M.Shadrin, Colonels Dekhtiarov and Zorenko, and many others. Explanation letters were sent by Generals Mykhailo Omelianovych-Pavlenko, Vsevolod Petrov, A.Cherniavsky.
The French people were represented by Public prosecutor Reynaud. In the civil suit Madame Olga Petliura (nee Bilska) and her brother-in-law Oskar were represented by Albert Wilm and Cesare Campinchi (who was the chief prosecution lawyer). Assisting them was Czeslaw Poznansky, an attorney from Poland.
Schwartzbard was charged with violations of Articles 295, 296, 297, 298 and 302 of the French Penal Code (all of which pertained to premeditated murder and provided for the death penalty). The defendant pleaded not guilty to the charges.
Questioned by the prosecutor, Schwartzbard started his testimony poorly. He lied and gave confusing answers to why he had been previously imprisoned in Russia (1906), Vienna (1908) and Budapest (1909). He lied about his age, place of birth and the fact that he had been charged with burglary in Austria twice. He also lied about his service in the Red Army stating that he fought on the side of Alexander Kerensky rather than have led a battalion under Kotovsky.
Witness for the prosecution
Several former Ukrainian officers testified for the prosecution, including Pavlo Shandruk, General Mykola Shapoval, and Oleksandr Shulhin. Over 200 documents were produced that asserted Petlura and his government attempted to stop antisemitic aggression. A 20-page testimony was read by E. Dobkovsky that Mikhail Volodin was an agent of the State Political Directorate (GPU) with access to large sums of money and that he had approached Dobkovsky and told him that he had helped in the assassination.
Witnesses for the defense
A notable witness for the defense was Haia Greenberg (aged 29) who survived the Proskuriv pogroms where she had worked as a nurse for the Danish Red Cross. She never said Petliura personally participated in the event, but named other soldiers, who said they were directed by Petliura. Torres, however, decided not to call on most of the other 80 witnesses he had prepared for Schwartzbard's defense. Instead, he took a calculated risk and delivered only a short speech.
My conclusion was short. I evoked the French Revolution about which no living person could say that he has not inherited something from it: 'Let this man be free who bears on his forehead the stigma of the tragedy of a People! You hold today in your hands, Members of the Jury, the prestige of this Nation and the destiny of thousands of human lives that is attached to the verdict of France. If I had not been heard, France would have been no longer France and Paris would have been no longer Paris.'
The acquittal set Schwartzbard free but awarded damages of one franc each to Mme. Petlura, widow of the slain General, and to M. Petlura, his brother.
Time reported that the outcome of the trial gripped all Europe and was regarded by the Jews as establishing proof of the horrors perpetrated against their co-religionists in 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.
The French press
The French press published detailed accounts and comments relating to the court proceedings. Divergent assessments of the assassination committed by Schwartzbard coincided with the political sympathies and antipathies of the particular newspapers, which fell into three groups:
- Those that approved of Schwartzbard, stressing the pogroms of the Jewish population, and from the very outset treating the victim of the assassination as a defendant (the most conspicuous example being the communist newspaper L'Humanité)
- Papers that restricted themselves to an exact observation of the court trial, but refused to print commentaries, or did so very cautiously (Le Temps, L'Ere Nouvelle or Le Petit Parisien)
- Papers that portrayed Schwartzbard's crime in an unambiguously negative light, and treated the assassin predominantly as a Bolshevik agent (centrist publications, especially the right-wing L'Intransigeant, L'Echo de Paris or L'Action Française). The French governing circles, headed by Quai d'Orsay, were not interested in granting the case further publicity, since it could deteriorate the already tense relations with the Soviet Union, which the latter threatened to sever.
To this day, assessments of Schwartzbard, the assassination, the trial and the exonerating verdict differ and even exclude each other. These attitudes are particularly discernible in studies by Ukrainian and Jewish historians.
Schwartzbard was immediately accused by Ukrainian emigrants of being a Soviet spy.
The accusation was fuelled by Schwarzbard having fought with the Bolsheviks in 1919, his brother had been expelled from France in 1920 for dissemination of Communist propaganda and his lawyer was an active communist and represented the Soviet Consulate.
Mykola Riabchuk wrote: "In fact, the trial turned into an ostentatious demonstration of retribution against Ukraine's demonized 'nationalism and separatism'; no Lubianka could ever have come up with anything better."
After the Schwartzbard trial, Henri Torres was recognized as one of France's leading trial lawyers and remained active in political affairs.
After his acquittal in 1928, Schwartzbard decided to immigrate to the British Mandate of Palestine. The British authorities however, refused him a visa. In 1933, he traveled the United States where he re-enacted his role in the murder on film. In 1937, Schwartzbard traveled to South Africa, where he died in Cape Town on March 3, 1938. In 1967, his remains were disinterred and transported to Israel, where he was reinterred.
- Soghomon Tehlirian, an Armenian who in 1921 assassinated the former Ottoman Grand Vizier and was acquitted on very similar grounds.
- Saul Friedman: Pogromchik – NY, 1976, p.62
- Saul Friedman: Pogromchik – NY, 1976, p.65
- Time magazine.
- Makhno did not allow Schwartzbard to Shoot Petlura (in Ukrainian)
- Saul S. Friedman, Pogromchik: The Assassination of Simon Petlura. New York : Hart Pub, 1976.
- Saul Friedman: Pogromchik – NY, 1976, p.119
- The Trial of Samuel Schwartzbard.
- Saul S. Friedman, Pogromchik: The Assassination of Simon Petlura. New York: Hart Pub, 1976.
- Encyclopedia of Ukraine — Paris–New York 1970, vol 6, pp. 2029–30.
- Symon Petlura. Articles, letters and documents (in Ukrainian) 2006. Vol IV, p. 704. ISBN 966-2911-00-6 (Ukrainian)
- "Petliura, Symon", "Schwartzbard Trial", "Pogroms", Encyclopedia of Ukraine, vol. 3, 4 (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1993).
- Dokument Sudovoyi Pomylky (Paris: Natsionalistychne Vydavnytstvo v Evropi, 1958); "L'Assassinat de l'Hetman Petlioura."
- "Un Crime Politique, M. Petlioura, ancien chef du gouvernment ukrainien, a été tuer hier au Quartier Latin."
- "L'Assassinat de l"Hetman Petlioura," Le Figaro, May 26, May 27, June 3, 1926.
- Time magazine coverage