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August 18: The Avenger

August 17, 2015

Schwartzbard_SholomSholom Schwartzbard, a Jewish anarchist who gunned down the Ukrainian nationalist leader Symon Petlyura on a street in Paris in 1926 and was acquitted for the crime, was born in Izmail, Bessarabia on this date in 1886. Schwartzbard killed Petlyura, 47, the head of a Ukrainian “government in exile” following the defeat of his forces in the Russian civil war that followed the Bolshevik revolution, in revenge for fifteen family members who had been killed in Ukrainian pogroms. “I have killed a great assassin,” Schwartzbard told police during his arrest. During his 1927 trial, the flamboyant French Jewish defense attorney Henri Torres successfully turned the narrative into a condemnation of the Ukrainian nationalist movement, which had much Jewish blood on its hands, and gained an acquittal from the jury, following an eight-day trial, after only thirty-five minutes of deliberation, although he had called only one witness of the Ukrainian pogroms out of eighty he had prepared to testify. Schwartzbard had been a decorated veteran of the French Foreign Legion who had use of only one arm due to war wounds; he also wrote poetry in Yiddish under the pen name of Baal-Khaloymes (the Dreamer). He attempted to emigrate to Palestine in 1928, but the British authorities refused to let him in. He spent the rest of his life in South Africa, where he died in Cape Town in 1938. There are streets named for him in Jerusalem and Beersheba.

“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.” —Henri Torres