Schwartzbard, Shalom (1886-1938)

Shalom Schwartzbard, 1886-1938.

Short biography of Jewish anarchist poet and participant in both 1905 and 1917 Russian revolutions Shalom Schwartzbard, who carried out a revenge assassination of a leading anti-Semitic pogromist in Paris.

Born on 18 August 1886 in Izmail, south-western Ukraine, to a Jewish family, Shalom Schwartzbard (aka Samuel Schwartzbard aka Sholem Shvartsbard) remains one of the less well-known fighters of the Ukrainian Makhnovist uprising 1917-1921.

Schwartzbard was apprenticed at the age of 14 as a watchmaker. It was during this apprenticeship that he became interested in revolutionary ideas, getting involved with the local socialist group Iskra, named after the official journal of the Lenin’s Russian Social Democratic Labour Party (which would eventually split into Bolshevik and Menshevik factions). During the 1905 Russian Revolution, Schwartzbard was in Kruti and participated in a Jewish-run paramilitary unit, for which he was eventually arrested and imprisoned.

Released as part of a wider amnesty of political prisoners by the Tsar following the revolution, Schwartzbard fled the Russian Empire in 1906 and, while living in exile in the Austro-Hungarian Empire, he became an anarchist. He would again be imprisoned in 1908 and after repeated arrests he was forced to relocate to France in 1910 on account of the difficulties he found in gaining steady employment.

With the outbreak of World War One, Schwartzbard joined the French Foreign Legion, during which time he was wounded and honourably discharged along with an excellent military record. Demobilised in August 1917, he returned to the Russian Republic (newly established after the February Revolution) and went to Petrograd, where he joined the Red Guards, a politically-mixed volunteer paramilitary unit often made up of peasants and factory workers (these would later be reorganised into the Red Army under Bolshevik control) and was eventually stationed on the Ukrainian border with Romania.

Returning to Odessa, Ukraine, he began working to set up independent anarchist schools while also working with the increasingly centralised Bolshevik education system. In 1919, however, he re-enlisted in the Red Army upon hearing reports of numerous anti-Semitic pogroms by White and Ukrainian armies, which would eventually claim the lives of approximately 50,000 Ukrainian Jews, including 14 members of Schwartzbard’s own family. These pogroms were allegedly organised by Symon Petliura, leader of the Ukrainian National Republic and Supreme Commander of the Ukrainian Army between 1918 and 1921.

During this time, it is also thought that Schwartzbard deserted the Red Army to join the Revolutionary Insurgent Army of Ukraine (RIAU aka the Makhnovists, nicknamed after its leader Nestor Makhno), an anarchist guerrilla detachment which liberated a territory inhabited by seven million people in southern Ukraine and fought against Ukrainian and Russian counter-revolutionaries, foreign invading bourgeois armies as well as the increasingly authoritarian Bolsheviks and local pogromists. Indeed, the RIAU helped organise self-defence among Jewish communities under attack from pogromists and had many Jewish members including some in leading roles such as Lev Zadov, central organiser of the RIAU’s intelligence corps, the Kontrrazvedka.

In 1920, Schwartzbard returned to Paris and opened a clock and watch repair shop. The RIAU would finally be defeated by the Bolshevik Red Army in 1921. In Paris he would become active in the French labour and anarchist movements, remaining in contact with many veterans from the Russian Revolution such as Volin, Peter Arshinov and even Makhno himself.

It was while living in Paris that an opportune coincidence took place which would come to define Schwartzbard’s life: Petliura, the Ukrainian leader thought to be responsible for the pogroms which had murdered so many Jews (including those of Schwartzbard’s own family) had himself had to flee following the Bolshevik victory and had, like Schwartzbard, settled in Paris.

Upon finding out that Petliura was living in Paris, Schwartzbard became highly distressed and began to plan his revenge. On 25 May 1926, Schwartzbard approached Petliura on Rue Racine in Paris’ Latin Quarter and asked him, in Ukrainian, “Are you Mr. Petliura?”. As Petliura raised his cane, Schwartzbard shot him five times shouting “This for the pogroms; this for the massacres; this for the victims.” When Petliura fell to the floor, Schwartzbard shot him twice more and, upon the arrival of the police, told them “I have killed a great assassin.” His act was widely celebrated across the Jewish diaspora, with the New York Yiddish newspaper Der Morgen Zhurnal commenting “We are not grieved by this incident. Nor are we afraid of the possible consequences. Would that every pogrom leader feel unsafe.” Many Jews contributed to Schwartzbard’s defence fund, and prominent figures such as Albert Einstein offered to testify on his behalf.

Put on trial for murder, Schwartzbard was defended by famous North African left-wing lawyer Henri Torres, who had previously had success defending famous Spanish anarchists Buenaventura Durruti and Francisco Ascaso during the Primo de Rivera dictatorship. Schwartzbard made no attempt to deny responsibility for murdering Petliura, stating instead that he was justified in avenging the pogroms. Torres, meanwhile, called a survivor of the pogroms to describe the experiences she’d survived and then asked the jury to hand down a verdict worthy of France’s revolutionary legacy. The jury complied, acquiting Schwartzbard and awarding the somewhat insulting sum of one franc in damages each to Petliura’s widow and brother.

Already somewhat well-known in Yiddish literary circles for his poetry and writing, Schwartzbard’s remarkable trial had made him famous. In 1928, Schwartzbard attempted to emigrate to Palestine, then under the British Mandate, but was refused a visa. In 1937, he travelled to South Africa to try and raise money for a Yiddish-language Encyclopedia. On 3 May 1938, while visiting Cape Town, Schwartzbard had a heart attack and died. Originally buried at the Maitland Jewish Cemetary in South Africa, in 1967, in accordance with his will, Schwartzbard’s remains were transferred for burial in Israel. Nonetheless, a gravestone remains at Maitland, where the local Jewish community hold annual ceremonies in commemoration of his life.