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The Hit Man

Assassinated: Symon Petliura (Photo: Wikipedia)

Hetman (Chief Otaman) Symon Petliura (1879-1926) was a Ukrainian journalist and nationalist leader who was heavily involved in the Russian Civil War 1917-1920 and was President of the short-lived Ukrainian People's Republic in 1918-1921. During the civil war, which involved fighting between the Bolsheviks, the Russian White Army, the Polish army, and Ukrainian nationalists, 60,000 - 100,000 Jews were killed in pogroms carried out by all groups involved.

For various reasons, some of it related to the bad reputation of other Cossack leaders such as the notorious Bogdan Khmelnitzky, Symon Petliura was seen as being responsible for most of the atrocities carried out by his armies, although in retrospect, the Bolshevik Volunteer Army probably was the main culprit.

In 1921 Petliura was exiled and eventually ended up in Paris in 1924, where he edited newspapers in the Ukrainian language.

Also living in Paris at that time was a Yiddish poet and anarchist, Sholem (Samuel) Schwarzbard (1886-1938). Schwarzbard had been active in the revolutionary uprising in Russia in 1905 and had to flee. He joined the French Foreign Legion, but in 1917 returned to Russia to fight in Ukraine against the Cossack followers of Petliura. There, in the winter of 1919, he witnessed pogroms of unprecedented ferocity. Fifteen of his own relatives were among the many Jews massacred. In 1920, Schwarzbard was back in Paris and took up his old profession, clock making.

Chief Otaman Symon Petliura on a Ukrainian stamp (never circulated)

One day, Schwarzbard read in the newspaper that Petliura was living in Paris. The thought that the man responsible for the murder of so many of his fellow Jews was living comfortably in Paris made him distraught and he started planning to assassinate Petliura. He hadn't personally met Petliura so he didn't know what he looked like. But, then according to some sources, he found in Encyclopedie Larousse a picture of Petliura together with Jozef Pilsudski. Other sources claim that he saw Petliura's image on a stamp that had been planned to be issued in Ukraine as part of a series of famous Ukrainian nationalists, including Khmelnitsky. The stamps were never put into circulation since the republic ceased to exist as an independent nation.

Luck was with him. On May 25, 1926, Schwarzbard was strolling down Rue Racine near Boulevard Saint-Michel in the Latin Quarter, recognized Petliura from the picture image he was carrying, and asked him in Ukrainian "Are you Petliura?" Petliura raised his cane, but Schwarzbard pulled out a gun and shot him five times. He stayed at the scene and when the police arrived he said, "I have killed a great assassin."

His trial in 1927 was sensational in that his well-known French lawyer Henri Torres managed to get him acquitted claiming he was avenging the deaths of victims of the pogroms. Petliura's widow was awarded damages of 1 Franc. Torres was the grandson of Isaiah Levaillant who founded the "League for the Defense of Human and Civil Rights" during the Dreyfus Affair. The court was also the same court that had convicted Dreyfus.

Schwarzbard eventually died in 1938 while on a trip to South Africa, but in 1967, his remains were reinterred in Israel.


Spelling of names per Johnson, Kelly, Sholem Schwarzbard: Biography of a Jewish Assassin, 2012, doctoral dissertation, Harvard University accessed via 

October 1927: Sholem Schwarzbard speaking at court. Below him Henri Torres

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