Poets, according to a famous statement by Percy Shelley, are the world’s “unacknowledged legislators.” Literary critics might debate whether Shelley’s phrase applies to the Yiddish anarchist poet Sholem Schwarzbard, but even if Schwarzbard wasn’t an “unacknowledged legislator,” he certainly was an acknowledged assassin.
On May 25, 1926, Schwarzbard shot and killed the Ukrainian leader Symon Petliura on the streets of Paris, where both men were living as exiles from their native Ukraine. Schwarzbard’s motive was straightforward: he blamed Petliura for the deadly pogroms against Jews that had taken place some seven years earlier, during the bloody and chaotic Russian Civil War (1918–1921).
As leader of the Directory, the government of the ephemeral Ukrainian People’s Republic, Petliura — a journalist and poet himself — commanded armies that committed a variety of gruesome anti-Jewish atrocities. Far from evading responsibility for his act of revenge, Schwarzbard allegedly proclaimed that he had “killed a great assassin” before being apprehended by the police.
Who was this impetuous anarchist, “warrior poet,” and “Jewish avenger,” whom the late Mike Davis described as “the incomparable Scholem Schwarzbard”? What were the circumstances that drove him to take such drastic action?
Tide of the Times
Schwarzbard was born in 1886 in Izmail, Bessarabia, a region of the Russian Empire located in modern-day Ukraine. According to Kelly Johnson, whose 2012 PhD dissertation is the most comprehensive scholarly source on Schwarzbard’s life, he spent his youth in nearby Balta, a town that his parents had fled in the wake of an 1882 pogrom but to which they were forced to return following a tsarist decree barring Jews from remaining in Izmail.
Schwarzbard suffered early hardship. After his mother died, he had to suspend his Talmudic studies and work for the family seltzer business, a source of discontent and resentment. As a young man, he was apprenticed to a clockmaker, a venerable trade in which one could expect to earn a stable living. Schwarzbard’s romantic temperament prevented him from settling into the prosaic grooves of life as a Jewish artisan, however. Growing up in an era of political turmoil and revolutionary expectation, he became swept up in what Johnson describes as the “turbulence of the times,” encountering radical politics at the age of sixteen and initially identifying as a socialist of broad Menshevik orientation. He threw himself energetically into revolutionary agitation, distributing radical literature and speaking at meetings.
While he was undoubtedly a creature of his era and environment, he also distinguished himself from his fellow radicals by his abiding interest in religious themes, and it was not long before he fused his revolutionary ardor with his sense of Jewish identity. When the anti-Jewish pogroms that were unleashed following the 1905 Russian Revolution came to his native Balta, Schwarzbard helped to mobilize fellow “enthusiasts” to protect the city’s Jewish population. As he describes it in his memoir In’m loyf fun yorn (In the Tide of the Times), a group of thirty to forty young Jews met in the home of one of their comrades and resolved that the antisemitic aggressors “will have to go over our dead bodies before they can carry out a pogrom.”
While they did not win a decisive victory, Schwarzbard and his khaverim (comrades) put up a valiant fight, manning barricades and using subterfuge to confuse the enemy, possibly minimizing the toll of the anti-Jewish violence. Forced to flee, Schwarzbard headed to the Austro-Hungarian border, where his continued subversive activities — which included, according to Johnson, “running illegal propaganda, guns and fellow radicals” across the border — eventually brought him to the attention of the authorities. After serving a brief term in prison, he crossed the border and left the Russian Empire for good.
It was while living in exile that Schwarzbard discovered first anarchism and then poetry. He was converted to the former by a combination of revolutionary mentors and radical literature, including the works of Peter Kropotkin and Leo Tolstoy. But his anarchist activities soon landed him in trouble with the law again.
After a botched “expropriation” during which he locked himself in a tavern to steal money for the cause, he was arrested by the police and imprisoned. He served a term of “hard labor” before being released into a peripatetic existence that saw him shuffle between Budapest, the Carpathian Mountains, and the city of Lviv.
Dreamer and Assassin
Johnson suggests that it was the loneliness of exile that encouraged his earliest poetic endeavors, although the results were not exactly inspired. “His early works are too subjective,” Johnson remarks, “becoming lost in the labyrinth of a self that refuses to distinguish between reality and its own desires. . . . In the end, his hope and despair know no bounds, and neither does the frustration of his reader.” (In keeping with this description of his early verse, Schwarzbard would later adopt the pseudonym Bal-Khaloymes — the Dreamer.)
Schwarzbard eventually made his way to Paris, where his brother lived. Once in France, he joined the Foreign Legion and fought in World War I, continuing to write poetry in the trenches. Described by his comrades in arms as a brave and able soldier — his marksmanship earned him the nickname “Wilhelm Tell,” and he received a medal for his valor — he was wounded in battle, ending his French military career.
But this did not end his struggle on behalf of radical causes. He returned to Paris, then headed to Ukraine after the outbreak of the 1917 Russian Revolution to join the ranks of the revolution’s defenders. In Ukraine, Schwarzbard witnessed the violent trauma of the Russian Civil War’s pogroms firsthand. Their scale was unprecedented. In his recent book, In the Midst of Civilized Europe, historian Jeffrey Veidlinger writes that the exact number of lives lost may never be known, but he cites fatality reports that range from the tens into the hundreds of thousands, with as many as 700,000 people affected “directly” by the violence. In an entry for the YIVO Encyclopedia, John Klier offers a synopsis of the pogroms that took place during these years:
The Russian Civil War was fought on many fronts. . . . All the contending armies, regular and irregular, conducted pogroms against Jewish communities. Only the commanders of the Red Army occasionally punished troops guilty of pogrom-mongering. The White forces often used antisemitism as a tool for ideological mobilization. Two groups were particularly prone to pogroms, the anti-Bolshevik Volunteer Army commanded by General Anton Ivanovich Denikin, and forces loyal to the Ukrainian national government, the so-called Directory, headed by Simon Petliura. The irregular forces fighting in the name of the Directory, the Otamans, were particularly notorious for anti-Jewish murder, torture, and rape. Antipogrom declarations issued by the Directory were decried by Jewish groups as mere window-dressing. In fact, the Directory had little effective control over the forces fighting in its name.
Schwarzbard himself lost numerous family members to the pogroms (a fate akin to that of the Ukrainian-Jewish artist Issachar Ber Rybak, who used the “torturous angles and distortions” of his distinctive aesthetic to depict the shtetl life that was destroyed in the tidal wave of anti-Jewish violence).
Returning to France, Schwarzbard operated a clockmaker’s shop that doubled as a gathering place for radicals. He contributed articles to a handful of notable left-wing Yiddish newspapers, including Arbeter Fraynd (Worker’s Friend) — a paper founded by pioneering Yiddish socialist Morris Winchevsky in the 1880s, later taken over by editor Rudolf Rocker — and the famous New York–based anarchist paper Di Fraye Arbeter Shtime (The Free Voice of Labor).
Petliura moved to Paris in 1924. When Schwarzbard learned that he had taken up residence there, he methodically tracked him, cutting out his picture from a Larousse encyclopedia and seeking out his customary haunts before finally confronting him on May 25, 1926, on the rue Racine and firing five bullets into him.
The ensuing trial captured the world’s attention. Schwarzbard’s defense team was led by Henri Torrès, a legendary Jewish defense attorney, socialist, and grandson of a prominent Dreyfusard. The prosecution’s strategy of discrediting Schwarzbard’s character and focusing on his time fighting for the Russian Revolution misfired badly. Allegations that Schwarzbard had killed Petliura at the behest of the Soviet government proved unfounded. Meanwhile, the testimony of Rachel Greenberg, a Red Cross nurse who witnessed the gruesome pogrom in Proskurov and vividly described its gory details for the court, only reinforced Schwarzbard’s self-proclaimed motive. After a weeklong trial, the jury needed less than half an hour to find Schwarzbard not guilty.
Vindicated, Schwarzbard split his remaining years between living on a farm in the French countryside, working in the insurance business, and traveling the world speaking to Jewish and anarchist audiences. He passed away in 1938 at the age of fifty-one while visiting Cape Town, South Africa.
Poetry of the Deed
In some ways, Schwarzbard achieved the heroic status he sought in life. His role as an assassin has inscribed his name in the history books. But what of Schwarzbard the poet? In what Johnson describes as a “devastating, yet insightful psychological critique of Sholem Schwarzbard and his work,” Yiddish writer Shmuel Charney concluded that Schwarzbard never managed to fully sublimate his yearning for revenge through his poetry — a feat he might have accomplished had he dedicated himself more completely to honing his literary craft.
Not content to remain an “unacknowledged legislator” who effected change through the persuasive power of his pen, Schwarzbard opted for a poetry of the deed and achieved notoriety not for his words but for his actions.