I’m reading Saul S. Friedman’s Pogromchik: The Assassination of Simon Petlura (Hart Publishing Co., New York, 1976). It’s a non-fiction account whose central drama is an act of public assassination carried out in Paris in 1926 by a Ukrainian Jew, Sholom
Schwartzbard. Schwartzbard shot and killed Simon Petlura, a former head of the Ukrainian nationalist movement and supreme commander of Ukrainian nationalist forces during the civil war in that country that took place in the aftermath of World War I and the Bolshevik revolution of 1917 in Russia.
Friedman was an historian who wrote extensively about Antisemitism, the Holocaust, and the Middle East. He died in 2013, and from what I can glean on the interwebs he is, much to my dismay, a favorite go-to source for the Jewish and American right wing – particularly of those who passionately believe that Christianity & Judaism are in a global war against Islam, and that naive and ignorant liberals (like yours truly) keep ignoring the depths of the hatred found against Jews within Islam. Given my politics, I could dismiss anything Friedman has written out of hand, but that’s not how I roll. My primary interest in Pogromchik is as a portal into the horrific world of the pogroms that took place from the late 1800s well into the 20th century in the Ukraine, Russia, and other parts of eastern Europe. I could, of course, have just read a bunch of articles about those pogroms, but I guess I’m a sucker for a good story, and this is one.
Sholom Schwartzbard was a Ukrainian Jew who lost 30 family members, including his father and step-mother, to Ukrainian-led pogroms in 1919 in the town of Balta. The men who massacred the Jews of his town called themselves Petlurovtzi – troops loyal to Petlura. While serving in a Red Army-aligned unit, Schwartzbard also witnessed the aftermath of many pogroms while traversing Russia with his unit.
In 1926, Schwarzbard, by then living in France, found and murdered the former Ukrainian leader, Simon Petlura, outside a Parisian cafe. He shot him multiple times, shouting, “For the pogroms!”, and then immediately turned himself in to the police and prepared to face whatever the French justice system would do with him. Schwartzbard’s 1927 murder trial became an international press sensation, and the loose rules of French criminal court proceedings allowed Schwartzbard’s lawyer to make the case mainly about whether or not Petlura had been responsible for the pogroms that took place during the Ukrainian Civil War of 1917 – 1921 (a.k.a. the Ukrainian War of Independence, because people are going to argue forever about who was more right and who was more evil in this complex mess of a war that ended with much of Ukraine becoming a Soviet republic under Moscow’s control, with the western part of Ukraine becoming part of Poland).
For day after day, the French jury was subjected to testimony from dozens of witnesses to the pogroms – mass slaughter of Jewish men, women, and children; rape; mutilation for sport; forced payment of massive ransoms from Jewish townspeople; looting; fire-setting; and massive property destruction. The French prosecutor brought forth many witnesses who served under Petlura who argued that Petlura had nothing to do with the pogroms, that in fact he loathed Antisemitic and anti-democratic violence of any sort, and even that he valiantly tried to stop the pogroms, which, many would testify, were the work of irregulars who weren’t actually part of the formal Ukrainian independence army.
Schwartzbard’s lawyer brought forward dozens of counter-witnesses, including people who had served under Petlura, as well as Jewish survivors of pogroms, Red Cross officials, non-Jewish civilian witnesses, etc. They painted a portrait of Ukrainian regular army forces that consistently organized and carried out pogroms, sometimes with Petlura’s knowledge and indifference, and, according to some, as a result of his direct encouragement or even secret orders.
It’s clear that the author of this book, Friedman, believes Petlura was responsible for the pogroms. As a newcomer to this topic, and without having taken the time to hear the evidence Petlura’s defenders would offer on his behalf, I am not yet able to say with certainty just what Petlura’s role was. Based on Friedman’s analysis, let’s just say it’s hard for me to imagine that Petlura was some kind of innocent, though it’s possible that he was not guilty of some of the claims made against him during the Paris trial.
The Paris jury, knowing that the defendant openly admitted the pre-meditated murder, acquitted Schwartzbard. That stunning result is part of what piqued my interest in this topic. The Dreyfus Affair, which began with the wrongful 1894 treason conviction of a French Jewish military officer that relied on Antisemitism, and which led to a series of high-profile trials, convictions, and acquittals, had made France’s justice system a focal point of the European debate over the place of Jews in a modern Europe. Now the French papers were filled with screaming headlines for another controversial trial involving Antisemitism, military high officials, war, and the ideals of the French republic.
Whether the French jury did the right thing I can’t say. What Petlura did and didn’t do will always be intensely disputed, in part because the Ukraine has never been able to fully free itself from Russian domination (witness the most recent and ongoing Putin land-grab in Crimea), and because Petlura is a mythic national hero as the leader of the Ukrainian nationalist movement that tried to fight off the Bolsheviks and several other factions.
What’s not in dispute, however, are the pogroms themselves – the fact that between 1917 – 1921 there were hundreds of these massacres and tens of thousands of Jews were murdered is what has to be reckoned with, regardless of the specifics of the Schwartzbard trial. Some estimates are in the range of 800+ pogroms in over 500 communities, with more than 60,000 killed and the wounded in the hundreds of thousands. The Jewish population in Ukraine just before 1917 was about 3 million. This was also the third wave of pogroms that swept through the region in this historical era – the first having happened from 1881 – 1884, and the second from 1903 – 1906.
The book’s opening chapters include many quotes from survivors of these pogroms, and they are very hard to read. They’re reminiscent of Holocaust testimony. Mass graves, public taunting followed by torture and execution, rape, the bayonetting of babies, and the public desecration of the bodies of the dead. While there’s no doubt that statistics and accounts vary, the picture that emerges is one of the Ukraine as a place of constant uncertainty for Jews, interrupted by periods of absolute terror. The fact that the outbreak of waves of pogroms tended to happen during periods of wider war led to many who would defend Petlura – and the good name of the Ukrainian nationalists – to dismiss the charges of murderous Antisemitism while claiming that these periods of warfare included countless massacres of many different ethnic and political sub-groups in the Ukraine. These deflections of responsibility also would include claims that only ignorant irregulars committed the atrocities, not the actual Ukrainian soldiers; or that it was the Russians / Reds who did it; or that the Jews in various towns were allying with the Bolsheviks in massive numbers and would initiate attacks on Ukrainian forces, who periodically retaliated with regrettable excess; or that the Jews of Ukraine were unwilling to join the Ukrainian army in meaningful numbers and therefore set themselves up as a group to be under suspicion of collaboration with the enemy. To this day, these kinds of statements continue.
It’s been several days since I was last writing on this post, and I’m about 2/3 of the way through the book. What I’m experiencing as I read on is a similar set of feelings to what I’ve experienced when reading Holocaust literature. It’s a combo of revulsion, fascination, horror, woundedness, fear, disgust, and Jewish anger.
In the aftermath of World War I, the Ukraine fell into a civil war that included multiple factions, as well as Bolsheviks and White Russian forces. Friedman writes about German and Polish forces also in the fray. In addition to the various regular armies under the command of a seated government or government-in-exile, there were also informal and regional militias – “irregulars” traversing the lands, forging temporary alliances with different forces, and following the command of men who were essentially warlords.
Just under 3 million Jews were living in the Ukraine region at the turn of the 20th century, in Jewish quarters of major cities like Kiev and in hundreds of small towns and villages. Many Ukrainian Jews had a depressing set of options: 1) try to lay low and gather as much money as possible in the hope of buying off whichever army or militia swept through town; 2) form a Jewish defense council, in the hope of putting up armed
resistance to any forces seeking to plunder and murder their communities; 3) promote enlistment by young Jewish teens and able-bodied men in one of the armies, in the hope of being perceived by that army as loyal comrades so that maybe that army would protect the Jews in one’s town against the other forces. All of these options were incredibly risky, and the high likelihood of all of them resulting in an eventual pogrom helped form the belief among many Ukrainian Jews that they were in an impossible dead-end situation.