When France Embraced a Jewish Avenger
‘Vive la France, Vive la France!”
Some 81 years ago this month, a person in Warsaw would have enjoyed the odd spectacle of a mob of Jews surrounding France’s Polish embassy, wildly proclaiming the greatness of the French Republic. The occasion: Jews everywhere were celebrating France because, after a sensational eight-day trial (which even made the front page of The New York Times), a jury of 12 petit-bourgeois Parisians had astonishingly acquitted the Ukrainian-born Jewish immigrant and anarchist Sholom Schwartzbard of the charge of murder for shooting to death former Ukrainian president Symon Petliura in the middle of the Latin Quarter, an act the accused fully acknowledged committing.
Schwartzbard had declared to the police (who in turn informed the press) that he had killed Petliura to avenge the slaughter of tens of thousands of Jews in the 1919 Ukrainian pogroms. The massacres had been perpetrated by armies fighting in the civil war that erupted after the Russian Revolution — among them troops of the short-lived Ukrainian National Republic, which Petliura headed. (To this day, historians debate the extent of Petliura’s responsibility for the pogroms.)
In court, Schwartzbard’s attorneys managed to turn the tables, and effectively put
Petliura on trial. The defense successfully argued that Schwartzbard should not be held guilty of murder, because Petliura was responsible for the pogroms, which claimed the lives of 15 of Schwartzbard’s relatives. A French law review of the day described the argument on Schwartzbard’s behalf as yet another crime-of-passion defense.
This defense worked because France rallied to Schwartzbard’s cause, in an outpouring of pro-Jewish, anti-pogrom sentiment. Seventeen months passed between Petliura’s assassination on May 25, 1926 ,and Schwartzbard’s trial, which ran from October 18 through October 26, 1927, and all that time France’s newspapers mainly kept up sympathetic coverage, with the notable exception of right-wing stalwarts Le Figaro and l’Action Française. The country’s most respected intellectuals flocked en masse to the Schwartzbard camp, publicly endorsing the justice of his deed.
Today, that national outburst of pro-Jewish sentiment would likely strike most American Jews as surprising and somewhat unbelievable, sandwiched as it was between France’s notorious antisemitic episodes — the Dreyfus trial over 30 years before and the Vichy government’s deportations of Jews to German concentration camps 15 years later. What is more, in recent years, Jews have been reminded of this ugly history by high-visibility anti-Jewish violence coming from France’s Muslim youths — often poor, disaffected and furious about the Palestinian-Israeli conflict. The frequency of violence probably peaked in 2004, but the 2006 kidnapping-torture-murder of a 23-year-old French Jew, Ilan Halimi, left more American Jews than ever convinced that France is an antisemitic country.
How is it, then, that the world saw such an upswell of philosemitism in France around the Schwartzbard case? Was this an aberration, merely a time-out from prejudice?
Actually, things were going well for Jews in general in France in the 1920s. So much so that one American Jewish tourist, fresh off the ship from Europe, declared to the Forward newspaper, “There is no antisemitism in France.”
Those were halcyon days partly because the country was relatively prosperous, which tends to enhance tolerance. France had near-full employment and the economy and the wages of workingmen were growing. During the 1927 trial, the French were enjoying a particularly strong sense of well-being because the return to power of Prime Minister Raymond Poincaré in July 1926 had brought an end to years of financial crises and stabilized the franc, which had been ruined by war.
At the same time, Jews had become curiously chic. A circle of Jewish literary lions came of age and sold their books to a wide audience. These included books about Jews and Judaism, such as Edmond Fleg’s (né Flegenheimer) “Why I Am a Jew.” Best-selling writer Albert Londres, a gentile, spent months visiting the world’s Jewish communities in order to write “Le Juif errant est arrivé” (“The Wandering Jew Has Arrived”).
In addition, it was crucial to the trial that the terrible war of 1914 to 1918 remained the foremost fact in French consciousness through the 1920s. All of France had pulled together for the war effort, making taboo antisemitism and other forms of prejudice. And Schwartzbard himself was emblematic of the French cause in the war — no one could miss the Croix de Guerre he wore to court, which had been awarded him when he was wounded in battle after volunteering to fight for France (as had 36,000 other Jewish immigrants).
Even the staunchly right-wing and hitherto antisemitic newspaper La Liberté ran a front-page editorial calling for Schwartzbard to be acquitted — as a noble soldier who had fought for France. Whereas, as the defense never missed an opportunity to remind the court, Petliura had allied his army with Germany in 1918.
Paradoxically, the Dreyfus Affair deserves major credit for Schwartzbard’s acquittal. First of all, it recruited intellectuals into a leadership role in civic affairs and institutionalized them as a lobby that Schwartzbard’s lawyer, Henry Torrès, was able to activate for Schwartzbard in a massive public relations campaign. They included the likes of the writer Joseph Kessel (perhaps best known today for his novel “Belle de jour”) and future prime minister Léon Blum (one of the five French Jews who, over the course of the country’s history, have served as its head of government, a record unmatched outside of Israel).
Perhaps more important, the years of Dreyfusard activism institutionalized, for many in France, the notion that antisemitism was a distinct evil that there was an absolute duty to oppose — everywhere, all the time. Therefore, when Schwartzbard came along, they had to stand up against pogroms. (The defense, remember, had already converted the trial into a trial of pogroms, not of a man.)
Indeed, the Dreyfusards transfigured the fight against antisemitism into a fight to defend the Republic — and Republicanism. The fight became symbolically enshrined in the official Republican creed when the ashes of leading Dreyfusard and “J’accuse” author Emile Zola were laid to rest in the Panthéon in 1908. Thus, at the very end of Schwartzbard’s trial, Torrès could successfully implore the jury, “You are today, gentlemen, responsible for the prestige of our nation and the thousands of human lives that will depend on the verdict of France.”
France’s Dreyfusard legacy is not dead. True, there are still antisemites in France — including a representation of right-wing French Catholics, along with the angry Muslims. But France also deserves credit for tolerance. France’s Jews are well-integrated into the fabric of French society, and for all the news of anti-Jewish attacks, there are also considerable well-springs of good will, rooted in the very essence of the French Republican tradition. In 1791, the French revolutionaries made their country the first in Europe to grant equal rights and the franchise to its Jewish population. Indeed, among the reasons that many French Jews returned after World War II and that many Jews still love France today is that they know that the best of human impulses can be found there, and not only the worst.
Deborah Waroff is a New York-based writer. She is completing a biography of Sholom Schwartzbard.