Gesya Gelfman (1852-1882)

220px-G_Gelfman[aka Jessy Helfman, Hessy Helfman, Hesse Helfman, Hesia Helfman]


[From Stepniak’s Underground Russia]

There are unknown heroines, obscure toilers, who offer up everything upon the altar of their cause, without asking anything for themselves. They assume the most ungrateful parts; sacrifice themselves for the merest trifles; for lending their names to the correspondence of others; for sheltering a man, often unknown to them; for delivering a parcel without knowing what it contains. Poets do not dedicate verses to them; history will not inscribe their names upon its records; a grateful posterity will not remember them. Without their labor, however, the party could not exist; every struggle would become impossible.

Yet the wave of history carries away one of these toilers from the obscure concealment in which she expected to pass her life, and bears her on high upon its sparkling crest, to a universal celebrity. Then all regard this countenance, which is so modest, and discern in it the indications of a force of mind, of an abnegation, of a courage, which excite astonishment among the boldest.

Such is precisely the story of Jessy Helfman.

I did not know her personally. If I deviate, however, in this case from my plan of speaking only of those whom I know personally, I do not do so because of the fame which her name had gained, but because of her moral qualities, to which her celebrity justifies allusion. I am sure the reader will be grateful to me for this, as her simple and sympathetic figure characterizes the party which I am depicting, better perhaps than an example of exceptional power; just as a modest wildflower gives a better idea of the flora of a country, than a wonderful and rare plant.

Jessy Helfman belonged to a Jewish family, fanatically devoted to their religion, a type unknown in countries where religious persecution has ceased, but which is very common in Russia. Her family regarded as an abomination everything derived from the gentiles, especially their science, which teaches its disciples to despise the religion of their fathers. Jessy, excited by the new idea, and unable to bear this yoke, fled from her parents’ house, taking with her, as her sole inheritance, the malediction of these fanatical believers, who would willingly have seen her in her coffin rather than fraternizing with the “goi”. The girl proceeded to Kiev, where she worked as a seamstress.

The year 1874 came. The Revolutionary movement spread everywhere, and reached even the young Jewish seamstress.

She made the acquaintance of some of the women who had returned from Zurich, and who afterwards figured in the trial of the fifty, and they induced her to join that movement. Her part, however, was a very modest one. She lent her address for the Revolutionary correspondence. When, however, the conspiracy was discovered, this horrible “crime” subjected her to two years, neither more nor less, of imprisonment, and a sentence of two more years’ detention at Litovsk. Shut up with four or five women, confined for participation in the same movement, Jessy for the first time was really initiated into the principles of Socialism, and surrendered herself to them body and soul. She was, however, unable to put her ideas into practice, for, after having undergone her punishment, instead of being set at liberty she was by order of the police interned in one of the northern provinces, and remained there until the autumn of the year 1879, when, profiting by the carelessness of her guardians, she escaped and went to St. Petersburg. Here, full of enthusiasm, which increased in her all the more from having been so long restrained, she threw herself ardently into the struggle, eager to satisfy that intense craving to labor for the cause which became in her a passion.

Always energetic, and always cheerful, she was content with little, if she could but labor for the benefit of the cause. She did everything: letter-carrier, messenger, sentinel; often her work was so heavy that it exhausted even her strength, although she was a woman belonging to the working classes. How often did she return home, late at night, worn out, and at the end of her strength, having for fourteen hours walked about all over the capital, throwing letters into various places and corners with the proclamations of the Executive Committee. But on the following day she rose and recommenced her work.

She was always ready to render every service to any one who needed it, without thinking of the trouble it might cost her. She never gave a single thought to herself. To give an idea of the moral force and boundless devotion of this simple, uneducated woman, it will suffice to relate the story of the last few months of her revolutionary activity. Her husband, Nicholas Kolotkevich, one of the best known and most esteemed members of the Terrorist party, was arrested in the month of February. A capital sentence hung over his head. But she remained in the ranks of the combatants, keeping her anguish to herself. Although four months pregnant, she undertook the terrible duty of acting as the mistress of the house where the bombs of Kibalchich were manufactured, and remained there all the time, until, a week after March 13, she was again arrested.

On the day of her sentence she stood cheerful and smiling before the tribunal which was to send her to the scaffold. She had, however, a sentence more horrible, that of waiting four months for her punishment. This moral torture she bore during the never-ending months without a moment of weakness, for the Government, not caring to arouse the indignation of Europe by hanging her, endeavored to profit by her position to extract some revelations from her. It prolonged, therefore, her moral torture until her life might have been endangered, and did not commute her sentence until some weeks before her confinement.