While composing “River of January,” I spent much of my time searching and analyzing family papers. These letters, pictures, and news clippings, along with other souvenirs, make up an enormous archive which spans over seventy years of the twentieth century. Along with Chum and Helen, many secondary individuals are mentioned in the papers, and when I stumbled upon those names, curiosity sent me on the hunt for more information. One of the characters who rose from the stacks was a proper young Belgian named Elie Gelaki.
Elie made quite an entrance into Helen’s life, and subsequently into the pages of “River of January.” His romantic introduction into the story is reminiscent of a 1930’s Hollywood musical. While taking in the premier of “Voila Paris,” at the Palace Theater in Brussels, Elie spotted the girl of his dreams gracing the stage in a solo act. Apparently the smitten young gent quickly scanned the playbill and decided that the girl must be the dancer named Lillian. In an impulse of ardent infatuation Elie sends a note back stage to Lillian inviting her to meet him after the show. Alas, Lillian doesn’t respond and fails to appear at Elie’s appointed location.
The following night the resilient young man again attends the production. Again he watches, thoroughly enchanted, by the vision that is, he thinks, Lillian, Insistent in his attentions, Elie, this night sends flowers and a typed letter composed earlier that day. Again he implores the dancer to rendezvous at a preselected spot. And happily for Elie, this time she materializes out of the dark snowy night.
The girl seems, Elie notices, amused somehow by his attentions. Then he finds out why. The dancer he believed was Lillian in fact was Helen, and that Lillian had a boyfriend back home, in New York. He is embarrassed by the mix up, but more than that, Elie is charmed by the American girl. After drinks at a late night cafe, he asks to see Helen the following day. And so began the courtship of Elie Gelaki with the breathtaking blonde from New York.
Bringing light to this man, lost to anonymity was an true pleasure. Searching through the volumes of primary sources and the internet, I discovered Elie was born in 1906 in Palestine. Further research, this time reading his avalanche of correspondence (to Helen) revealed that he supported two sisters and a mother in Brussels. Elie proudly shared with Helen his deepest ambition as a businessman, founding a company he intended to expand around the world. He had named the firm, “Polyphoto International,” and confidently assured her that the unique processes he developed would change professional photography forever.
I have thought a lot about this enamored young man, (he was only 28 when they met) and I have ransacked the archive many, many times looking for any picture that might be this steadfast suitor. I’ve never found one. His letters were so loving, so personal, that I had to ask myself why Helen, who kept every other slip of paper had no picture of Elie.
He actually complained about this scarcity as well.
In 1936, four years after they met in Europe, Elie writes Helen in New York begging her for an updated photo. He laments, “If it weren’t for the one (picture) you gave me Brussels, I would have forgotten what you looked like.” Apparently the shortage went both ways.
I had to ask myself why? Why would Helen go out of her way to omit “Elie pictures” from her vast collection of mementos? Then I chanced upon a letter Helen sent to her mother in the middle of her 1932-33, European tour. She goes out of her way to assure her mother that she would never marry a Jew. Now this might sound harsh to modern ears, but I think that Helen felt torn by her denial and his Jewish heritage. From current family members who knew Helen, she once admitted she had a “thing” for Elie, using the word “heartthrob.”
At the time she met the young man, antisemitism was on the up tick, and not only in Europe–but in America as well. What I believe pressured Helen to write such things, was placating her mother. Any single girl worth her salt knows what to say to mother when it comes to “boys.” For Helen, at that time and that place, a rejection was much easier than the truth. And her words belie her actions. She must have given the young man reason enough to continue his amorous pursuit for four long years. He pursued Helen across the world . . . and by the end of the book, across two oceans.
This continental gentleman, this Elie Gelaki, carefully, and thoughtfully laid out his future. He aimed to achieve financial success in the business world, and he aimed to make the American girl his wife. He wrote her constantly and sailed over the Atlantic to see her when he could. In “River of January” the last readers hear from Elie is in a letter from Kobe, Japan, dated 1936. He explains to Helen that “I hope to conduct Polyphoto business in this city, (Kobe).” And that is it, he is gone. Elie just vanishes.
I know, and readers understand, that all of his plans and dreams and hopes and ambitions mattered not a bit. A war is coming. A war of explosive magnitude, fueled by hate and violence and war crimes. A war against the Jews. Elie’s individualism, his personal ambitions, his entire world was devastated in the massive cataclysm of World War Two.
Uncovering this young man left me troubled. I felt as if Helen had been compromised, as were so many others, to sacrifice her natural regard for the young man in order to conform to conventional thought. Though only an episode in the bigger picture of “River,” this ardent suitor, this diligent businessman, deserves the dignity of recognition and remembrance.