The Arrogance of Now

Each year I prepared for two major wars, the finale if you will, of second semester US History. With a combined sense of dread and anticipation, I led the kids through the causes, and progression of the Civil War (with 10th graders), and WWII (with my Juniors). 

A lifetime of study in these eras, especially Antebellum America, tells an anxious story, as two passionate belief systems came to blows. Sophomores learned that our nation, a democracy born in such promise, plunged into the abyss over America’s original sin, slavery.

Meanwhile, for Juniors, the failures of the uneasy peace that followed WWI shaped a broader corrosion. The world after 1919 disintegrated into deadly factions, underscored by exaggerated entitlement, racial hate, and lust for revenge.

Much like America’s 19th Century plunge into the breach, the 20th Century also debased human life, sliding into scapegoating, unthinkable cruelty, and massacre. This record is hard to face, let alone study. 

Real monsters masqueraded as heads of state; Stalin, Hitler, Mussolini, and the War Lords of Japan. All, to varying degrees, convinced regular people that the “worth” of others was suspect, and targeting civilians an acceptable strategy. Yet, as awful as both conflicts were, it’s hard not to stare, and to hopefully recognize the signs when hate again emerges as a justification for horror.

The heresy of exceptionalism, normalizing violence on the vulnerable, and extremism, unleashed evil on the world. Andersonville Prison, Fort Pillow Massacre, the Rape of Nanking, Bataan, the Warsaw Ghetto, and death camps. More than one a student wondered aloud, how could that happen?

In increments.

These signs are clear again. Those same pre-conditions have resurfaced, right now, here in our communities, states, and nation. 

A white nationalist parade in Charlotte that kills one, where there were “good people on both sides.” Normalized daily murders of people of color, and incendiary rhetoric that ends with an attack on the US Capitol, killing five. All offenses excused and minimized by a once great political party, that has forsaken its moral underpinnings. 

The only difference between the Proud Boys and the Brown Shirts is the Brown Shirts didn’t wear Carhartt and flannel.

This endless playlist has looped over repeatedly, cursed by the “blind arrogance of now.” But dear reader, now is then, and deluded people do not change with time. The descent into barbarity is more predictable than exceptional. 

When reasonable folks are manipulated by the chorus of the Big Lie, the era doesn’t matter. Society inevitably falls into depravity.   

Gail Chumbley is a career history educator, and author of the two-part memoir “River of January,” and “River of January: Figure Eight.” Both titles on Kindle.

Polyphoto International


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.