Last week Leslie shared her reaction to the portrait you see in front of you. As she was lobbing rhetorical question after question to me, i.e. "who takes pictures like that?""Why was I wearing those clothes? I would have preferred pants." "Why did Mom take us to Mr. Neuron so often?"
When Leslie asked about Mr. Neuron, a switch flipped in my mind. As a child I was a bit frightened of the portrait photographer, Walter Neuron. A gaunt, somewhat forbidding man with a strange accent, he seemed impatient to finish with the portraits. He made me feel as if I had to quickly follow all his instructions about how to sit, hold my hands, smile.The black and white portraits were artistic although they rarely captured the feel of the three of us.The Friday night I tried to hand off the photo to Leslie, I began to think seriously about who Mr. Neuron was.
I suggested to Leslie that perhaps our mom and others in the Jewish community were supporting a refugee.The timing and his age as well as his pronounced Austrian accent pointed to that. Leslie pointed out how easily I deflected my personal feelings into historical research. But, I truly was curious once I began to reflect.
I called Mom to get the story. She was a bit hazy but remembered that he also was a ski instructor and thought he immigrated to Columbus from Austria before the war. She remembered he came alone. I asked her how he got out, but Mom was only nine or ten when she thought he had arrived so she would have had to learn the story by eavesdropping on adults. Mom said, "you can probably google him."
Indeed I could and I did. And now I've probably spent more hours on this one picture than I'll spend scanning entire albums of photos from decades of my life.
Walter Neuron's story intrigues me.There are holes and questions and no one alive who remembers him.I found a brief biography in the March 2002 journal, Skiing Heritage where Mr. Neuron is credited as the father of Alpine skiing in Ohio. My most intriguing find was a photo of a debonair Mr. Neuron posing with the 1966 Bikini Ski Team. (Mr. Neuron is pictured above in full ski gear).
Clearly skiing was Mr. Neuron's passion.I discovered that he was a member of the German Alpine Club in the 1930s —illegally-- because he was indeed Jewish. When it became too dangerous to remain part of the club, he bounced around Europe using various aliases and arrived in Columbus in 1941 where he set up a photography studio. Leslie's husband Harry uncovered Mr. Neuron's genealogy discovering his parents preceded him to Columbus so when he arrived in 1941, he was reuniting with them. In 1943 he volunteered for the army and joined the Tenth Mountain Division forming in Colorado and fought at Mount Belvedere. At the end of the war, he was tasked with interrogating German POWs. Did he spend time wondering how close he came to being a victim of the Nazis rather than a victor?
After the war, Mr. Neuron returned to Columbus and became a portrait photographer in his Miracle Mile studio. His ski instructor career began the same year that he took our staged photo.
For me our sibling portrait became a way to revisit a person I remembered well from my childhood, but never knew. Too late, I have questions I'd love to ask him, but when I sat in the studio all I could think about was leaving.
Mr. Neuron's black and white photos were masterpieces even if they didn't tell our story. Now I would like to capture his story. His story may elude us but I'd like to think I've learned to stop and ask questions of others and listen to their stories.