The photo was everywhere. It adorned a Nazi magazine that held a contest to find the “perfect” Aryan baby and was later splashed across postcards and storefronts.
Less well known, however, was the fact that the “Aryan” girl was actually Jewish.
The girl, now 80, is Hessy Levinsons Taft, and she recently presented the magazine cover, emblazoned with her baby photo, to the Yad Vashem Holocaust Memorial in Israel and offered her tale to the German newspaper Bild. But the extended version of what happened is found in an oral history she gave to the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum in 1990.
It begins in 1928, when her parents came to Berlin. Her father, Jacob Levinsons, had accepted a position at a local opera house and taken the stage name of Yasha Lenssen, his daughter told the Holocaust Museum. It was the time of surging anti-Semitism in Berlin, and when “they found out that his name really was Levinsons,” she said, “they decided to cancel his contract.”
“Without any money” and living in a “very, very cramped one-room” apartment, the Levinsons welcomed the birth of Hessy on May 17, 1934. Hessy Levinsons told the museum that when she was 6 months old, “my mother took me to a photographer. One of the best in Berlin! And he did — he made a very beautiful picture.”
They liked it so much that they framed it. They had thought the picture was a private family photo. But soon after, a woman who helped clean the apartment arrived to deliver some surprising news.
“You know,” the woman said, “I saw Hessy on a magazine cover in town.”
The parents were terrified. Why was their Jewish infant on the cover of a Nazi magazine lauding Hitler’s exploits?
They contacted the photographer, according to Hessy’s account. “What is this?” the daughter says her mother asked. “How did this happen?”
The photographer told her he was asked “to submit my 10 best pictures for a … contest run by the Nazis. So were 10 other outstanding photographers in Germany. So 10 photographers submitted their 10 best pictures. And I sent in your baby’s picture.”
“But you knew that this is a Jewish child!” the mother exclaimed.
“I can laugh about it now,” Britain’s Telegraph newspaper quotes Taft, now a chemistry professor at St. John’s University in New York, as saying. “But if the Nazis had known who I really was, I wouldn’t be alive.”