Nazi Poster Baby, Jewish

Meet Hessy Taft, whose in­fant photo made her an Aryan baby model.

Forward Magazine - - Front Page - By Hody Nemes Con­tact Hody Nemes at nemes@for­ or on Twit­ter, @hod­i­fly

When Hessy Taft was 6 months old, she was selected as a Nazi poster child. Her flaw­less Aryan face was plas­tered on post­cards and mag­a­zines through­out the Third Re­ich.

But there was one cru­cial de­tail the Nazi pro­pa­ganda ma­chine had over­looked: Taft is a Jew.

“Had they found out their mis­take at the time, I would not have been alive to­day,” said Taft, née Levin­sons, who hid her true iden­tity from the Nazis and later fled to Cuba with her fam­ily.

Taft’s path to ac­ci­den­tal Nazi star­dom all be­gan with an in­nocu­ous trip to a pho­tog­ra­phy stu­dio in 1934. Her mother, Pauline Levin­sons, asked one of Ger­many’s best pho­tog­ra­phers, Hans Ballin, to take a photo of her in­fant daugh­ter.

She took home a photo of a wideeyed Hessy wear­ing a bon­net, which was given pride of place on the fam­ily piano.

But shortly af­ter­ward, Levin­sons made a ter­ri­fy­ing dis­cov­ery: Her daugh­ter’s photo adorned the cover of Sonne ins Haus, a Nazi fam­ily mag­a­zine.

Levin­sons im­me­di­ately con­fronted the pho­tog­ra­pher, who con­fessed that he had in­ten­tion­ally sub­mit­ted this Jewish girl’s photo to a Nazi pro­pa­ganda con­test to choose the per­fect Aryan baby.

“I wanted to make the Nazis ridicu­lous,” Ballin told Taft’s shocked mother.

Joseph Goebbels him­self sup­pos­edly chose Taft’s photo out of a pool of dozens taken by Ger­many’s top pho­tog­ra­phers. The im­age was reprinted not only in Nazi mag­a­zines, but also in Nazi greet­ing cards. Taft’s aunt, look­ing in a Lithua­nian store for a birth­day card for her niece’s first birth­day, was shocked to find a card with Hessy’s face on it.

The ironic story of a Jewish-baby-- turned- Nazi- star gained re­newed at­ten­tion in July of this year af­ter Taft, now 80, do­nated a copy of the mag­a­zine fea­tur­ing her face to Yad Vashem.

More than 400 phone calls have poured in since then from me­dia

‘Had they found out their mis­take, I would not have been alive to­day.’

out­lets all over the world, seek­ing to talk to the baby who in­ad­ver­tently made a mock­ery of the Nazis.

Taft is overwhelmed by the level of in­ter­est in her story (“I don’t need the big pub­lic­ity,” she said), but she is also grat­i­fied. “I feel a sense of re­venge and sat­is­fac­tion that this story is out there,” she told the For­ward. “I’m pleased be­cause it’s time to ex­pose the fal­lacy of the Nazi ide­ol­ogy.”

Taft kept her un­usual iden­tity a se­cret for decades. In 1930s Ger­many, Taft’s par­ents lived in fear of some­one dis­cov­er­ing that the Nazi’s prime Aryan baby was a Jew. They were very cau­tious when­ever they brought their daugh­ter out­doors, and they stopped tak­ing her to the lo­cal park.

“I had to be pretty much quar­an­tined,” Taft said. “I was start­ing to learn to speak, [and] if I had told any­one that my name was Hessy Levin­sons, it would have been the end of me and my fam­ily.”

Af­ter Taft’s fa­ther was briefly ar­rested by Nazis on trumped-up charges, he and his fam­ily fled to Paris in or around 1937. There they could breathe a sigh of re­lief: Taft was out of the Nazis’ reach for the time be­ing, and no one knew her iden­tity.

But an ear in­fec­tion threat­ened to blow her cover. A Parisian Jewish doc­tor who was called to treat the ill 4-year-old Taft com­mented on her cute­ness, which prompted Hessy’s mother to show him her daugh­ter’s in­fa­mous mag­a­zine cover.

Ex­cited, the doc­tor asked to bor­row the mag­a­zine and send it to jour­nal­ists, who could use the story to dis­credit Nazi pro­pa­ganda. But Taft’s fa­ther re­fused.

“The doc­tor very clearly said: ‘Mr. Levin­sons, you have noth­ing to fear now. You are in France,’ ” Taft said. “My fa­ther said no — and his­tory has proved my fa­ther right.”

Sure enough, the Ger­mans rolled into France just two years later, and Taft’s fam­ily barely es­caped ar­rest by the Nazis. Af­ter flee­ing from city af­ter city, the Levin­sons fam­ily man­aged to se­cure Cuban visas. They es­caped Europe at last in 1942.

Taft spent seven years in Cuba and even­tu­ally im­mi­grated to the United States, where she be­came a chem­istry pro­fes­sor and di­rec­tor of the SAT II tests taken by mil­lions of as­pir­ing col­lege stu­dents.

But even in Amer­ica, Taft kept her story un­der wraps, wait­ing years to tell any­one about her se­cret past. Taft’s fa­ther, ever cau­tious, warned her not to draw at­ten­tion to her back­ground, even long af­ter the war’s end. “My fa­ther in­stilled in me… that Jews should keep a low pro­file and not ex­pose them­selves,” she said. “That’s why this story had to be a se­cret for years and years.”

Now be­gin­ning the ninth decade of her life, Taft has openly em­braced not only her back­story, but also her Jewish iden­tity. “Be­cause my child­hood was so hec­tic, I did not have a for­mal Jewish ed­u­ca­tion as a child,” she said. “I feel I’ve made up for lost time.”

Asked to de­scribe her Ju­daism, Taft em­pha­sized her staunch sup­port for the State of Is­rael, to which she has trav­eled “count­less” times. She gave her chil­dren a Jewish ed­u­ca­tion and taught them to love the Jewish state, which she feels is the “key to feel­ing se­cure as a Jew.”

“I don’t buy the no­tion that ‘I’m not anti-Jewish, I’m just anti-Is­rael,’” she said. “That’s phony.”

Taft added that she be­lieves big­ots tar­get Is­raelis in part be­cause Is­raelis “are suc­cess­ful in what they do, just like the Ger­man Jews were suc­cess­ful in the ’30s.”

Re­call­ing the dark era of Nazism, Taft is glad that her story can pro­vide a glim­mer of hap­pi­ness, and even lev­ity, amid the sad­ness. “We all know of the many hor­rors” of the Holo­caust, she said, “but this is one in­stance where the out­come was sort of pos­i­tive — in the sense that I’m still alive.”


Now and Then: When she was a baby, the face of Hessy Taft, née Levin­sons, was plas­tered on post­cards through­out the Third Re­ich.

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