The newlyweds came to Berlin as students, a pair of Latvian Jews who wanted to make it big in singing. In 1934, just after Adolf Hitler took control of Germany, the young Jewish woman became pregnant with a child who would soon become known as the “perfect Aryan.”
The photo was everywhere. It first adorned a Nazi magazine that held a beauty contest to find “the perfect Aryan” and then was later splashed across postcards and storefronts.
Less well-known, however, was the fact that the “Aryan” girl was actually Jewish.
As remarkable as that revelation is, more remarkable is the story that accompanies it. The girl, now 80 and named Hessy Levinsons Taft, 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 United States Holocaust Museum in 1990.
It begins in 1928 when her parents came to Berlin. Both were singers. The father, Jacob Levinsons, crooned a chocolate-smooth baritone. His wife, Pauline Levinsons, had studied at the renowned Riga Conservatory in Latvia.
Jacob had accepted a position at a local opera house and taken the stage name of Yasha Lenssen, his daughter recalled in the lengthy interview with 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 young couple gave birth to Hessy Levinsons on May 17, 1934. She was beautiful. So when she was 6 months old, the parents decided to have her picture taken. “My mother took me to a photographer,” she told the museum. “One of the best in Berlin! And he did — he made a very beautiful picture — which my parents thought was very beautiful.”
They liked it so much, they framed it and propped it up on the piano her father had given her mother as a present after Hessy was born. 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.’”
Hessy’s mother found that impossible to believe. A lot of babies look the same, the mother explained, and surely the helper was mistaken. But she wasn’t.
“‘No, no, no, no,’” the helper explained to Taft’s mother. “It’s definitely Hessy. It’s this picture. Just give me some money, and I’ll get you the magazine.”
Money changed hands, and the helper soon returned with a magazine. A headline that said “the Sun in the Home” stretched across the top with the same picture that was there, resting on the piano. “The magazine was published out of Leipzig [in central Germany] and was very definitely one of the few magazines allowed to circulate at the time,” Taft said in the oral history, “because it was a Nazi magazine.” She said the pages brimmed with images of “men wearing swastikas” and even one of Hitler himself “reviewing the troops.”
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 to quiet down. “‘I will tell you the following,’” the story went. “‘I was asked to submit my 10 best pictures for a beauty 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.
“‘Yes,’” he said, explaining there had been a competition to find the “‘perfect example of the Aryan race to further Nazi philosophy…. I wanted to allow myself the pleasure of this joke. And you see, I was right. Of all the babies, they picked this baby as the perfect Aryan.’”
Family stories are always prone to hyperbole, distortion and exaggeration — but this appears to be true. Taft has reams of photographs that show her in numerous publications and cards. “I can laugh about it now,” the Telegraph 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.”
The parents were equally shocked and “amazed at the irony of it all.” In the weeks afterward, the picture was everywhere. It was in storefront windows, in advertisements and on postcards. One time, Taft says her aunt went to the store to buy a birthday card for her first birthday in May of 1935 only to find a card with Taft’s baby picture on it. “My aunt didn’t say another word, but she bought the postcard which my parents brought with them throughout the years.”
Eventually, the family fled Europe and found refuge in Cuba for years before immigrating to the United States in the late 1940s and settling in New York City. Hessy Levinsons got married and became Hessy Taft. But the father stayed behind in Havana to operate a business, which eventually foundered under the rise of Fidel Castro. “He always said, ‘I have survived Hitler; I will survive Castro,’” Taft said. “And he did. He did.”