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‘The Führer’s child’: How Hitler came to embrace a girl with Jewish roots

A jarring 1933 photo of Hitler hugging 6-year-old Rosa Bernile Nienau just sold at auction for $11,000.

Adolf Hitler embraces Rosa Bernile Nienau, then about 6, at his mountainside Bavarian retreat in 1933. He refused to cut off contact with her even after he was told that her grandmother was Jewish. (Courtesy of Alexander Historical Auctions) (N/A/Alexander Historical Auctions)

The little girl was portrayed as Adolf Hitler’s favorite.

They shared the same birthday, April 20. She called him Uncle Hitler and was known as “the Führer’s child.” At a time when the Nazi leader was being presented to the world as a kindly figure, his personal photographer frequently snapped pictures of the two them holding hands, exchanging kisses on the cheek or just smiling at each other. Hitler refused to cut off contact with the girl even after he was told she had a Jewish grandmother.

On Tuesday, Alexander Historical Auctions, based in Chesapeake City, Md., sold one of those photographs for $11,520. The black-and-white, 11¾” x 9½ image, taken by Heinrich Hoffmann, shows a smiling Hitler embracing the young blond girl, Rosa Bernile Nienau, about 6, in 1933 at his mountainside retreat, the Berghof, in the Bavarian region of Germany. Hitler’s face is turned to his right, dipping to the top of her head, while she’s looking directly at the camera, her mouth open, eyes lit up, and grinning widely. Most notably perhaps, the photograph is inscribed by Hitler himself in dark blue ink.

“The dear and [considerate?] Rosa Nienau Adolf Hitler Munich, the 16th June 1933,” the inscription says in German, referring to the location where he signed the photograph. Nine edelweiss flowers and a four-leaf clover — applied by Bernile, as she was known — also adorn the photograph.

Andreas Kornfeld, Alexander Historical Auctions' vice president of sales, said the photograph’s backstory stunned him when he learned it.

“It’s probably one of the most unique items I’ve seen in my time with the auction house,” Kornfeld said. “Being German, I’d never heard the story, and I’ve seen the picture many times, but it would never have occurred to me the story behind the picture, which is mind-blowing.”

But the image’s path to the Maryland auction house is something of a mystery, as is the identity of Tuesday’s buyer. Kornfeld declined to name or describe the person who consigned the photograph to the auction house or the person who placed the winning bid. (He wouldn’t even specify the winner’s gender.)

Although the auction house spent months verifying its authenticity, Kornfeld also said he did not know how it got from 1930s Germany to the collector, who brought the photo to the auction house a few months ago.

Unlike paintings or other objects of art, autographed photographs generally don’t come with detailed histories, he said. “Provenance with this kind of material just became an issue in the last 10 or 15 years,” Kornfeld said. “It’s kind of sad. This information being lost, it would add to the history."

Like so many of Hoffman’s images, the photo was deployed as propaganda. The photos of Bernile and Hitler were meant to portray the German leader as a child-loving person, “a man truly in touch with the young,” according to James Wilson’s book “Hitler’s Alpine Headquarters.”

When asked about the value of the auction house’s photograph, Kornfeld cited Hitler’s inscription and the jarring image of the Nazi leader embracing a girl with Jewish lineage.

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According to the auction house, Bernile and her widowed mother traveled from their Munich home in the spring of 1933 to Hitler’s retreat. They were there to celebrate Hitler’s birthday, and Bernile was somehow chosen to meet him, likely because of their identical birthdays. She and “Uncle Hitler” bonded, meeting several times and writing each other letters, up until 1938.

“Research shows that even early on, Hitler became aware of the girl’s Jewish heritage but chose to ignore it, either for personal or propaganda reasons,” the auction house wrote on its website.

In Nazi Germany, being a quarter Jewish meant Bernile was considered Jewish under the law, the auction house explained.

At one point, one of Hitler’s henchmen discovered her roots and forbade her and her mother from visiting the retreat. But the “Party busybody” didn’t tell Hitler, according to Wilson’s book. After a while, Hitler wondered what happened to his favorite child. Eventually, he learned she’d been blacklisted from the property. The Fuhrer was not happy.

“Hitler was furious with those who had denounced his little friend. He told Hoffman, ‘There are some people who have a positive genius for spoiling all my little pleasures,’ " according to Wilson’s book.

Eventually, though, another high-ranking leader intervened and permanently halted Hitler’s correspondence with the child in 1938. Five years later, on Oct. 5, 1943, Bernile died of polio at the age of 17 in a Munich hospital.

By then, millions of Jews had perished in the Holocaust.

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