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Hessy Levinsons Taft: The Jewish Woman Who Was Hitler’s “Perfect Aryan Baby”

Hessy Levinsons Taft, a retired chemistry professor at St. John's University, New York, has an amusing story to tell. When she was only 6 months old, her photograph was selected by the Nazi Propaganda Minister Joseph Goebbels to represent the “perfect Aryan baby”. Her cherubic face with chubby cheeks and wide eyes graced the cover of a popular Nazi family magazine Sonne ins Haus or “Sun in the House”, and she appeared on cards and posters across Nazi Germany. Unknown to Goebbels, Hessy Levinsons was a Jew.

Hessy Levinsons Taft

Hessy Levinsons Taft holds a copy of “Sonne ins Haus.”

Hessy Levinsons was born in Berlin in 1934 to Jewish parents, Jacob and Polin Levinson. Her parents were originally from Latvia, where they had studied classical music before immigrating to Berlin. There, they found employment at an opera house. Six years later, Hessy was born.

When Hessy was six months old, her parents decided to have her picture taken and took her to the studio of Hans Ballin, a well-known German photographer in Berlin. Her parents liked the photograph so much that they had her farmed and propped it up on the piano her father had given her mother as a present after Hessy was born.

A few months after the photo shoot, the Levinson were shocked to find their baby’s photograph on the front cover of the hugely popular Nazi magazine called Sonne ins Haus. The Sonne ins Haus was one of the few magazines that was allowed to circulate at the time. Edited by a friend of Nazi leader Hermann Goering, the magazine sang virtues of Nazi Germany, about the superiority of the Aryan race, and its pages were brimmed with images of men wearing swastikas. The Levinson were terrified. They rushed to Hans Ballin’s studio to confront the photographer.

It turned out that the Nazis were running a contest to find the most beautiful Aryan baby to further their philosophy, and asked photographers to submit their ten best photographers. Hans Ballin slipped Hessy’s photograph along with nine others into an envelope and sent it to the office of the Ministry of Public Enlightenment & Propaganda, knowing full well that Hessy was a Jew.

Hessy Levinsons Taft

“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,” Hans Ballin explained to the stunned mother.

Ballin’s little prank put the Levinson family in great danger. With her face plastered all over the streets in storefront windows and in newspaper and magazine stands, Hessy became instantly recognizable and had to be kept hidden indoors.

“I could no longer play in the park,” Hessy Levinsons Taft recalls. “And I couldn’t go to the zoo, my favorite place.”

“I can laugh about it now,” she tells, “But if the Nazis had known who I really was, I wouldn’t be alive.”

After Hessy’s father Jacob Levinson was arrested in 1938 on fraudulent tax charges, he decided that Germany was no longer safe for his family, and the same year, they moved to Latvia, Jacob’s home country, and then to Paris. A few years later, when the Nazis began rounding up Jews in Paris, they fled Europe altogether for Cuba, before settling in the United States. There, she studied chemistry at Barnard College and Columbia University and in 1959 married Earl Taft.

The story came to light only in 2014, when Hessy Levinsons Taft, now an octogenarian, visited Yad Vashem, Israel's official museum dedicated to the victims of the Holocaust, and gifted the foundation a copy of the Sonne ins Haus with her baby picture on the front cover.

The Nazis never found out the truth.

References:
# Washington Post, https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/morning-mix/wp/2014/07/07/the-perfect-aryan-child-the-nazis-used-in-propaganda-was-actually-jewish/
# Yad Vashem, https://www.yadvashem.org/blog/jewish-girl-was-poster-baby-in-nazi-propaganda.html
# C&EN, https://cen.acs.org/articles/92/i36/Hessy-Taft.html

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