When Hessy Taft was 6 months old, she was a poster child for the Nazis. Her photograph was chosen as the image of the ideal Aryan baby, and distributed in party propaganda. But what the Nazis didn’t know was that their perfect baby was really Jewish.
“I can laugh about it now,” the 80-year-old Professor Taft told Germany’s Bild newspaper in an interview. “But if the Nazis had known who I really was, I wouldn’t be alive.”
Prof Taft recently presented the Yad Vashem Holocaust Memorial in Israel with a Nazi magazine featuring her baby photograph on the front cover, and told the story of how she became an unlikely poster child for the Third Reich.
Her parents, Jacob and Pauline Levinsons, both talented singers, moved to Berlin from Latvia to pursue careers in classical music in 1928, only to find themselves caught up in the Nazis’ rise to power.
Her father lost his job at an opera company because he was Jewish, and had to find work as a door-to-door salesman.
In 1935, with the city rife with anti-Semitic attacks, Pauline Levinsons took her 6-month-old daughter Hessy to a well-known Berlin photographer to have her baby photograph taken.
A few months later, she was horrified to find her daughter’s picture on the front cover of Sonne ins Hause, a major Nazi family magazine.
Terrified the family would be exposed as Jews, she rushed to the photographer, Hans Ballin. He told her he knew the family was Jewish, and had deliberately submitted the photograph to a contest to find the most beautiful Aryan baby.
“I wanted to make the Nazis ridiculous,” the photographer told her.
He succeeded: The picture won the contest, and was believed to have been chosen personally by the Nazi propaganda minister Joseph Goebbels.
Frightened she would be recognised on the streets and questions asked about her identity, Prof Taft’s parents kept her at home.
Her photograph appeared on widely available Nazi postcards, where she was recognised by an aunt in distant Memel, now part of Lithuania. But the Nazis never discovered Prof Taft’s true identity.
In 1938, her father was arrested by the Gestapo on a trumped up tax charge, but released when his accountant, a Nazi party member, came to his defence.
After that, the family fled Germany. They moved first to Latvia, before settling in Paris only for the city to fall to the Nazis.
With the help of the French resistance, they escaped again, this time to Cuba, and in 1949 the family moved to the United States.
Today the Jewish woman who was once a Nazi poster child is a professor of chemistry in New York.
“I feel a little revenge,” she said of presenting her photograph to Yad Vashem. “Something like satisfaction.”
This article was originally posted by The Telegraph