April 1, 2020

A Great Irony: My Relative had been the Nazis’ ‘Perfect Aryan’ Poster Baby

On August 15, 2015, I excitedly hopped onto a plane to interview and connect with my grandmother’s first cousin, Hessy Levinsons Taft, a dynamic woman with such an extraordinary life story.   In addition to being a mother, wife, Holocaust survivor, chemistry professor and world leading water conservationist, her story includes having been a Jewish baby selected by the Nazis’ leadership to serve as the archetypal example of the Aryan race.

After I arrived and met up with Hessy, we looked at family photos, and then she showed the original cover of the Nazi magazine, Sonne ins Haus (Sun in the House), January 1935, with her baby portrait smack on the cover.  Seeing articles from the magazine, including one about a performance by Hitler’s favorite military band, made the whole situation even more real and mind boggling.

As I was interviewing her, I thought about how her story has to be one of the greatest ironies I have ever heard.                                                                                                                                                    Photo: Ohad Zwigenberg, Yedioth Ahoronot

Photo: Ohad Zwigenberg, Yedioth Ahoronot

The perfect ‘Aryan Baby”

Hessy Levinsons Taft was born in Berlin to Jacob and Pauline Levinsons, citizens of Latvia who had gone to Berlin to study.  When Hessy was 6 months old, her parents took her to a famous Berlin photographer, Hans Ballin, to get her portrait taken.   Not long after, the German cleaning lady who worked for her parents, Frau Klauke, told her mother that she spotted Hessy’s portrait on the cover of a magazine posted in the front window of a stationary shop.  Her mother was in total disbelief, but Frau Klauke asked for seventy Pfennige to buy a copy, and lo and behold, she would discover with amazement and anxiety that she had not been mistaken.  Hessy’s portrait, the same one sitting on their piano, was now smack on the front of Sonne ins Haus (Sun in the House), the magazine with a strong Nazi support.

With a palpitating heart, her mother rushed to the photographer to find out what had happened.  He took her to a quiet room and explained how the Reich Ministry of Public Enlightenment and Propaganda, headed by Minister Joseph Goebbels, had asked the top 10 photographers in Germany each to submit ten baby portraits to their contest to identify the poster child for the “Aryan race.”  Hessy’s mother responded “ But you knew this is a Jewish child.”  The photographer responded, “I deliberately wanted to slip in the little Jewess, and give myself the pleasure of this joke, and, you see I was right.”  Even though the Nazis typically promoted blonde hair and blue eyes as the ideal Aryan features, for whatever reason, the ministry selected the photo of the brown-haired and brown-eyed Jewish baby to become the poster child.

Up until about the age of two, out of fear of recognition and getting killed, Hessy’s parents abandoned her playtime in the park and instead took her for rides in her carriage.  Her photo was found everywhere.  Hessy’s aunt found a card in Memel, Lithuania, with Hessy’s photo and the inscription, “Best wishes for the Birthday,” in gold letters.

One close call occurred when a friend of the family had been visiting a German woman’s apartment, and spotted Hessy’s photo framed on the wall, and accidently blurted out, “But that is Hessy Levinsons!”  The woman responded with sheer anger, “What?” she demanded, “Did you say the baby’s name is Levinsons?”  The woman pulled the picture off the wall and pensively stared at it for a while, and then calmed down and said, “Oh, never mind.  She is too cute.  I’ll hang it back.”

Time to leave

As the Nazis were exerting ever increasing power, Berlin became too unsafe to live calmly.  Jacob and Pauline and their children returned briefly to Latvia, staying with family for several months before moving to Paris in 1938.

At one point during their stay in Paris, Hessy developed an earache and her mother requested a doctor for a house call.  The doctor who responded was Jewish and he commented on what a cute kid Hessy was.  Pauline told him the story of Hessy’s baby photo.  The doctor responded by pointing out that there were an increasing number of people in France being persuaded by the Hitler propaganda, and that he had connections at the Paris Soir, and believed this would be a great story to publicize and make the Nazis look ridiculous.  Pauline was ready to agree but Jacob said no way. The doctor turned to him and said, “You know, Misseur Levinsons, you have no reason to be fearful.  You are not it Germany anymore.”  With the eventual Nazi occupation of France, history proved her father right.

The first time Hessy spoke publically about her story was in 1987 when she wrote a chapter in the book called, “Jewish Survivors of Latvia Remember”; then in 1990, she donated an original copy of the magazine and gave a video interview to the US Holocaust Memorial Museum.  Her story was published all over the world after she gave another original copy of the magazine and interview at Yad Vashem in Israel 2014.

Quite the venture

One story Hessy shared that really stood out…

The family had fled from Paris to Bordeaux, and then from Bordeaux to Nice.  While in Nice, they finally received word that their American Visas had arrived, but it was too late, and were denied an extension.  Her father went to the Cuban Consulate, and managed to bribe him for four visas.  He then obtained train tickets from Marseille, across the Pyrinees, across all of Spain to Lisbon, where he got boat tickets to sail to the Americas.  In addition, the initial train ride from Nice to Marseille required special passes to travel between the free zone and the Vichy government in France.

As the family waited in Marseille, they found out that Gerta, the young Jewish nurse the family had hired in Berlin and went to Paris with them to take care of the children, was unable to join her brother who immigrated to Portland, Oregon.  Gerta was searching for the Levinsons family.  Hessy’s parents were faced with a huge dilemma, wondering if they should go back or just leave her.  Her father had no visa for Gerta, and no pass to get back to Nice.  But as a young Jewish girl, they feared that Gerta would likely be killed.  Her father headed back to Nice, as the family waited for him in Marseille.

While on the train back to Nice, her father believed that staying in the dining car would protect him, and had ordered food and wine continuously until he was almost truly sick. The train stopped for 2 hours at the crossing of a checkpoint for the Vichy government, and the guards checked passes but walked right through the dining car without disturbing the diners.

While in Nice, her father pawned a silver cigarette case and went back to the Cuban Consulate to offer him money for another visa.  The consulate said, “no way!  I already gave you four and am in trouble.”  Her father told him that he wouldn’t leave until he gave him another visa, and sat down and waited.  By the end of the day, the consulate said, “Look, I’m going to close, are you going to leave or should I call the police?”  He responded, “I’ll leave as soon as you give me a visa.”  The consulate looked at him and said, “You know, there is an old law in the books in Cuba that says a man can immigrate with all of his possessions, including his slaves.  Would you say this woman is your slave?”  He said, “oh absolutely, this woman is my slave,” and the consulate gave him the visa for Cuba.  Hessy spent much of her childhood in Cuba.

I believe it is the choices one makes while in the face of great dilemmas and risks that really give insight into a person’s character.   Her father was very courageous.  It was wonderful to learn this story.

A joy

Hessy received degrees in chemistry from Barnard College and Columbia University. She spent most of her career at Educational Testing Service in Princeton, NJ, where she was in charge of national chemistry and biology examinations.  After moving to New York, she taught chemistry at St John’s University in Queens NY until 2015. She is active in professional societies and is sought out as a leading expert on water conservation.  She lives in New York City with her lovely husband, Earl Taft, professor of mathematics at Rutgers University. They regularly visit their children in San Francisco, where she and I met for the first time.

It has been a joy getting to connect with Hessy.  She is truly such a dynamic woman, whose amazing life story goes far beyond having been a Jewish baby selected by the Nazis’ as their poster child.

But as someone who loves irony, I believe her story takes the cake.

Picture I took of Hessy and her lovely husband, Earl.

Originally recorded for the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum

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