When Hessy Taft was six months old, she was selected as a Nazi poster child. Her flawless Aryan face was plastered on postcards and magazines throughout the Third Reich.
But there was one crucial detail the Nazi propaganda machine had overlooked: Taft was a Jew.
“Had they found out their mistake at the time, I would not have been alive today,” said Taft, née Levinsons, who hid her true identity from the Nazis and later fled to Cuba with her family.
Taft’s path to accidental Nazi stardom all began with an innocuous trip to a photography studio. Her mother, Pauline Levinsons, asked one of Germany’s best photographers, Hans Ballin, to take a baby photo of her young daughter.
She took home a photo of a wide-eyed Hessy wearing a bonnet, which was given pride of place on the family piano.
But shortly afterwards, Levinsons made a terrifying discovery: her daughter’s photo adorned the cover of Sonne ins Hause, a Nazi family magazine.
Levinsons immediately confronted the photographer, who confessed that he had intentionally submitted this Jewish girl’s photo to a Nazi propaganda contest to choose the perfect Aryan baby.
“I wanted to make the Nazis ridiculous,” Ballin told Taft’s shocked mother.
Joseph Goebbels himself supposedly chose Taft’s photo out of a pool of dozens of photos taken by Germany’s top photographers. The image was not only reprinted in Nazi magazines, but also Nazi greeting cards. Taft’s aunt, looking for a birthday card for her niece’s first birthday in a Lithuanian store, was shocked to find a card with Taft’s face on it.
The ironic story of a Jewish-baby-turned-Nazi-star gained renewed attention this month after Taft, now 80, donated a copy of the magazine featuring her face to Yad Vashem.
More than 400 phone calls have poured in since then from media outlets all over the world seeking to talk to the baby who inadvertently made a mockery of the Nazis.
Taft is overwhelmed by the level of interest in her story (“I don’t need the big publicity,” she said), but also gratified. “I feel a sense of revenge and satisfaction that this story is out there,” she told the Forward. “I’m pleased because it’s time to expose the fallacy of the Nazi ideology.”
Taft kept her unusual identity a secret for decades. In 1930s Germany, Taft’s parents lived in fear of someone discovering that the Nazi’s prime Aryan baby was a Jew. They were very cautious whenever they brought their daughter outdoors, and stopped taking her to the local park.
“I had to be pretty much quarantined,” Taft said. “I was starting to learn to speak, [and] if I had told anyone that my name was Hessy Levinsons, it would have been the end of me and my family.”
After Taft’s father was briefly arrested by Nazis on trumped up charges, he and his family fled to Paris in or around 1937. There they could breathe a sigh of relief: Taft was out of the Nazi’s reach, for the time being, and no one knew her identity.
But an ear infection threatened to blow her cover. A Parisian Jewish doctor who was called to treat the ill, 4-year-old Taft, commented on her cuteness, which prompted Hessy’s mother to show him her daughter’s infamous magazine cover.
Excited, the doctor asked to borrow the magazine and send it to journalists, who could use the story to discredit Nazi propaganda. But Taft’s father refused.
“The doctor very clearly said, “Mr. Levinsons, you have nothing to fear now. You are in France,” Taft said. “My father said no — and history has proved my father right.”
Sure enough, the Germans rolled into France just two years later, and Taft’s family barely escaped arrest by the Nazis. After fleeing from city to city, the Levinsons managed to secure Cuban visas and escaped Europe at last in 1942.
Taft spent seven years in Cuba, and eventually immigrated to the U.S., where she became a chemistry professor and director of the SAT II tests taken by millions of aspiring college students.
But even in America, Taft kept her story under wraps, waiting years to tell anyone of her secret past. Taft’s father, ever cautious, warned her not to draw attention to her background, even long after the war’s end. “My father instilled in me…that Jews should keep a low profile and not expose themselves,” she said. “That’s why this story had to be a secret for years and years.”
Now in her ninth decade, Taft has openly embraced not only her backstory, but her Jewish identity. “Because my childhood was so hectic, I did not have a formal Jewish education as a child,” she said. “I feel I’ve made up for lost time.”
Asked to describe her Judaism, Taft emphasized her staunch support for the State of Israel, to which she has travelled “countless” times. She gave her children a Jewish education, and taught them to love the Jewish state, which she feels is the “key to feeling secure as a Jew.”
“I don’t buy the notion that ‘I’m not anti-Jewish, I’m just anti-Israel,’” she said. “That’s phony.”
Taft added that she believes bigots target Israelis in part because “[Israelis] are successful in what they do, just like the German Jews were successful in the ’30s.”
Recalling the dark era of Nazism, Taft is glad that her story can provide a glimmer of happiness, and even levity, amidst the sadness. “We all know of the many horrors” of the Holocaust, she said, “but this is one instance where the outcome was sort of positive — in the sense that I’m still alive.”