NEW YORK (Reuters) - For the German photographer who chose a picture of a Jewish child as the ideal Aryan for Nazi propagandists, it was a sly joke. For the child’s family, it became a terrifying ordeal.
Hessy Taft was 6 months old in 1935 when her portrait by the well-known German photographer Hans Ballin was chosen by Nazis and reprinted on the cover of a family magazine, on postcards and on shop placards urging customers to “buy beautiful clothes for your beautiful baby.”
When Taft’s mother demanded an explanation from Ballin and reminded him that her family was Jewish, the photographer told her: “I wanted to allow myself the pleasure of this joke.”
After keeping her story a secret for decades, Taft - whose maiden name is Levinsons and who now lives in the United States and is a chemistry professor - has begun to talk about her ordeal. On Wednesday, she spoke to Reuters.
Taft said she bears no ill will toward the photographer.
“Yes, I thank him for having the courage to do that, as a non-Jew, to challenge his own government,” she said. “It was an irony that needed to be exposed.”
But she acknowledges it is miraculous her family did not end up in a Nazi concentration camp.
“The upshot of all this is that my parents were terrified that I’d be recognized,” she said.
For months, she was mostly confined indoors.
Taft’s parents, trained opera singers, were born in Latvia. In 1932, her father, Jacob Levinsons, lost a contract to perform across Germany when it was discovered he was Jewish, and he began a career in business.
Some two years after Taft’s portrait was taken, the family fled to Paris, but the story followed them.
A Jewish doctor visiting their home remarked on the portrait of Taft, displayed on the family piano.
“He commented on what a cute kid I was, so my mother immediately told him the story of her cover girl daughter,” said Taft.
The doctor wanted to publicize the story, believing the ensuing ridicule would bolster anti-Nazi sympathy. Taft said her mother was tempted but her father refused.
“The doctor said to my father, ‘You know, Mr Levinsons, you have nothing to fear. You are in France now.’ Well, history has proved my father right,” Taft said.
By 1940, the Nazis had entered France and the family was on the run - to Cuba in 1942 and to the United States in 1949.
For decades, the family chose to keep the story behind the famous picture secret. But last month, Taft donated an original copy of the magazine to the Yad Vashem Holocaust Memorial in Israel.
She also contributed a chapter to a 1987 book about Latvian Jews.
“The story I have to tell is not one of tragedy. It is rather one of irony,” her chapter begins.
Editing by Eric Walsh