When the Nazis held a contest in the 1930s to determine the most beautiful Aryan baby, Nazi propaganda minister Joseph Goebbels probably didn’t mean to choose an image of a Jewish child out of the stack of baby photos submitted. But according to Hessy Taft, now 80 and a chemistry professor in New York City, the image selected was a professional photograph taken of her as a six-month-old in Berlin in 1935.
The Telegraph reported the story, first published in Germany’s Bild, of how the photographer, knowing full well that the child pictured was Jewish, entered the photograph into the contest “to make the Nazis ridiculous.” The joke was certainly on somebody, because when the photo appeared on the cover of the Nazi magazine Sonne ins Hause—and on postcards and other widely distributed forms of Nazi propaganda—the family panicked, worried that the Nazis would discover the identity of the child, and learn she was 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.”
The family eventually fled Berlin for Latvia, then Paris, then Cuba, and arrived in the United States in 1949. Taft is now a chemistry professor in New York City.
She recently presented the photographs to Yad Vashem in Israel, and said that she felt “a little revenge” in the act. “Something like satisfaction.”
Here’s Taft describing the various forms in which the photograph was used in a video for the USC Shoah Foundation.
Stephanie Butnick is deputy editor of Tablet Magazine and a host of the Unorthodox podcast.