The extraordinary story of baby Hessy Levinsons
In the spring of 1935, a woman went into a shop in Lithuania. She wanted to buy a birthday card for Hessy, her niece who lived in Germany, and would soon turn 1-year-old. The woman looked at the birthday cards section and suddenly saw something that made her gasp in shock.
“Where did you get this picture from?”, the woman asked the shopkeeper. “Oh that’s not just a picture”, the shopkeeper replied with excitement. “That’s a real baby, a Berliner baby!”. The woman paid for the postcard and sent it to her niece.
The baby on that postcard, the cute Berliner child whose picture was now being sold in a shop in Lithuania, was no other than Hessy, the woman’s niece from Germany.
Jacob and Pauline Levinsons immigrated to Germany from Latvia in 1928, with big dreams and hopes of becoming successful musicians. In May 1934, their daughter Hessy was born in Berlin.
When Hessy was six months old her parents took her to Hans Ballin, one of the most well-known and well-respected photographers in the city, to have her picture taken.
Hessy was wearing a bright hat, her dark hair was a bit messy at the top. She had a button-like nose and baby-cute full cheeks. With her big dark eyes, she was looking to the side of the camera. Hessy’s parents absolutely loved the photo. They had it framed and put for display on the piano in their living room.
Not long after, the family’s housekeeper came to the house. She pointed at the picture on the piano and told Hessy’s mother, “you know, I saw Hessy on a magazine cover.”
The mother thought that there must be some mistake. “Many babies this age do look-alike,” she replied, but the woman insisted. “It’s definitely Hessy,” she said, “and not only that, it’s even this actual photo”.
The housekeeper asked Hessy’s mother for some money to buy the magazine for her so that she could see it herself. The mother got the money and skeptically waited.
The housekeeper returned with the magazine. It was the “Sonne ins Haus” (Sunshine in the House), one of the few Nazi magazines that were allowed to be widely distributed in Germany. It was edited by a well-known Nazi figure and showed pictures of men wearing swastikas and a picture of Hitler reviewing the troops. The magazine discussed the superiority of the Aryan race and was considered a ‘family magazine.’
The specific issue that was brought to the Levinsons’ home by the housekeeper, had a full-page picture of Hessy on its cover. The same picture that was taken in Hans Ballin’s studio a few months prior. The text said “the perfect Aryan.”
Apparently, the magazine held a competition. They approached 10 prominent photographers and asked each one to send 10 photos of babies from which Doctor Joseph Goebbels, the Nazi Minister of Propaganda, will personally choose one lucky ‘perfect Aryan’ baby.
Hessy’s parents were horrified. Ballin knew they were Jewish, why would he send the picture to a Nazi competition in a Nazi magazine? Pauline went to the studio and confronted Ballin.
“What is this? How did this happen,” she asked? The man told her to close the door. He shut the blinds and motioned with his finger telling her to keep quiet.
“I wanted to allow myself the pleasure of the joke,” the photographer said. “And you see, I was right. From all the babies they chose yours as the perfect Aryan.”
While successfully ridiculing the Nazis, if the secret identity of the Jewish baby was to come out, both the photographer's and Hessy’s family’s lives would be in grave danger.
Hessy’s picture became an instant hit. Shops were selling it as postcards and birthday cards. Stores selling baby clothes would put the photo in their windows. It appeared in every newsstand in the country and in many other countries as well.
One day, a family friend, Mrs. Grossman, traveled to a distant small village in Germany. She entered a house and saw Hessy’s picture on the wall.
"Where did you get this picture,” she asked the homeowner?
“Isn’t she lovely”, the homeowner replied.
“I know this baby, this is Hessy Levinsons,” Mrs. Grossman then said.
Hearing that the baby carries a Jewish name, the homeowner took the photo off the wall and was about to throw it out. She then took one more look and said, “she can’t be Jewish. She’s too cute.”
Hessy’s mother became so concerned she barely took her daughter out of the house, fearing that someone might recognize her. Hessy remembers not being able to go to the playground or the zoo.
The Levinsons ended up fleeing from Germany in 1938, later escaped to Cuba, and ended up in the USA. She studied chemistry and was a professor at St. John’s University.
In 1990 she told her remarkable story in an interview for the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum. In 2014, Hessy donated her copy of the “Sonne ins Haus” magazine with her picture on the cover to the Yad Vashem Museum in Jerusalem.
When asked what she would say today to Ballin, on his decision to send her picture to the magazine, Hessy replied: “I would tell him, good for you for having the courage.