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How One 1930s German Photographer Successfully Trolled the Nazi Party

A photograph of a young Jewish girl won a contest to find the "perfect example of the Aryan race."

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In the mid-1930s, a few years after Adolf Hitler took on the German chancellorship, a Berlin-based photographer took a jab at antisemitism and Nazi propaganda by submitting a photo of a young Jewish girl to a photo contest run by a Nazi magazine. The contest was meant to find “the perfect example of the Aryan race.

The photographer, Hans Ballin, submitted the photo as a personal joke, “hoping to mock Nazi racial theory,” says the Holocaust Chronicle. In the end, “[h]e succeeded beyond his wildest dreams” when his photo of the young Hessy Levinsons won the contest and went on to appear on cards and magazines.

Ballin thought his subtle dig was humorous. The Levinsons, though, were not so pleased. In 1990, the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum interviewed a now much older Hessy Levinsons Taft about her story:

One day, the lady who came to clean...help my mother clean our apartment, Frau Klauke, said to my mother, “You know, I saw Hessy on a magazine cover in town.” And my mother thought surely she must be mistaken, that there are many babies that look alike, and just told her, “Well, that couldn't be [the] case.” Uh, the lady insisted; and she says, “No, no, no, no. It's definitely Hessy. It's this picture. And...and just give me some money, and I'll get you the magazine.” And so my mother did. And sure enough, this lady came back with a magazine, the front cover which said, “Sonne ins Haus”--which in German means, “the Sun in the Home.” And there was the picture on the piano reproduced on the front cover of this magazine.

This magazine was published out of Leipzig, and very definitely one of the few magazines allowed to circulate in Germany at the time, because it was a Nazi magazine. On the inside of the magazine were pictures of the Army with men wearing swastikas. There's a picture of the Führer himself reviewing the troops. There were pictures of the Hitlerjugend, and uh several of their activities, both in marching and in campfires and all other activities. It was a family magazine.

My parents were horrified. They didn't know quite how this came about; except that my mother, naturally, rushed over to the photographer. She said to him, “What is this? How did this happen?” And the photographer quickly sort of closed the door, pulled the blinds, and told her to...very quirely admonished her to keep quiet. And he says, “Shhh...I will tell you the following. I was asked to submit the...my ten best pictures for a beauty contest run by the Nazis. So were ten other outstanding photographers in Germany. So ten photographers submitted their ten best pictures. And I sent in your baby's picture.”

And my mother said, “But you knew that this is a Jewish child.” And the photographer said, “Yes.” And this is a quote that I have always...My parents say he said, in German, “Ich wollte mir den Spass erlauben”--”I wanted to allow myself the pleasure of this joke.” And then he told my mother, “And you see, I was right. Of all the babies, they picked this baby as the perfect Aryan.”

According to the Telegraph, the Nazis never figured out their mistake. To keep their baby being found out, the Levinsons kept the young Hessy inside. In 1938 the Levinsons left Germany, and today Hessy, now 80, is a chemist in New York. The Telegraph:

“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.”

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About Colin Schultz
Colin Schultz

Colin Schultz is a freelance science writer and editor based in Toronto, Canada. He blogs for Smart News and contributes to the American Geophysical Union. He has a B.Sc. in physical science and philosophy, and a M.A. in journalism.

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