One of the most highly debated issues within the Nazi hierarchy was the status of Germans who were partially Jewish. This debate raged within Nazi circles for much of the regime’s existence.
At the infamous Wannsee Conference in early 1942, SS General Reinhard Heydrich and others formalized the plans for the Holocaust.
The minutes of that meeting show that the question of Germans with Jewish ancestry took up most of the surprisingly brief meeting.
For Heydrich, establishing what percentage of Jewish blood was “allowed” may have been personally important: historians since the war have written volumes on Heydrich’s concern that he himself may have had significant Jewish ancestry.
The question of German/Jewish ancestry reached into all areas of German life. The highest ranking German officer with a recognized Jewish ancestry was Luftwaffe general Erhard Milch, who ended the war in Allied captivity and who spent time in prison for war crimes related to forced labor.
A WWI comrade of Luftwaffe chief Hermann Göring, Milch’s “Jewishness” was a well-known “secret.” In 1935, Göring, then at the height of his political power, proclaimed “I decide who is a Jew.”
In the last few years, one of the most interesting stories involving the question of “Jewishness” became public, though during the war years it was a closely guarded secret, known to only three people.
In the U.S.A. one of the most iconic images is that of the “Gerber Baby Food Baby” (no, it was not actor Humphrey Bogart, though he had “won” a contest for another baby food company as an infant). The cute image has played a role in the sale of hundreds of millions of jars and packages of baby food.
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The Nazi’s had their own equivalent of the Gerber baby. In 1935, Propaganda Minister Josef Goebbels began a search for the “perfect” Aryan baby and sponsored a contest to find her/him.
This child would go on to grace everything from newspapers to magazines to sheet music, as well as kitsch of all kinds, like plates and cups.
The winner of the contest was a beautiful light-haired baby named Hessy Levinson. Yes, Levinson. Goebbels perfect “Aryan” baby was 100% Jewish. Hessy’s mother, Pauline, had taken the baby to a local photographer for a family photo. Unbeknownst to Pauline, the man who took Hessy’s picture, well-known Berlin photographer Hans Ballin, had entered Hessy’s image in Goebbels’ contest as a lark – a quite dangerous one.
Ballin was an anti-Nazi who had entered the child the contest for personal reasons – he wanted to show (even if just to himself) that the Nazis’ ideas were ludicrous at best.
Surprisingly, Hessy’s image won. Hessy’s mother, seeing the child on the cover of the Nazi family magazine Sonne ins Haus (“The Sunlight of the Home”), went to Ballin’s studio in a panic. If the Nazi’s found out that Hessy was Jewish, the entire family would likely suffer.
Though this took place in the years before Kristallnacht and the Holocaust, it was not unheard of for Jewish families to be punished or disappear, especially if they had made the regime look foolish.
Ballin told Pauline of his scheme, and assured her that he would not reveal the child’s identity. As surety, Hessy began a life lived entirely indoors as to avoid being recognized. The regime never did find out the secret of its perfect “Aryan” baby.
In 1938, three years after the contest and as the regime cranked up its anti-Semitism to new heights, Hessy’s father Jacob was arrested by the Gestapo on false tax evasion charges.
Eventually released when his German accountant vouched for him, Jacob took his wife and child and fled to Paris via Latvia. After the fall of France in 1940 and the subsequent anti-Semitic crackdown there, the Levinson’s went into hiding and with the help of the French underground, escaped to Cuba.
In 1949, the family moved to the United States, where Hessy married Earl Taft and became a chemistry professor at St. John’s University in New York. She is still alive today.
Matthew Gaskill holds an MA in European History and writes on a variety of topics from the Medieval World to WWII to genealogy and more. A former educator, he values curiosity and diligent research. He is the author of many best-selling Kindle works on Amazon.