The puppet stands 20 inches tall, hand-painted and carved out of wood, its uniform tattered and torn. But for all it has endured over more than 80 years — buried in a backyard in Belgium at the outset of World War II, dug up after the war and taken on a nine-day cross-Atlantic journey, stored and almost forgotten in an attic in Oakland, Calif. — it remains, with its black toothbrush mustache and right arm raised in a Nazi salute, immediately and chillingly recognizable.
It is a depiction of Hitler, hand-carved and painted in the late 1930s by an amateur Dutch puppeteer, Isidore (Mike) Oznowicz, and clothed by his Flemish wife, Frances, as they lived in prewar Belgium.
The Hitler marionette, an instrument of parody and defiance, offers an intriguing glimpse into the strong puppetry tradition in the family of the man who retrieved it from that attic: Frank Oz, one of its creators’ sons, who went on to become one of the 20th century’s best-known puppeteers, bringing Cookie Monster, Bert, Miss Piggy and others to life through his collaborations with Jim Henson, and later becoming a force in the Star Wars movies, giving voice to Yoda. The marionette will be shown publicly for the first time later this month at the Contemporary Jewish Museum in San Francisco.
Oz’s father was drawn to puppetry from the day when, as an 11-year-old boy, he passed a street show of outsize, colorful Sicilian puppets in Antwerp. “As a youngster, I was interested in things three-dimensional,” Oznowicz told The San Francisco Chronicle in 1990. After they arrived in Oakland in 1951, Oz’s parents founded the San Francisco Bay Area Puppeteers Guild, and the family living room became a gathering spot for puppet makers and enthusiasts from across the region. Oz learned how to string puppets from his father, and as a teenager, he earned $25 an hour doing puppet shows, and served as an apprentice puppeteer at Children’s Fairyland, an amusement park.
But Oz — who parlayed his successes in puppetry into a long career as an actor and a director — was never drawn to carrying on the family tradition.
“It was a great training ground for me until I hit 18 and I said, I’m done with this, I don’t want to be a puppeteer,” Oz, 78, said in a recent interview as he sat on a bench in Riverside Park in New York. “I never wanted to be a puppeteer. I want to be a journalist, actually.”
It was a chance encounter with Henson, whom he met at a puppeteer’s convention when he was still a teenager, that changed the course of his life.
“I really don’t care about puppets,” Oz said, under the mist of a light June rain. “I really don’t. And never did. And Jim showed me how to be successful. Then I became successful at the very thing that I didn’t initially want, but the joy was working with Jim and the Muppets.”
Oz was started when he came across the puppet years ago in the attic of his family home in Oakland — “I thought, ‘Oh My God.’” He brought it to New York where he displayed it, along with seven marionette heads carved by his father, in a museum case in his apartment on the Upper West Side.
The puppet, the carved heads and a video interview conducted with his father before his death in 1998, will be shown at “Oz is for Oznowicz: A Puppet Family’s History,” opening at the Contemporary Jewish Museum on July 21. (Frank’s nom -de-Hollywood is “Oz,” but his legal name remains Oznowicz.)
The exhibition tracks the remarkable story of this puppet and how Isidore, who was Jewish and was born in Amsterdam, and Frances, who was Catholic, fled Antwerp in 1940 as the Nazis advanced and bombs exploded across Belgium. At the urging of Frances’s mother, who was fearful that they would be captured with such a defiant marionette as they tried to outrace the Nazis, they buried the puppet in their backyard.
“He and Mom made a pact that when the bombs landed in Antwerp — and they were expecting that — they’d be ready go to,” said Ronald Oznowicz, 80, who is Frank’s older brother. “They had their bikes ready and their food ready. They had a whole plan and the object was to get to England.”
Isidore and Frances traveled through southern France, Spain, Morocco and Portugal — the tale of their journey is recounted in the video interview — before settling in England, where Frank and Ronald were born.
The family returned to Antwerp after the war and dug up the puppet. It was another five years before they obtained a visa and came to the United States. The puppet came with them. (A third child, Jenny, was born after they settled in the United States.)
“I have to tell you: This is a son’s remembrance,” Oz said. “My parents left Belgium in time. But sadly, half of his family was killed in the gas chambers because they didn’t leave. My father never really liked to talk about it. It was too difficult for him.”
“All these stories of my mother and father, they were just fairy tales to me,” he said.
Indeed, much of this story is murky, as it reconstructs the life of the parents of one of the men so instrumental in making the beloved Muppets: Isidore was, by day, a window trimmer and sign painter, and Frances became a dressmaker. It is not exactly clear how — or even if — the Hitler puppet was used in performances.
This exhibit came to be because of occurrence. “The Jim Henson Exhibition: Imagination Unlimited,” which was first shown at the Museum of the Moving Image in New York, was set to move this summer to The Contemporary Jewish Museum, and the institution, in keeping with its mission, was looking for ways to place the exhibition in some sort of Jewish context.
“I was aware that Frank Oz was Jewish and wondered if there was any kind of story that Frank would want to tell here,” said Heidi Rabben, the senior curator of the museum. Karen Falkthe head archivist for the Henson collection, told her about the puppet that Oz had retrieved from his parents’ attic, and Rabben asked Oz if she could borrow it for this exhibit.
“It was such an incredibly inspiring story about resilience and resistance,” Rabben said. “That is what we are interested in: What are the ways we can share stories of the Holocaust? We have limited information and it’s very selective based on what our parents and grandparents chose to share. How do we make sure we never forget?”
The two exhibits will overlap for a few weeks; the Henson exhibit closes in mid-August.
The Hitler puppet is the centerpiece of “Oz is for Oznowicz.” The mustache, the hair and the eyebrows are painted black; Isidore carved the mustache so that it protrudes from the puppet. A Nazi arm band is strapped around the left arm. No effort was made to refurbish the Hitler puppet or any of the heads; they are being presented the way Frank found them. The marionette’s right leg is exposed because of a tear in the uniform.
Given its subject matter and the sensitivities of a museum dedicated to addressing questions of Jewish history, “Oz is for Oznowicz,” contains a warning for attendees: “This exhibition contains a marionette of Adolf Hitler that may be disturbing for some viewers. Our intention in displaying this object is to keep the memory of the Holocaust alive through the objects and firsthand stories of those who experienced its persecution, and to encourage conversation and education about the ongoing horrors of antisemitism and authoritarianism today.”
Isidore’s sons remember him as a man of pointed humor with a strong political sensibility, and said it was in character for him to use humor and parody for political effect. But once they made it back to the United States, and embarked on lives as immigrants in a new country, they tried to put that chapter of their lives behind them.
After their meeting at a convention of the National Puppeteers of America, Jim Henson asked Frank Oz to come to New York and work part-time with him for six months in 1963. He stayed with Henson until 1986.
Oz said he jumped at the chance to lend his parents’ work to the Henson exhibition.
“I want to show how people can express themselves in a positive way during a war — and make fun of people through other means,” he said. “I just want to honor my parents. I want to people to see how lucky we are right now, even in the terrible situation we are in right now.”