The WWII Ancestor Saga of Miss Piggy, Bert and Yoda

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The puppet is 20 inches tall, hand painted and carved from wood, his uniform tattered and torn. But for all he endured for more than 80 years – buried in a backyard in Belgium at the start of World War II, dug up after the war and embarking on a nine-day transatlantic journey, stored and almost forgotten in a attic in Oakland, Calif. — he remains, with his black toothbrush mustache and right arm raised in a Nazi salute, immediately and chillingly recognizable.

This is a depiction of Hitler, hand-sculpted and painted in the late 1930s by an amateur Dutch puppeteer, Isidore (Mike) Oznowicz, and dressed by his Flemish wife, Frances, while they lived in pre-war Belgium.

The Hitler puppet, an instrument of parody and defiance, offers an intriguing insight into the strong puppet tradition of the family of the man who rescued it from that attic: Frank Oz, one of its creators’ sons, who is became one of the best-known puppeteers of the 20th century, 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 films, giving the speak to Yoda. The puppet will be shown publicly for the first time later this month at the Contemporary Jewish Museum in San Francisco.

Oz’s father has been drawn to puppets since the day he, aged 11, walked past a street performance of colorful, oversized Sicilian puppets in Antwerp. “As a youngster, I was interested in three-dimensional things,” Oznowicz told the San Francisco Chronicle in 1990. After arriving in Oakland in 1951, Oz’s parents founded the Bay Puppeteers Guild. from San Francisco, and the family living room became a gathering place for puppet makers and enthusiasts from across the region. Oz learned to string puppets from his father, and as a teenager earned $25 an hour doing puppet shows and was an apprentice puppeteer at Children’s Fairyland, an amusement park.

But Oz – who turned his puppet successes into a long acting and directing career – was never drawn to continuing the family tradition.

“It was a great training ground for me until I turned 18 and I said, I’m done with this, I don’t want to be a puppeteer,” said Oz, 78 years old, in a recent interview while sitting on a bench. at Riverside Park in New York. “I never wanted to be a puppeteer. I want to be a journalist, actually.

It was a chance meeting with Henson, whom he met at a puppeteer convention when he was still a teenager, that changed the course of his life.

“I really don’t care about puppets,” Oz said, in the mist of a light June rain. ” I really do not know. And never did. And Jim showed me how to be successful. Then I achieved what I didn’t initially want, but the joy was working with Jim and the Muppets.

Oz was surprised 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 puppet heads sculpted by her father, in a museum display case in her Upper West Side apartment.

The puppet, sculpted heads, and a video interview Frank conducted with his father before his death in 1998, will be featured at “Oz is for Oznowicz: A Puppet Family’s History,” opening at the Contemporary Jewish Museum July 21. (Frank-from-Hollywood’s name is “Oz”, but his legal name remains Oznowicz.)

The exhibition traces the remarkable story of this puppet and how Isidore, who was Jewish and born in Amsterdam, and Frances, who was Catholic, fled Antwerp in 1940 as the Nazis advanced and bombs exploded across Belgium. At the request of Frances’ mother, who feared they would be captured with such a defiant puppet as they attempted to outrun the Nazis, they buried the puppet in their garden.

“He and mum made a pact that when the bombs landed in Antwerp – and they expected it – they would be ready to leave,” 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 goal was to get to England.

Isidore and Frances traveled through southern France, Spain, Morocco and Portugal — the story of their trip is told 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 took them another five years to get a visa and come 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: it’s a memory of a son,” Oz said. “My parents left Belgium on time. But unfortunately, half of his family was killed in the gas chambers because they didn’t leave. My dad never really likes to talk about it. It was too difficult for him. »

“All those stories of my mom and dad, they were just fairy tales to me,” he said.

Indeed, much of this story is murky, as it reenacts the lives of the parents of one of the men who helped endear the Muppets: Isidore was, by day, a window cutter and sign painter, and Frances became a seamstress. It’s unclear exactly how – or even if – Hitler’s puppet was used in the performances.

This exhibition was born out of chance. “The Jim Henson: Imagination Unlimited exhibit,” which first presented at the Museum of the Moving Image in New York, was scheduled 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 a kind of Jewish context.

“I knew Frank Oz was Jewish, and I wondered if there was a story Frank wanted to tell here,” said Heidi Rabben, the museum’s senior curator. Karen Falk, the chief archivist of the Henson collection, told him about the puppet Oz had salvaged from his parents’ attic, and Rabben asked Oz if she could borrow it for this exhibit.

“It was an incredibly inspiring story about resilience and resistance,said Rabben. “That’s what we’re interested in: how can we share the stories of the Holocaust? We have limited information and it is very selective based on what our parents and grandparents chose to share. How do you make sure you never forget?

The two exhibitions will overlap for a few weeks; the Henson exhibit closes in mid-August.

Hitler’s puppet is the centerpiece of ‘Oz is for Oznowicz’. Mustache, hair and eyebrows are painted black; Isidore sculpted the mustache so that it protrudes from the puppet. A Nazi armband is tied around the left arm. No effort was made to refurbish Hitler’s puppet or any of the heads; they are presented as Frank found them. The puppet’s right leg is exposed due to a tear in the uniform.

Given its subject matter and the sensitivities of a museum dedicated to matters of Jewish history, “Oz is for Oznowicz,” contains a warning for attendees: “This exhibit contains an Adolf Hitler puppet that may disturb some viewers. Our intention in displaying this object is to keep the memory of the Holocaust alive through the objects and first-hand stories of those who experienced its persecution, and to encourage conversation and education about the current horrors of the Holocaust. anti-Semitism and authoritarianism.

Isidore’s sons remember him as a sharply humored man with strong political sensibilities and said it was in his character to use humor and parody for political ends. But once they returned to the United States and embarked on a life as immigrants in a new country, they tried to put that chapter of their lives behind them.

After they met at a National Puppeteers of America convention, 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 exhibit.

“I want to show how people can express themselves in a positive way during a war – and make fun of people in other ways,” he said. “I just want to honor my parents. I want people to see how lucky we are right now, even in the terrible situation we find ourselves in right now.


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