“Thank God we have art,” said Frank Oz, the actor, director and puppeteer best known for performing popular Muppet characters Cookie Monster, Bert, Fozzie Bear, Miss Piggy and, in another galaxy, Yoda .
It’s not the first thought one might expect of a 1930’s Adolf Hitler puppet. But the puppet, with a selection of others made by Oz’s parents – Dutch-Jewish woodworkers and puppeteers Iside “mike” Oznowicz and Flemish Catholic couturier/costume artist Frances Oznowicz – make up the small but intense exhibition entitled “Oz is for Oznowicz” at the Contemporary Jewish Museum. It complements the exhibition about Muppet creator Jim Henson, which runs concurrently until August 14.
A video message from Oz (Oznowicz remains his real name) and a filmed interview with his father, complete with several historical photographs, contextualizes the puppets with the harrowing details of his parents’ refugee history – details of which, like so many Holocaust family histories, are extraordinary.
In 1940, on the advice of France’s mother, Mike and Frances Oznowicz buried the Hitler doll in a backyard before fleeing Antwerp. Her journey of near misses and strokes of luck stretched across Europe to Morocco and finally the UK. After the war ended, the Oznowiczes returned to Belgium and managed to retrieve the doll while waiting five years for a United States visa.
The Oznowiczes and their three children – Ronald, Frank, and Jenny – eventually settled in Oakland, where they became pillars of the community, being integral to the founding of the San Francisco Puppeteers Guild and regular performers at Children’s Fairyland in Oakland. They taught puppetry to young Frank, who spent his summers performing at Fairyland.
In 1961 he accompanied his parents to the Puppeteers of America Festival in Asilomar, where he met Jim and Jane Henson. At the age of 19, Oz joined Jim Henson’s troupe.
As life went on, the Hitler puppet and others from his parents’ past, including the nightclub musicians and singers who also starred in the show, remained hidden in the family’s attic.
“I never thought in a million years that I would share them,” said Oz, who viewed the ancient puppets as personally significant rather than universally significant.
But when contemporary curator Heidi Rabben, who knew Oz was Jewish, inquired about other stories surrounding the Henson collection, archivist Karen Falk mentioned that she had heard about the Hitler puppet in Oz’s house.
Oz and Rabben see the dolls as a testament to his parents’ great survival skills and courage. Nonetheless, the undeniable allegation of the Hitler puppet prompted the museum to post a content warning outside the exhibition.
The doll itself is a lightweight, 20 inch long, limp doll whose head and limbs are carved from wood so crudely that chisel marks are visible. The obvious craft conveys its disturbing substance; As you gaze at the doll, your attention shifts from the portrayal of the genocidal dictator to the exquisite, loving details.
Given that Hitler threatened the survival of the Oznowiczes and caused After the loss of their home, family and friends, one may marvel at the care the couple devoted to the character. Mike carved semi-circular recesses to accommodate the character’s blinking, piercing eyes, while Frances created a costume that featured neatly sewn, pleated breast pockets. (Oz said his mother could thread a needle with one hand.)
“It’s a way of processing the unimaginable,” Rabben said. “There was a sense of urgency to do something. What can you do in the face of this insurmountable, at this time seemingly inevitable, terror coming right at you and threatening your life. Where do you find the ability to act, motivation, inspiration?”
Your attitude towards Hitler is pretty clear. Rabben points out that unlike the nightclub puppets with larger mouths, the Hitler puppet’s mouth “looks like it was sculpted by hammering a nail to form a tiny little circle, almost as if no sound could come out”. Exaggerated eyelashes and comedic pricked ears make this Hitler goofy.
Unfortunately, humor alone cannot defeat a dictator. This haunting reality clings to the doll like her now tattered clothes. And yet that doesn’t mean that humor is impotent.
“I don’t think anyone would argue that humor alone has the ability to transform something so toxic and massive and structural,” Rabben said. “At the same time, despair certainly doesn’t work. What humor can do is…give you hope, resilience, and relief. Does art in and of itself change the world? Maybe not, but does it generate ideas and expansive thinking and inspiration and energy? Without those things, you can’t achieve that real change.”
Oz goes even further.
“I don’t think you can’t live without him,” he said, meaning humor. “I would probably shoot myself about what’s going on in America today if I didn’t have a sense of humor.”
Oz is fully aware of his own limited political power — “I don’t think this exhibition is going to change the world” — but at least gives hope that some people will “become more aware of refugees, (that) they have more sympathy” after visiting the museum exhibition.
“If someone does something as petty as making fun of Hitler with a doll,” he said, “it’s better than never having done it.”
“Oz is for Oznowicz: The Story of a Puppet Family”: Puppets, video interview, archive photos. 11am-5pm Thursday-Sunday. On view until November 27th. $14-16; free for children 17 and younger. Contemporary Jewish Museum, 736 Mission St., SF 415-655-7800. www.thecjm.org