Exhibition to present never-before-exhibited marionette that survived Nazi occupation of Belgium, and to tell incredible tale of survival and resistance during World War II
Wednesday, July 13, 2022 (San Francisco, CA) — On July 21, The Contemporary Jewish Museum (The CJM) will open the original exhibition Oz is For Oznowicz: A Puppet Family’s History, which tells the incredible story of the Oznowicz family’s resistance and survival during World War II. The exhibition will present a series of objects that have never before been exhibited, most notably a pre-WWII hand-carved marionette of Adolf Hitler with an extraordinary history. The marionette was created in the late 1930s by Dutch-Jewish puppeteer Isidore (Mike) Oznowicz, and his Flemish-Catholic wife, Frances, as a tool of political satire and resistance, and is being lent to The CJM by his son, Frank Oz, the prolific American actor, film director, and puppeteer. Oz was the closest collaborator of Muppet creator Jim Henson, and Oz originated and performed the characters Miss Piggy, Fozzie Bear, Animal, Sam Eagle, Cookie Monster, Bert, Grover, among others, as well as Yoda in the Star Wars films.
Oz and his siblings have loaned a selection of their parent’s marionettes for the exhibition, including the Hitler marionette and a home video interview Oz conducted with his father nearly fifty years ago about their harrowing escape from Nazi-occupied Belgium. The objects in the exhibition contain a multitude of memories and serve as a representation of the family’s incredible survival story, courageous anti-Nazi efforts, and inspiring family legacy.
"These marionettes hold a very special place in my family’s history. I’m so happy to finally share them publicly, and to honor my parents’ inspiring story and the stories of all refugees. This exhibition also celebrates their contributions to the person I am today. It’s through my parents that I was first introduced to puppeteering and it feels especially poignant for this story to be shared at The CJM and in the Bay Area where they were such active community members and where I grew up and began my career."
The exhibition will overlap with The CJM’s presentation of The Jim Henson Exhibition: Imagination Unlimited, a touring exhibition created by The Museum of the Moving Image. Oz is For Oznowicz offers a very different look at the importance of puppetry and storytelling, and provides context for Oz’s own introduction to the world of puppeteering. This is the first time Oz and his siblings have chosen to publicly share their family story and the heirlooms that help to tell it.
“We feel honored to be able to tell the Oznowicz family’s story at The CJM, and to partner with them in displaying this marionette publicly for the very first time,” said Chad Coerver, Executive Director of The Contemporary Jewish Museum. “The Holocaust is inextricably linked to the experience of being Jewish in America, and with ever fewer survivors left to tell their stories firsthand, we must continue to find ways to bring their experiences to light. This exhibition not only serves to educate visitors about the Holocaust, but also reminds us of the ongoing need to fight back against bigotry and tyranny wherever they arise.”
Prior to WWII, Mike and Frances Oznowicz were accomplished amateur puppeteers in Antwerp, Belgium. A window trimmer and sign painter by trade, Mike learned to hand-carve marionettes from his father, a woodworker, and Frances, a couturier and dressmaker, costumed them. Most notable among the puppets the couple created is the marionette of Adolf Hitler, which they intended to be used as a tool of mockery and resistance during the dictator’s alarming rise to power in the late 1930s.
Bombs began dropping in Antwerp in May of 1940, triggering Mike and Frances’s evacuation from Belgium. Before they escaped, Frances’s mother told them to bury the Hitler marionette for fear of what might happen to them if they were caught with it in transit.
After joining the Dutch Brigades and fighting the Nazis in Europe, Mike took the family back to live in Antwerp, where they dug up the Hitler puppet. Mike waited five years for a work visa, after which the family immigrated to the United States and eventually settled in Oakland, CA in 1951. There, Mike and Frances befriended other puppeteers and became two of the founders of the San Francisco Bay Area Puppeteers Guild. At the annual convention of the National Puppeteers of America, the seventeen-year-old Frank Oz first met Jim Henson and went on to play a formative role in The Jim Henson Company’s productions around the world.
The presentation of the marionette of Adolf Hitler, alongside the story of the Oznowicz family, reflects The CJM’s ongoing commitment to furthering Holocaust education through objects and firsthand stories that encourage conversation and contemplation, and sharing lessons in fighting antisemitism, hate, and authoritarianism today. With very few Holocaust survivors still living, this exhibition serves as a way to continue to fulfill that mission.
For over thirty years The CJM has engaged audiences and artists in exploring contemporary perspectives on Jewish culture, history, art, and ideas. In 2008, The Museum opened a new building designed by internationally renowned architect Daniel Libeskind, providing a lively center where people of all ages and backgrounds can gather to experience art, share diverse perspectives, and engage in educational activities. Inspired by the Hebrew phrase L’Chaim (“to life”), the building is a physical embodiment of The CJM’s mission to bring together tradition and innovation in an exploration of the Jewish experience in the twenty-first century.
Major support for The CJM is generously provided by Craig Newmark Philanthropies; Bank of America; Gaia Fund; Grants for the Arts; Irving and Eleanor Jaffe Foundation; Jewish Community Federation and Endowment Fund; Maribelle and Stephen Leavitt; Joyce B. Linker; Alexandra O. Moses; The Bernard Osher Foundation; Dorothy R. Saxe; Seiger Family Foundation; Ruth S. Stein; and Roselyne C. Swig.
Major support for The CJM Helen Diller Institute is generously provided by The Helen Diller Family Foundation.