Photo Credit: Jewish Press

Marcel Marceau (1923-2007), a western cultural icon universally recognized as “The World’s Greatest Mime,” performed professionally worldwide for over 60 years and became virtually synonymous with style pantomime, which he referred to as the “art of silence.”

His performances, which included such classic works as “The Cage,” “The Mask Maker,” “In The Park,” and “Walking Against the Wind” (which Michael Jackson imitated for what became his famous “moonwalk”), were universally recognized as works of sheer genius. His brilliant summation of the ages of man in the famous “Youth, Maturity, Old Age and Death,” according to at least one critic, “accomplishes in less than two minutes what most novelists cannot do in volumes.”

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Marceau performed in Israel on several occasions, the first time in 1949. Displayed here is a ticket to one of his Israel performances, on the back of which he signed his name and added the name of his signature character, “Bip,” complete with a drawing of Bip’s iconic red flower.

Marceau first presented the chalk-faced Bip, whom he called “the dreamy little poet,” in 1947. Modeled after his movie hero, Charlie Chaplin’s Little Tramp, Bip was the classic underdog dressed in a striped shirt, white sailor pants, and a battered top hat with a single red flower sprouting from the lid. Marceau himself characterized Bip as his “alter ego,” a sad-faced doppelgänger, a modern everyman and free spirit whose eyes light up with childlike wonder as he discovers the world during his various misadventures.

Marceau suggested a dark reason for his wordless art: “The people who came back from the [concentration] camps were never able to talk about it…. My name is Mangel. I am Jewish. Perhaps that, unconsciously, contributed towards my choice of silence.”

Marceau was born in Strasbourg, France, as Marcel Mangel, son of a kosher butcher. During the German occupation of France, he and his brother, Alain, hid their identities as Jews and adopted the last name “Marceau” to honor François Séverin Marceau-Desgraviers, a general during the French Revolution.

While many know Marceau as the greatest mime of all time, few know he was an authentic Jewish hero who saved many Jewish lives, particularly children, during the Holocaust.

In 1939, when the Nazis marched into eastern France, the Jews of Strasbourg were given just two hours to pack for transport to the southwest of France and Marceau, fifteen at the time, fled with Alain to Limoges, where they joined the French underground. Using red crayons and black ink, he skillfully altered the ages of Jewish French youths on their identity cards, “proving” them too young to be sent to labor camps.

Marceau also was active in hiding Jewish children from the Gestapo and the Vichy French police. Later, when the French Jewish Resistance decided to evacuate the Jewish children hidden in an orphanage west of Paris, commander George Loinger asked Marceau, his first cousin, to carry out the mission. Masquerading as a Boy Scout director leading campers on hikes in the Alps, he put his own life at risk and saved countless Jewish children by smuggling them into Switzerland. He undertook this perilous journey three times, using mime to keep the younger children quiet and calm to facilitate their escape.

Marceau’s talent with body language and mime movement may have saved his life while fighting with the French resistance. He claimed he was caught entirely by surprise when he accidentally ran into a unit of German soldiers; quickly improvising, he mimicked an advance guard of a large French force and successfully persuaded the German soldiers to retreat.

Word of Marceau’s pantomime antics spread among the troops. He gave his first major performance to Americans in an army tent before 3,000 soldiers after the liberation of Paris in August 1944. He later expressed great pride that his first “review” was in the U.S. Army newspaper, Stars and Stripes.

In 1944, Marceau’s mother headed to Perigueux, in the south of France, with her two sons, but when the situation became too dangerous, they fled to Paris, where Marcel continued to work in the underground. After Paris was liberated, he enlisted in the Free French Army under General Charles de Gaulle and, owing to his excellent command of English, French, and German, was selected to serve as a liaison officer with General George S. Patton.

At the end of the war Marceau returned to his native Strasbourg, only to learn that his father had been captured in 1944 and deported to Auschwitz, where he was murdered. He later incorporated this shattering experience into one of his most complex sketches, “Bip Remembers,” in which, as he explained, “I go back in memory to my childhood home, how my father took me on a carousel, I show life and death in war, I show Hitler and waves of soldiers being mowed down by machine guns.”

“Bip Remembers” is the only piece in his extensive repertoire in which he deliberately drew on his Jewish experience:

 

Bip is not a Jewish character. I respect our history and suffering and I am sure that the fact I was born a Jew and was in the underground has had an influence. But in my art I belong to the world, beyond religion, to Jews, Christians, and even Muslims.

 

In summing up his religious beliefs, he tells a story about being approached by 35 priests after a performance of “Creation of the World,” a pantomime sketch based upon the Genesis account of creation, who asked him if he was religious. “I answered, ‘I do not practice religion but when I do ‘Creation of the World,’ God enters in me.” As early as 2002, he foresaw the growing anti-Semitism in his beloved France and, though he expressed deep concern about the surge of Jew hatred there, he was certain that “we will overcome it” and was optimistic that “fascism will not succeed in France.”

In a rare 2001 interview he granted to a freelance journalist, Marceau summarized his views on Judaism and the Holocaust:

 

I was brought up in a Jewish home, but I was brought up to be human, not fanatical, which is something that I don’t appreciate at all. I learned to become a humanist, and not to dwell on the differences between Jews and Christians.

I must be honest and tell you that I do feel slightly uncomfortable with people dwelling on this Jewish aspect of my life. I have the greatest respect for the sufferance of the Holocaust – my father died in Auschwitz – so I am perfectly well aware of what happened. But this did not make me superior to other people.

I have never been a victim of anti-Semitism – if you put to one side my wartime experience. That said, I am lucky not to have been sent into a concentration camp. I produced false papers, I took Jewish children to Switzerland when I was a teenager…. The memory of the Holocaust is so important though…. I am happy that the memory of the Holocaust is kept alive, so that such a tragedy can never begin again.

 

On April 30, 2001, Marceau was cited for his humanitarianism and acts of courage in aiding Jews during the Holocaust when he was awarded the Wallenberg Medal, which is bestowed by the United States Raoul Wallenberg Committee to “individuals, organizations, and communities whose courage, selflessness and success against great odds personified those of Raoul Wallenberg himself.” Many who learned that Marceau was going to receive the medal asked, tongue firmly in cheek, if a mime could be expected to give the Award lecture, to which he famously replied: “Never get a mime talking, because he won’t stop.”

Interestingly, Marceau died on Yom Kippur. As such, and in accordance with Jewish tradition, this great Jewish hero had the zechut (merit) to die with the proverbial clean slate, having been forgiven by God for all his sins.

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Saul Jay Singer serves as senior legal ethics counsel with the District of Columbia Bar and is a collector of extraordinary original Judaica documents and letters. He welcomes comments at saul.singer@verizon.net.