Marcel Marceau: Grappling with the past through silence

This extraordinary story began with Marceau’s participation in the French underground, when he helped smuggle persecuted Jewish children and forged identity cards.

Marcel Marceau (photo credit: Wikimedia Commons)
Marcel Marceau
(photo credit: Wikimedia Commons)

I did not interview the world-famous mime artist Marcel Marceau, who put the “art of silence” on the world stage. Had I tried, I imagine he would have elegantly said “no” with a swift gesture of the hand, acknowledging the limits of words. For him, the wounds of the past and life’s fragility could only find full expression in the eloquence of silence.
For years, I watched his performances, which epitomized the essence of the human plight in a fashion that novelists fail to render in a short timeframe. Little did I know that such mastery came from open wounds. Marcel Marceau sounded like the commonplace, unremarkable French name of an internationally acclaimed artist who was often invited to perform on shows broadcast on French black and white television channels.
At a young age, Marceau’s mother took him to a Charlie Chaplin film, which inspired him to become a mime. Born Marcel Mangel in Strasbourg, France, in 1923, Marceau, who was 16 when France was at war, fled with his family to Limoges. His father, Charles Mangel, a tall and joyous kosher butcher, was captured by the Vichy police, together with some of his customers. Deported, he perished in Auschwitz.
Ever since, Marceau would feel and express that pain, as well as that of the whole world, as a transnational pantomime. As was the case with a number of Jews who reintegrated into the French nation in the aftermath of World War II, Marcel’s family rid themselves of their “Jewish sounding name” and it became Marceau, the name he had during the war.
This extraordinary story began with Marceau’s participation in the French underground, when he helped smuggle persecuted Jewish children and forged identity cards. The first time he mimed was to save his life and those of Jewish children whom he tried to keep silent. Escaping to neutral Switzerland required perfect control and timing, and Marceau saved hundreds of young lives.
One of the games initiated by his cousin, resistance fighter George Loinger (also a former prisoner of war who escaped from Stalag 7A in 1941), was to play with a ball that would go beyond the dangerous Swiss frontier, a trick to transfer more than 500 children thanks to a smuggling network composed of courageous young women and men.
Philip Mora, a noted documentary filmmaker whose father, George Mora (born Gunter Morawsky), took an active role in the French Resistance with young Marcel, humorously revealed a few lesser known facts of the story of Marceau’s escape with the children he saved from death, led by Loinger: “The Resistance wrapped the identity papers of Jewish children being smuggled over borders in greaseproof paper, smeared them with mayonnaise and inserted them into sandwiches.” The trick came from Mora’s father’s observation that German soldiers hated staining their perfect uniforms with dripping mayonnaise.
Loinger, who turned 107 in August 2017 and whose detailed oral history interviews are housed in the oral archives of the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, recounted that Marceau performed several acts of resistance to the Vichy government and the Nazis. In 1944, Loinger called on his younger cousin to help him smuggle Jewish children from the Parisian suburb of Sèvres to Annemasse, located on the Swiss border. The Resistance commander found his cousin a job as an educator and encouraged his talent as a mime in an OSE (Oeuvre de Secours aux Enfants) home for Jewish children in Sèvres where OSE successfully hid some 30 Jewish children, separated from their parents from a young age. Marceau’s theatrical performances brought the children comfort. Loinger later emphasized that the kids felt safe with Marceau and that although he was never a member of the Resistance, he performed a few acts of resistance that brought him honor.
His story sheds light on the multifaceted role of OSE, founded in Russia in 1912 as a medical aid society. During World War II, it was focused on saving more than 1,000 Jewish children sheltered by this organization.
Marceau, who was fluent in French, English and German, joined the Free French Forces of Charles de Gaulle. In a unit led by the famous General Lattre de Tassigny in Germany, he and a group of French soldiers brought back to their base a group of 30 captured German soldiers, an act Marceau considered his greatest as a soldier.
Marceau’s mother, Anne Mangel (née Werzberg), survived the war. Although Marceau kept the last name he had during the war, his Jewish identity found other ways of expression. He remained faithful to the Jewish value of being his brother’s keeper. And in the aftermath of World War II, he continued performing in OSE homes for Jewish children, which helped facilitate their difficult return to normal life after the traumatic war years. Marceau wanted to help these uprooted children laugh again after the death of their deported parents and close family.
Out of these emotional trials, the character of Bip the Clown naturally arose. In 1947, Marceau performed at the Théâtre de Poche in Paris. With a striped pullover and a battered silk opera hat, the character’s misadventures conveyed the absurdity of life through body language and facial expression. In the early fifties, Marceau was running the only pantomime company in the world. Transcontinental tours led to immense world recognition and impact, including in Israel, China, Japan, Southeast Asia, Russia, Europe, and the United States, where his one-man shows demonstrated the versatility he had shown during the war years.
In 1969, he opened an international school of mime in Paris, where fencing, ballet, and acrobatics were also taught. In 1996, the Marceau Foundation was established to promote mime in America. The pantomime accumulated awards and honors worldwide until his death in 2007, at age 84.
In spite of the looming dangers, Marceau’s father had been reluctant to abandon the butcher’s shop that was his source of livelihood in Strasbourg. Significantly, unlike his father, Marceau was always on the move, and it was then that he managed to transfigure his wounds into art. The famous artist – who performed several times in Israel – became a transnational social actor whose performances (in his own words) made people “laugh through their tears.”
Dr. Françoise S. Ouzan is Senior Research Associate at The Goldstein-Goren Diaspora Research Center at Tel Aviv University and has just published a new book, titled ‘How Young Holocaust Survivors Rebuilt their Lives: France, the United States, and Israel (Indiana University Press, 2018)