Hektoen International

A Journal of Medical Humanities

Marcel Marceau saved children with silence

Howard Fischer
Uppsala, Sweden

US President Jimmy Carter, Rosalynn Carter, and Amy Carter with Marcel Marceau, 1977. National Archives and Records Administration. Via Wikimedia. 

“The people who came back from the camps were never able to talk about it…”
– Marcel Marceau, French entertainer, explaining why he acted without words

Marcel Marceau (1923–2007) entertained people all over the world for sixty years as a mime. He was born Marcel Mangel in Strasbourg, France, to a Jewish family. After the German invasion of France in 1940, Marcel, his older brother Alain, and their parents moved to Limoges, in the part of France governed by the collaborationist Vichy government. In Limoges, he and his brother changed their last name to Marceau, an old French name, in order to have a name that did not sound Jewish.

A cousin who lived there was a member of the French Jewish Resistance (Organisation Juive de Combat), also called the Jewish Army (Armée Juive). Marcel and Alain were invited to join, and Alain did. Marcel did not officially join, but participated in Resistance activities. He turned out to be a skillful forger and changed the birthdates on the identity cards of young Christian and Jewish Frenchmen, making them too young to be sent to Germany as forced laborers. He helped hide children from the Gestapo and the Vichy police. On three occasions he smuggled groups of children from France to Switzerland, saving between seventy and “several hundred” children. He discovered that by miming he could keep the scared Jewish children quiet and calm during the border crossing.

After the liberation of Paris, he was invited to perform his imitations and miming for 3,000 appreciative Allied soldiers. Because of his fluency in French, German, and English, he was asked to be a liaison officer for General George Patton’s Third Army. By 1947, he had developed his famous character “Bip” (see photo), whom he used for the rest of his career as a mime. Bip was created with Charlie Chaplin’s “Little Tramp,” a persevering underdog, in mind.

Marcel Marceau also wrote two children’s books, published a book of his own paintings, and acted in ten films and dozens of plays. He described his career by saying, “Destiny permitted me to live. This is why I have to bring hope to people who struggle in the world.”

Sources

  • “Marcel Marceau.” Wikipedia.
  • Saul Singer. “Marcel Marceau, holocaust hero.” Jewish Press (Jerusalem), July 2, 2015.
  • Kat Eschner. “The mime who saved kids from the holocaust.” Smithsonian, March 22, 2017.
  • Phil Goldfarb. “Marcel Marceau: The legendary mime who saved Jewish children and fought the Nazis.” The Librarians, June 23, 2020. https://blog.nli.org.il/en/lbh_marceau/

HOWARD FISCHER, M.D., was a professor of pediatrics at Wayne State University School of Medicine, Detroit, Michigan.

Spring 2024

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