March 22 – Happy Birthday, Marcel Marceau

Posted on March 22, 2016

When I think of Marcel Marceau, I think of “Bip the Clown.” I think of mime, the art of silence.

I didn't realize that he was a World War II hero, too!

Marceau wasn't the kind of wartime hero who flies planes and shoots down Nazis. Instead, he lived in hiding, worked with the French Resistance, worked as a liaison officer with General George Patton's U.S. forces, and saved a lot of kids from the Holocaust!

Actually, he used mime to save those children.

Marcel was born who was born Marcel Mangel on this date in 1923. His family was Jewish, and his father was a kosher butcher. When France entered World War II, Marcel was 15 or 16, and he and his family fled from the Nazis. Unfortunately, his father was captured and deported to the Auschwitz concentration camp, where he was killed. 

France fell to Germany, and Nazis occupied Marcel's nation. That's when he and his younger brother changed their last name to Marceau. They went to work to resist the Nazis and to save fellow French citizens from Hitler -- and especially fellow Jews from the concentration camps. 

The reason that Marceau was used as a liaison officer was because he could speak two other languages, English and German, in addition to French – a very useful skill during a world war!

I hope you are wondering how Marceau used mime to save Jewish children. When he was a child, Marceau had been inspired by a Charlie Chaplin film, and he had acted and performed for other children many times. Now an older teen and young adult, Marceau was able to communicate with youngsters silently as they were in hiding and on the run from the Nazis. He was also able to keep them quiet and calm by performing for them, as they escaped.

Documentarian Philippe Mora said of Marceau, “He was miming for his life.”

Marceau pretended to be a Boy Scout director leading campers on hikes in the Alps. But what he was really doing was smuggling Jewish kids into Switzerland. He did this journey from France to Switzerland three times.

Marceau also developed skills in forgery. He used red crayons and black ink to alter the ages of Jewish French youths on their identity cards. That way he “proved” that the kids were too young to go to labor camps. He forged papers, helped kids look younger for ID photographs, and when he had to, he even bribed officials to accept the cards and papers.

I'm not sure how many people Marceau was able to save, but several sources said “hundreds.” Which is amazing!

Marceau's first big performance as an adult was to Americans in an army tent, just after the liberation of Paris. There he did his mime acts in front of 3,000 U.S. soldiers.

Another mime act in front of soldiers, earlier than that, may have saved his life. Marceau accidentally ran into a unit of German soldiers, and he used his acting skills to make those soldiers think he was the advance guard of a large force of French soldiers. Instead of killing the lone Marceau, the German soldiers panicked and retreated!

Talk about acting for your life!

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