The legendary mime Marcel Marceau was famous around the world. But perhaps his most impressive acts have mostly gone unknown. For while Marceau is the best known mime of all time, it is less well known that he was a Holocaust survivor who saved the lives of Jewish children during Nazi occupation. This quiet hero was a man who knew firsthand that actions speak louder than words.
Marceau was born Marcel Mangel to Jewish parents in Strasbourg in the Alsace region in eastern France in 1923. His father, Charles Mangel, was a kosher butcher born in Bedzin in Poland while his mother, Anne Mangel (née Werzberg), came from an Alsatian Jewish family that had been in the area for years. Her family was not unusual. Many Jews in Strasbourg and the broader area of Alsace-Lorraine had been in the region for generations. Long an important center of French Jewry, Alsace is home to one of the oldest Jewish communities in Europe—perhaps as old as 1,000 years.
There may have been a long Jewish tradition in Strasbourg but young Marcel received a modern upbringing. He was exposed to art, literature and popular culture. When he was 5 years old, his mother took him to see a Charlie Chaplin film and, entranced, Marcel then and there decided to become a mime.
But Nazi Germany invaded France in summer 1940, and took less than two months to defeat the country. It was a shockingly quick capitulation by France, whose politicians and populace had believed it had one of the strongest armies in the world. After France fell, the Nazis divided the country into two: an occupied zone in the north and a free zone in the south. Paris was in the occupied zone, while Vichy became the capital of the “free zone” and was the seat of the French government that was established by and collaborated with the Germans.
Germany annexed the Mangels’ home region of Alsace and Lorraine in the west of France. Boarding Germany, the area has long been strongly influenced by German culture and the Nazis considered it to be rightfully theirs. Naturally with German annexation the local Jews were in grave danger. So much of the Jewish population, including the Mangel family, evacuated Strasbourg as soon as France entered the war. But they were still in peril.
The Mangels fled to Limoges, a town in the center of France that was in the free zone. There the remarkable headmaster at the high school at which young Marcel studied did his best to help his Jewish students. A veteran of World War I, Principal Joseph Storck saved the lives of many Jews by giving them false identity documents that he printed clandestinely. Sorck also hid children during searches by the Gestapo and their collaborators, the French militia.
One of the children Storck saved was Marcel Mangel. Another, Lazare Landau, who became a prominent historian at the University of Strasbourg, recalled, “I was 12 or 13 at the time, and Joseph Storck even offered to take me into his family as one of his own to protect me, but my parents refused. But he hid me on the day that the militia came to look for me.”
When the Gestapo increased their arrests and deportations at the start of 1943, Joseph Storck put endangered Jewish children in foster families, and did not allow the Vichy regime’s police access to his school. When 11 young members of the resistance were arrested and interned in a prison camp, Stock defended them at a tribunal and negotiated their release on the pretext of needing to sit school exams. For his efforts on behalf of Jewish children, Yad Vashem declared Strock a “Righteous Among the Nations” in 1998.
Unfortunately, those Storck could save were the exceptions. The majority of Jews in France were deported East. This majority included Marcel’s father. On March 7, 1944, Charles Mangel was arrested and deported as part of the convoy number 69 from Bobigny train station to Auschwitz. There were 1,501 deportees onboard that day. Three days after they left France, 1,311 were gassed to death on their arrival at the camp. By 1945, only 20 of the 1,501 deported survived.
A couple of years before his father’s murder, in 1942, Marcel Mangel’s joined the French resistance movement in Limoges. He did so on the encouragement of his cousin Georges Loinger, who became a famous resistant. As a member of the underground resistance, Mangel took the pseudonym Marceau. He took the name from a line in Victor Hugo’s Les Châtiments that speaks of “Joubert at the Adige [river] and Marceau at the Rhine.” “I was born at the base of the Rhine,” Marceau later explained, “and wanted to drive the Germans out of France.”
While in the underground, Marceau and his brother Alain helped to hide Jewish children from the Gestapo and French police, which collaborated with the Nazis. In order to make the children appear too young to be sent to labor camps, Marceau changed the ages on their identity cards. Most brazenly and bravely, he would also pose as a leader of a Boy Scout group and under the pretense of taking his charges camping, would smuggle Jewish children and the children of resistance fighters across the border to safety in neutral Switzerland.
While the majority of France was collaborating or complicit with German occupation, the future mime Marceau and other members of the French resistance undertook unspeakably brave acts. But despite his wartime bravery, it was for his postwar career that Marceau became known around the world.
In 1947, Marceau created a character named Bip who would become his alter ego. A clown with a striped top, rumpled hat and doleful eyes, “This character Bip is a funny, sad fellow,” Marceau said, “and things are always happening to him that could happen to anybody. Because he speaks with the gestures and the movement of the body, everyone knows what is happening to him, and he is popular everywhere — Scandinavia, Germany, Holland, Belgium, Italy, Austria, wherever he has traveled.”
Of course while language makes us human and connects people, actions without words are universally understandable. So Marceau’s brand of mime was exportable around the world while somehow seeming quintessentially French. This universality is explored in one of Marceau’s most philosophical, and perhaps most profound, bits, called “Youth, Maturity, Old Age, Death,” which silently portrays an entire life in a matter of minutes.
Marceau became known around the world, and sometimes was more highly regarded abroad than in his home country. But in the course of his long, high profile career he received some of France’s highest honors, including being made a Chevalier de la Légion d’Honneur for cultural affairs in 1970. Eight years later, the mayor of Paris used public funds to subsidize the creation of a Marcel Marceau mime school, which has produced hundreds of mimes.
When Marcel Marceau died in September 2007, the man born Marcel Mangel to a Polish Jewish immigrant and a French Jew was buried in Paris’ prestigious Père Lachaise cemetery. Marceau had had a remarkable life. Most remarkably he had survived the Holocaust that took the lives of so many Jews in France, including his father, and had saved the lives of other Jews. But of course Marceau didn’t talk much about it. He let his actions speak louder than words. For, as he once said, “Do not the most moving moments of our lives find us without words?”