How Marcel Marceau Started Miming to Save Children from the Holocaust

Image via Wiki­me­dia Com­mons

If we think about the times evil has most notably reared its head, many of our minds go right to the Holo­caust — as, no doubt, did Mar­cel Marceau’s, espe­cial­ly since he had first-hand expe­ri­ence with the hor­ror of the Nazis, hav­ing lost his father in Auschwitz, and even used the art of mime against it.

The Jew­ish Marceau (née Man­gel) got his first expo­sure to mime from a Char­lie Chap­lin film, which he saw at the age of five. Lat­er, when France entered the Sec­ond World War, he and his fam­i­ly moved around the coun­try to flee the Nazis, from whom it became increas­ing­ly dif­fi­cult to hide as time went on. “I was hid­den by my cousin Georges Loinger who was a hero­ic Resis­tance fight­er,” Marceau recount­ed in a 2001 speech. “He said, ‘Mar­cel must hide for a while. He will play an impor­tant part in the the­ater after the war.’ How did he know that? Because he knew that when I was a child I cre­at­ed a the­ater for chil­dren already.”

The skills Marceau cul­ti­vat­ed per­form­ing for oth­er chil­dren came in more than handy not just after the war but dur­ing it, as he per­formed for young­sters on the run from Hitler. ”Marceau start­ed mim­ing to keep chil­dren qui­et as they were escap­ing,” said doc­u­men­tar­i­an Philippe Mora, son of the Resis­tance fight­er who smug­gled refugees along­side Marceau. “It had noth­ing to do with show busi­ness. He was mim­ing for his life.”

“Paris was lib­er­at­ed after the Amer­i­cans entered in August,” said Marceau, “but the war was­n’t fin­ished. Two months before the lib­er­a­tion of France, I entered a famous the­ater school and a mas­ter of mime, Éti­enne Decroux, said to the young stu­dents, ‘Who wants a part?’ And I said I. And I mimed the killer. And the killer was a Nazi, but of course I did­n’t say Nazi.” Impressed with his impromp­tu embod­i­ment of evil, Decroux asked his name. “I said Mar­cel Marceau,” his new sur­name inspired by a gen­er­al who fought in the French Rev­o­lu­tion, the “Marceau on the Rhine” of Vic­tor Hugo’s poem (“and I was born in Stras­bourg on the Rhine,” the artist adds). “That’s a beau­ti­ful name,” said Decroux. And thus the career of a mime leg­end tru­ly began.

Relat­ed Con­tent:

Mar­cel Marceau Mimes the Pro­gres­sion of Human Life, From Birth to Death, in 4 Min­utes

How Alice Herz-Som­mer, the Old­est Holo­caust Sur­vivor, Sur­vived the Hor­rif­ic Ordeal with Music

Mem­o­ry of the Camps (1985): The Holo­caust Doc­u­men­tary that Trau­ma­tized Alfred Hitch­cock, and Remained Unseen for 40 Years

The Touch­ing Moment When Nicholas Win­ton Met the Chil­dren He Saved Dur­ing the Holo­caust

Behind-the-Scenes Footage of Jer­ry Lewis’ Ill-Con­ceived Holo­caust Movie The Day The Clown Cried

Based in Seoul, Col­in Mar­shall writes and broad­casts on cities and cul­ture. He’s at work on a book about Los Ange­les, A Los Ange­les Primer, the video series The City in Cin­e­ma, the crowd­fund­ed jour­nal­ism project Where Is the City of the Future?, and the Los Ange­les Review of Books’ Korea Blog. Fol­low him on Twit­ter at @colinmarshall or on Face­book.

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