We choose to learn some hobbies for our entertainment, be it ballet dancing, belly dancing, longboarding, or motocross racing. In Marcel Marceau’s case, it was the silent art of miming. His miming skills, however, were not honed in a theater but rather in the chaotic stage of World War II when he had to keep the children entertained and quiet at the same time as they sneak past Nazi patrols and onto the safety of the Swiss border. It was not a question of whether his audience was entertained or not. His performance was a matter of life and death for him and the children he was trying to smuggle out.

One of the Millions

Before Marcel Marceau took the limelight with his white face paint, mesmerizing movements, and world-class silent acting techniques. Marcel’s family was just one of the millions of Eastern European Jews who traveled westward. They hoped to seek better work opportunities and living conditions in the central European empires. He was born Marcel Mangel in 1923, and his family settled in Strasbourg. His family joined the more than 200,000 people who wanted to escape the deprivation and killings in the east.

As a kid, he grew up in a simple life of helping out in his father’s butcher shop. But, at age five, he already knew who Charlie Chaplin was. Soon, he started imitating his favorite actor’s distinctive physical comedy style and started dreaming of being an actor in silent movies someday.

Chaplin in the role of the tramp (1915). (P.D Jankens, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons)

He also loved playing with other children because, as he said, “my imagination was king. I was Napoleon, Robin Hood, the Three Musketeers, and even Jesus on the Cross.”

From Mangel to Marceau

Marcel was 17 when the Nazis invaded France in 1940. Like most others, his family feared for the safety and left Strasbourg in packed trains. They moved from one home to another across the country so that the Nazis would not hopefully find and take them.

As for Marcel, he was still fortunate enough to be able to continue his studies in Périgueux and Limoges and continue to hone his visual arts skills. After that, however, he needed to change his name to something that didn’t sound Jewish, and his choice was that of the revolutionary general Francois Severin Marceau-Desgraviers.

Joining the Resistance

Despite the constant danger of deportation and death that the French Jews faced, Marceau was safe, thanks to his cousin Georges Loinger, who ensured he was protected, saying, “Marcel must hide for a while. However, he will play an important part in the theater after the war.”

Marceau was also fortunate to have a chance to stay at the home of Yvonne Hagnauer, a boarding school director who sheltered many Jewish children throughout the war.

Perhaps the people who protected him were what inspired the 18-year-old Marceau and his brother Alain to join the French underground resistance and where he made use of his drawing skills to fake identity cards for Jewish children.

Miming Skills Came in Handy

For months, he forged identity cards for the children and the other Resistance group members. Afterward, he joined the Organisation Juive de Combat-OJC or Armée Juiv (Jewish Army), whose goal was to keep Jewish civilians from danger. Marceau was assigned to lead groups of children and bring them to safe houses for evacuation.

Publicity photo of Marcel Marceau for appearance in Seattle, Washington. (press photo, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons)

Working with children was problematic since they could get scared quickly. Fortunately for Marceau, he had a natural talent for putting the children at ease, and they felt safe with him. In an interview, he recalled,

I went disguised as a Boy Scout leader and took 24 Jewish kids, also in scout uniforms, through the forests to the border, where someone else would take them into Switzerland.

Here was where his miming skills came in handy to entertain his young audience, communicate with them silently, and keep them calm while sneaking past German patrols. Marceau made three trips back and forth, saving more than 70 children.

After four long years of enduring, the Germans were finally pushed out of Paris, and many rushed back to the capital, including Marceau. As for the Allied soldiers, they began hearing rumors of a funny young French mine who could show all sorts of emotions, situations, or reactions without making a sound. So with that, Marceau had his very first professional performance in front of some 3,000 US troops.

“After the war I didn’t want to speak about my personal life. Not even that my father was deported to Auschwitz and never came back. I cried for my father, but I also cried for the millions of people who died. And now we had to reconstruct a new world.”

Marceau chose to channel all the pain in his art, and the result was the persona of Bip, a comic hero with a white face and a rose in his hat. For the next fifty years, he would delight his audiences throughout the Americas, Europe, the Middle East, and the Pacific, with only a few of them, if not totally zero, having an idea that the performer in front of them played an essential part on the stage of WWII.