The internationally celebrated mime Marcel Marceau became the eleventh recipient of the Wallenberg Medal on April 30, 2001. Rackham Auditorium was standing-room-only that night.
“This year the person chosen to be the Wallenberg Medalist is unlike all previous medalists in that he is famous all over the world,” said University of Michigan professor emerita Irene Butter in her introduction. “Yet he is not widely known for his humanitarianism and acts of courage, for which we honor him tonight.”
Many who learned that Marceau was going to receive the Wallenberg Medal had two questions, said Butter. First, could a mime give a lecture? Second, what had he done to deserve the honor? Butter answered the first question by quoting Marceau: “Never get a mime talking, because he won’t stop.” As for the second question, continued Butter, “Unknown to most, Marcel Marceau experienced early in his life some of the tragedies of World War II. However, until quite recently, he did not speak about those war experiences—experiences which prompted him to risk his life on behalf of others.”
Marceau’s silence was not surprising, according to Butter, herself a Holocaust survivor. “Many, if not most, survivors of the Holocaust were not able to speak about it for nearly half a century,” she said. “Marcel Marceau is known as the Master of Silence—it may have been particularly difficult for him to break the silence about this tragic period in his life,” said Butter. Despite his public reticence about his early life, however, Marceau had spent more than half a lifetime trying to express the tragic moment through his art.
In 1939, the Jews of Strasbourg, France, where Marceau’s family lived, were given two hours to pack their belongings for transport to the southwest of France. Marcel, who was fifteen at that time, fled with his older brother Alain to Limoges, where they joined the underground and adopted the last name
He was schooled in the Paris suburbs at the home of Yvonne Hagnauer, while pretending to be a worker at the school she directed; Hagnauer would later receive the honor of Righteous Among the Nations from Yad Vashem.
Marcel changed the ages on the identity cards of scores of French youths, both Jews and Gentiles. He wanted to make them appear to be too young to be sent away to labor camps or, in the case of the non-Jewish children, to be sent to work in German factories for the German army. Marceau also adopted different poses, including that of a Boy Scout leader, when he put his life at risk to smuggle Jewish children and the children of underground members across the border into Switzerland.
Marceau’s older cousin, resistance commander George Loinger, asked Marcel to help sneak the kids out of an orphanage in the Parisian suburb of Sevres to Annemasse, on the Swiss border. “The kids loved Marcel and felt safe with him,” Loinger told the JTA. “He had already begun doing performances in the orphanage, where he had met a mime instructor earlier on. The kids had to appear like they were simply going on vacation to a home near the Swiss border, and Marcel really put them at ease.” Marceau later said that he used his pantomime skills to keep the children silent during the most dangerous moments.
“Marceau’s talent with body language and mime movement may have saved his life while fighting with the French resistance,” according to Saul Singer. “He claimed he was caught entirely by surprise when he accidentally ran into a unit of German soldiers; quickly improvising, he mimicked an advance guard of a large French force and successfully persuaded the German soldiers to retreat.”
After the liberation of Paris, Marceau joined the French army. Owing to his fluency in English, French, and German, he worked as a liaison officer with General George Patton’s Third Army. “He gave his first major performance to Americans in an army tent before 3,000 soldiers after the liberation of Paris in August 1944,” according to Singer. “He later expressed great pride that his first ‘review’ was in the U.S. Army newspaper, Stars and Stripes.”
In his lecture, he said that he had relied on his acting skills to do this. In 1944, while a member of the Resistance in Paris, Marceau was hidden by a cousin. He was convinced that if Marceau survived the war, he would make an important contribution to the theater. Marceau’s father, a butcher, was captured by the Gestapo and deported to Auschwitz where he died. “If I cry for my father,” said Marceau, “I have to cry for the millions of people who died. “I have to bring hope to people,” Marceau remembered thinking after the war. He had planned to become an artist, but instead decided that he wanted to “make theater without speaking.” He began to study under the great master of mime Etienne Decroux.
Marceau joined Jean-Louis Barrault’s company and was soon cast in the role of Arlequin in the pantomime, Baptiste (which Barrault had interpreted in the film Les Enfants du Paradis). Marceau’s performance won him such acclaim that he was encouraged to present his first
mimodrama, Praxitele and the Golden Fish, at the Bernhardt Theatre that same year. The acclaim was unanimous and Marceau’s career as a mime was firmly established.
In 1947, Marceau created Bip, the clown in the striped jersey and battered opera hat, who has become his alter ego. Bip’s misadventures with everything from butterflies to lions, from ships and trains to dancehalls and restaurants, were limitless. In 1949, following his receipt of the Deburau Prize (established as a memorial to the 19th-century mime master Jean-Gaspard Deburau) for his second mimodrama, Death before Dawn, Marceau founded Compagnie de Mime Marcel Marceau, the only company of pantomime in the world at the time.
In 1969, Marceau opened his first school, École Internationale de Mime, in the Théàtre de la Musique in Paris. The school was open for two years with fencing, acrobatics, ballet and five teachers of Mime.
In 1978, Marceau established his own school, École Internationale de Mimodrame de Paris, Marcel Marceau (International School of Mimodrame of Paris, Marcel Marceau).
In 1996, he established the Marceau Foundation to promote mime in the United States.
As a stylist of pantomime, Marceau was acknowledged without peer. During an interview with CBS in 1987, Marceau tried to explain some of his inner feelings while creating mime, calling it the
art of silence:
In his Wallenberg lecture, Marceau spoke of his piece “Bip Remembers,” where Bip goes out of character for the first time, to become “humanity.” Wave after wave of people are killed, until the last wave witnesses enlightenment. “Pray that this millennium will be less cruel than the twentieth century,” said Marceau. Marcel Marceau closed his talk with his gift of mime. Dressed in mufti, he returned to his world of silence, drawing the audience along and ending the evening with the vision of the flight of a butterfly winging to freedom.
Marceau was married three times: first to Huguette Mallet, with whom he had two sons, Michel and Baptiste; then, to Ella Jaroszewicz, with whom he had no children. His third wife was Anne Sicco, with whom he had two daughters, Camille and Aurélia.
Marcel Marceau passed away at the age of 84 on September 22, 2007.
Marceau published two books for children, the Marcel Marceau Alphabet Book and the Marcel Marceau Counting Book, and poetry and illustrations, including La ballade de Paris et du Monde (The Ballad of Paris and of the World), an art book which he wrote in 1966, and The Story of Bip. In 2001, a new photo book for children titled Bip in a Book was published.
In 2020, the film Resistance premiered telling the story of Marceau’s life.
Sources: The Wallenberg Endowment/University of Michigan.
“Marcel Marceau,” Wikipedia.
Brett Kline, “Marcel Marceau, dead at 84,” JTA, (September 26, 2007).
Saul Jay Singer, “Marcel Marceau, Holocaust Hero,” Jewish Press, (July 2, 2015).
David B. Green, “This Day in Jewish History | 2007: The World's Greatest Mime, Who Saved Jewish Children in WWII, Passes On,” Haaretz, (September 22, 2015).
Kat Eschner, “The Mime Who Saved Kids From the Holocaust,” Smithsonian Magazine, (March 22, 2017).