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The story of Marcel Marceau, the most famous mime who saved more than 400 children from the Nazis

Marcel Marceau took his silent art to the whole world (Shutterstock)

Seen from afar, the scene was strange. Almost surreal. And repeated over time… A long line of children walking on a road between France and Switzerland, led by a strange man. A kind of clown who dances, does pirouettes, does not speak, and with an index finger crossed over his lips, asks for silence.

But let’s get closer.

The children are Jewish. commands them Georges Loingercousin of the dancer and head of the secret unit of the French Resistance called Children’s Relief Work: Jewish aid group that rescued children, also Jews, from the terror of France occupied by Nazi troops…

History will say that the intrepid and long-lived Loinger – he died in 2018 at the age of 108 – and his partner they saved about 400 children held in an orphanage.

The dancing and silent clown was Marcel Manguel (Strasbourg, 1923-Cahors, 2007), which after the war would be called “the poet of silence“: silence that helped him save another hundred children. And what he would say: “Traveling with large groups of them was not easy at all, and very dangerous, because the Nazi soldiers at the checkpoints were stupid… but not that stupid. My secret weapon was my mime training. We played at no one talking. Neither me nor them. They marched, they laughed, I think they loved me, and I know that many years later they understood that I was fighting for their lives.”

His real name was Marcel Manguel.  He changed his last name to Marceau to escape Nazism (Shutterstock)
His real name was Marcel Manguel. He changed his last name to Marceau to escape Nazism (Shutterstock)

But the childhood of Marcel and his brother Alain was even more dramatic than that of those saved from the assassins of the Third Reich…

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Migrants since the age of four and sons of a Jewish butcher imprisoned by the Gestapo and deported to the Auschwitz extermination camp, from which he never returned, changed their Jewish “Manguel” for “Marceau” to elude the invader’s claw. surname inspired by Francois Severin Marceau-DesgraviersGeneral of the French Resistance. Inspiration that prompted them to enlist in the rebel groups of Limoges, where many of their famous porcelains were stolen by Nazi leaders and – even worse – destroyed by the boots of the soldiery. Because “evil always insists”: words of Albert Einstein.

They fought bravely against the forces of Charles de Gaulle’s Free France, and for Marcel a second and luminous life began… The moment of epiphany happened in the darkness of a movie theater. In the audience, Marcel. On the screen, Chaplin. Charles. Charlotte. When the lights came on and Marcel stepped out into the street, that second life was on the top card of the deck: he walked to the Charles Dullin Academy of Dramatic Art that throbbed in the theater with a mythical name: Sarah Bernhardt. The maximum. She was born in 1844 and died in 1923: the same year that Marcel came into this world… Those symmetries that, according to Borges, destiny likes so much.

His Majesty the Talent did not take long to break through. Already attached to the company, they gave him the role of Harlequin –no less– in the pantomime “Baptiste”.

Marcel Marcear with Sting, at the London Royal Festival in 1997 (Shutterstock)
Marcel Marcear with Sting, at the London Royal Festival in 1997 (Shutterstock)

Arrived in 1947, and perhaps mimicking Chaplin when he entered a dressing room and chose –for eternity– the bowler hat, the cane and the impossible jacket, pants and shoes, Marceau became “Bip”: face painted white lead (purely white lead carbonate), intense red lips, plain sweater with stripes down the middle, top hat that looked as if it had been crushed by the wheels of a car and adorned with a slightly withered flower that, according to he, symbolized “the fragility of life”, its ephemeral existence…, and he was silent: condition sine qua non of the mime

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Sad mime like Chaplin’s tramp, with “hands as expressive as Michelangelo’s” -according to The Indianapolis Star– and a body adaptable to any role like water to any container, achieved brief and unforgettable hits: Bip with butterflies, with lions, on ships, trains, restaurants, walking against the wind – remarkable workhorse –, always halfway between the two theater masks: trage and comedy. And later, long pieces in theaters around the world –except in countries governed by dictators and violators of human rights–, with more than three hundred performances per year: almost one per day!

of his short piece "Young, old, old and death" one reviewer said: "It accomplishes in less than two minutes what most novelists fail to accomplish in their volumes."
Of his short piece “Young, Mature, Old, and Death,” one critic said: “He accomplishes in less than two minutes what most novelists fail to accomplish in their volumes.”

From his short piece “Young, old, old and deathsaid one reviewer: “It accomplishes in less than two minutes what most novelists fail to accomplish in their volumes.”

In a thousand and one interviews he affirmed his creed: “I don’t speak: that inner cry is enough to bare the soul… I work for peace: I am an activist for that cause so many times lost… Bip is a hero without age, without time, and with eternal hope… Silence is infinite: the limits are set by the word…” And a fine joke: “Never ask a mime to speak: he will never be silent!”

He went through the cinema with another unforgettable gag: in “The Last Madness of Mel Brooks”, 1976, he is the only character who speaks: he says “No!, and not a word more…

Creator of the School of Mimes of Paris, married three times, four children, “Jew with Buddhist leanings“(verbatim), died on September 22, 2007, at the age of 84.

Marceau died on September 22, 2007, at the age of 84.
Marceau died on September 22, 2007, at the age of 84.

He is buried in the mythical Pere Lachaise cementery, alongside the greatest of the greats: from Oscar Wilde to Frédéric Chopin, from Edith Piaf to Jim Morrison… on the corner of Cyrano de Bergerac. For her heroism during World War II she was awarded the Legion of Honor. For his life and work as an artist, those of Knight of the Order of Academic Palms and Commander of Arts and Letters. He started performing in Argentina in 1951, and at the age of 82 he graced the stage of the Colón.

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He only turned down contracts during military dictatorships.

In silence, a man of his word.

(This text by Alfredo Serra was published in Infobae in 2019)

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