As we go through this life, often we never know what is hiding behind someone’s happy face. Sometimes it is unspeakable pain and sometimes it is unheralded
bravery. As Believers, we can understand that this is part of the purpose of showing the love of Jesus to everyone. Until we build a close enough relationship with someone to get behind the mask….we truly don’t know the full story of what they are going through, or who they really are. Christian or not, therein also lies the wonder and the power of a personal testimony:
Marcel Marceau’s silent clown face masked just such an unexpected story. Those of a certain age, may remember this artist from regular appearances on television programs such as the iconic Ed Sullivan Show. Marceau was mysterious, exquisite and infinitely memorable. Indeed, Marceau’s extraordinary talent for pantomime entertained audiences all around the world for over sixty years. However, most of his fans never had any idea that originally, his silent talent saved hundreds of Jewish children during the Holocaust.
In 1923 he was born to a Jewish family in Strasbourg, France. Young Marcel Mangel discovered Charlie Chaplin at age five and soon became a huge fan. He entertained his friends with Chaplin imitations, and had aspirations of one day starring in silent movies himself.
When Marcel was 16, the Nazis marched into France, and the Jews of Strasbourg – near the German border – had to flee for their lives. Marcel changed his last name to Marceau to avoid being identified as Jewish, and joined the French resistance movement.
Masquerading as a boy scout, Marcel evacuated a Jewish orphanage in eastern France. He told the children he was taking them on a vacation in the Alps, and led them to safety in Switzerland. Marcel made this perilous journey three times, saving hundreds of Jewish orphans. He was able to avoid detection and keep the little children quiet by entertaining them with silent pantomime.
Documentary filmmaker Phillipe Mora, whose father fought alongside Marcel in the French resistance, said, “Marceau started miming to keep children quiet as they were escaping. It had nothing to do with show business. He was miming for his life.’’ And for theirs.
Marcel’s father perished at Auschwitz. Marcel later said, “The people who came back from the camps were never able to talk about it. My name is Mangel. I am Jewish. Perhaps that, unconsciously, contributed towards my choice of silence.”
While fighting with the resistance, Marcel once ran into a unit of German soldiers. Thinking fast, he mimicked the advance of a large French force, and the German soldiers retreated.
Word spread throughout the Allied forces of Marcel’s remarkable talent as a mime. In his first major performance, Marcel entertained 3,000 US troops after the liberation of Paris in August 1944. Later in life, he expressed great pride that his first review was in the US Army newspaper, Stars and Stripes.
According to a January 2016 article by Essia Cartoon-Fredman for The Accidental Talmudist: In 1947, Marcel created his beloved character Bip, a childlike, “everyman” with a stovepipe hat and a red carnation. For the next six decades, Marcel was the world’s foremost master of the art of silence. Pop star Michael Jackson credited Marcel with inspiring his famous moonwalk.
In 2001, Marcel was awarded the Wallenberg Medal for his acts of courage during the Holocaust. When the award was announced, people speculated on whether Marcel would give an acceptance speech.
He replied, “Never get a mime talking, because he won’t stop.”
Until his death at age 84, Marcel performed 300 times a year and taught 4 hours a day at his pantomime school in Paris. He died on Yom Kippur, 2007.
Most who saw him perform never knew the man behind the mask or the incredible stories that he might have told. For risking his life to save orphans, and entertaining generations of fans without uttering a word, we honor Marcel Marceau and remember his Happy Face.