Legendary Mime Marcel Marceau Was a Jewish Holocaust Resistance Fighter – Kveller
Skip to Content Skip to Footer

jewish celebrities

Legendary Mime Marcel Marceau Was a Jewish Holocaust Resistance Fighter

Marcel Marceau

via Jack Mitchell/Getty Images

You’ve probably heard the name Marcel Marceau before, or seen — but not heard — his character Bip the clown, who is the subject of today’s Google doodle, on what would’ve been Marceau’s 100th birthday.


via Google

Known commonly as “the greatest mime in the world,” Marceau helped make miming so iconic, with his striped shirt covered by a grey cardigan, that striking white face paint with black embellishments, his pristinely white pants and that funny flower hat. He created so many of the moves that we associate with miming today, including “walking against the wind.” In fact, Michael Jackson said that Marceau even helped inspire his famous Moonwalk.

Yet fewer people know that Marceau was Jewish — and not just that, but a Jewish resistance fighter in wartime France. Born Marcel Mangel in 1923 Strasbourg to Jewish parents, including a kosher butcher father, he actually used his miming skills to help rescue hundreds of Jews from the Nazis.

Jewish actor Jesse Eisenberg played Marceau in the 2020 film “Resistance,” which explores Marceau’s days in the OJC — Organization Juive de Combat, the Jewish resistance network that helped save thousands of Jews during the Holocaust.

“When I learned about this story, I think I really connected to it because it’s really the story of this artist kind of finding a way to use his work for the benefit of other people,” Eisenberg told People that year. “I lost family during the war in these parts of Europe, Marcel’s father is from an area close to where my family is from and where my family died. For so many reasons the story was very potent.”

The reason we know him as Marcel Marceau and not Marcel Mangel is because the actor, writer and famous mime changed his name during the German occupation of his native France in order to pass as a non-Jew when he escaped from his native Strasbourg to Limoges. He and his brother Alain borrowed their new last name from French Revolution general François Séverin Marceau-Desgraviers.

Marceau’s first miming stint was with Jewish children as he tried to keep them hidden and silent while helping to smuggle them from France into Switzerland.

“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,” Marceau recalled in a 2002 interview. He repeated that trip two more times.

“The kids loved Marcel and felt safe with him,” his cousin George Loinger told JTA after Marceau’s death in 2007. “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 rescued dozens of children, helping forge new identities for them thanks to his arts background. Yet there was one person Marceau could not save. His father was caught by the Gestapo in 1944 and deported to Auschwitz, where he was killed.

“You see the pain and the sadness in his mime skits,” Loinger told JTA. “The origin of that pain was his father’s deportation.” In his only “autobiographical” skit, “Bip Remembers,” Marceau explored childhood memories of his father and of the war.

According to Marceau, “Bip is not a Jewish character, I respect our history and suffering and I am sure that the fact I was born a Jew and was in the underground has had an influence. But in my art I belong to the world, beyond religion, to Jews, Christians and even Muslims.”

His first major performance as a mime was to 30,000 U.S. troops after the liberation of Paris. After the war, he studied performing arts in Paris, and came up with Bip in 1947. He also continued to visit a local Jewish orphanage where he helped distract young Jewish children from the anguish of having lost their parents and families to Hitler’s Nazi regime.

Over his decades-long career, Marceau performed his act on TV and across the world, sharing his “art of silence.” He visited Israel with his act three times, where his cousin Yardena Arazi is a famous singer. Marceau also established several miming schools to help train future generations of mimes and entertainers.

Marceau also starred in movies — including in “Barbarella,” where he had his first speaking role, and made a cameo as himself in Mel Brooks’ “Silent Movie.”

Marceau died on Yom Kippur in 2007, and is buried at the famous Père Lachaise cemetery in Paris. His simple stone gravestone is marked with a large Star of David.

Marcel Marceau changed the way we think about art and entertainment forever; the icon of screen and stage has inspired generations of performers. But more than that, he is the reason so many of his fellow Jews survived the Holocaust. May his memory be forever for a blessing.

Skip to Banner / Top Skip to Content