Marcel Marceau: The Legendary Mime Who Saved Jewish Children and Fought Nazis

"Marceau started miming to keep children quiet as they were escaping"

Marcel Marceau. From the Yossi Alfi Archive, accessible through a collaboration between the Ministry of Jerusalem and Heritage, the National Library of Israel and Haifa University.

He was born Marcel Mangel on March 22, 1923 in Strasbourg, France, to a Jewish family. His parents were Ann Werzberg Mangel and Charles Mangel, a kosher butcher. Young Marcel Mangel discovered Charlie Chaplin at age five when his mother took him to the movies and he became an avid fan. He entertained his friends with Chaplin imitations, and dreamed of starring in silent movies.

When France entered World War II, Marcel, 16, fled with his family to Limoges, France. In 1944 Marcel’s father was captured and deported to the Auschwitz concentration camp, where he was killed. Marcel’s mother survived.

Marcel and his younger brother Alain adopted the last name “Marceau” during the German occupation of France to avoid being identified as Jewish. The name was chosen as a reference to François Séverin Marceau-Desgraviers, a general of the French Revolution. The two brothers joined the French Resistance in Limoges, where they saved hundreds of Jewish children from the race laws and concentration camps, and after the liberation of Paris, joined the French army.

The first time Marcel used mime was after France was invaded, in order to keep Jewish children quiet while he helped them escape to neutral Switzerland.

“He was miming for his life.” Image from the Yossi Alfi Archive, accessible through a collaboration between the Ministry of Jerusalem and Heritage, the National Library of Israel and Haifa University.

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 the perilous journey three times, saving hundreds of Jewish orphans. He was able to avoid detection by entertaining the children with silent pantomime. The 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.” While fighting with the French resistance, Marcel 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. Owing to Marcel’s excellent command of the English, French, and German languages, he worked as a liaison officer with General George Patton’s army.

An American officer and French partisan crouch behind a car during a street fight in France, 1944. (Public Domain: National Archives and Records Administration)

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” which was first played at the Théâtre de Poche (Pocket Theatre) in Paris. In his appearance he wore a striped pullover and a battered, beflowered, stovepipe silk opera hat. The outfit signified life’s fragility and Bip became his alter ego, just as the “Little Tramp” became Charlie Chaplin’s. Bip’s misadventures with everything from butterflies to lions, from ships and trains, to dance-halls or restaurants, were limitless.

Program for Marcel Marceau’s 1966 appearance in Israel. From the Yossi Alfi Archive, accessible through a collaboration between the Ministry of Jerusalem and Heritage, the National Library of Israel and Haifa University.

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.”

Marcel Marceau died at the racetrack in Cahors, France, on 22 September 2007, which happened to be Yom Kippur, at the age of 84. At his burial ceremony, the second movement of Mozart’s Piano Concerto No. 21 (which Marceau long used as an accompaniment for an elegant mime routine) was played, as was Bach’s Cello Suite No. 5.

Marcel Marceau was interred in the Père Lachaise Cemetery in Paris. In 1999 New York City declared 18 March “Marcel Marceau Day”.



Many thanks to the author and JewishGen for permission to republish this article. It appears here as part of Gesher L’Europa, the National Library of Israel’s initiative to connect with people, institutions and communities in Europe and beyond.


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The Heroine Who Rescued Jewish Girls from Lebanon and Syria

The riots of the "Farhud" in Iraq convinced Rachel Yanait Ben-Zvi that time was running out for Jews living in Arab countries in the 1940s

Girls from Damascus on a worker's farm ("Meshek HaPoalot") in the Land of Israel, early 1944, from the book 'On a Mission to Lebanon and Syria' by Rachel Yanait Ben-Zvi (Hebrew)

She was a revolutionary, a passionate Zionist and among the founders of the Jewish defense organization Hashomer. She was also one of only two women in the group. It’s difficult to think of a Zionist humanitarian project in which Rachel Yanait Ben-Zvi wasn’t involved during the establishment of the Jewish and democratic state her generation had always dreamed of.

Of all her various activities, her top priority was immigration to the Land of Israel. Ben-Zvi was especially concerned with the immigration of young women, as well as their training. These young women needed to acquire the skills that would benefit the Zionist project. While most people of her generation perhaps preferred to wait for a later opportunity, or perhaps were not at all concerned with the matter, Ben-Zvi saw great importance in bringing Jews of Arab origin to the ‘state in-the-making’, as soon as possible. When she identified a window of opportunity to realize this great dream, she immediately pursued it.

It was the events of the Farhud – the horrific massacre in Baghdad on June 1st, 1941, in which 179 members of the Jewish community were murdered – that convinced Rachel Yanait Ben-Zvi that time was running out for the Jews of the Arab world. Since access to Baghdad was practically inaccessible, “an idea had come up; to​bring young women from the neighboring Arab countries – Lebanon and Syria.”

The mass grave of the victims of the Baghdad Farhud, from the book Iraq, edited by Haim Saadoun (Hebrew)

Ben-Zvi met with Henrietta Szold, the coordinator of the Youth Aliyah organization, spoke with children who emigrated from Syria on their own and promised to bring as many young women as possible to Mandatory Palestine and train them in agriculture. Szold provided her with fifty immigration certificates (issued by the British) for the mission. There was concern that if she were to gather too many young women, the British would deny them entry into Israel.

From Jerusalem, Ben-Zvi headed out to Beirut. She relied on connections she had formed with Beirut community leaders during their visit to Mandatory Palestine and promptly met with Joseph Farhi. Many were opposed to the journey, arguing that “in Jewish homes in these countries girls are not allowed to leave the house,” and concluded that she would not be able to persuade the families to let the young women leave.

Despite the help she received from activists of HeChalutz, the Zionist underground organization, the task of swaying the families indeed turned out to be quite challenging: In many families, the father had immigrated to Latin America and mothers “looked forward to joining the head of the family overseas with their children, and, for the time being, were apprehensive about separating from the girls selected for Aliyah [Jewish immigration to the Land of Israel].”

“The mothers hear that I am looking for girls ages 13 and 14 and are already concerned about their future because at 16 or 17 years old they marry their daughters off. I reassure them, explaining that the girls will be accepted to the settlement project, where they will not be held back from getting married, raising families and bringing their relatives from Beirut to Israel.”

That was exactly the answer the worried families wanted to hear.

Jewish youths engage in group exercise, Damascus, 1943, from the book, Syrian Jewry, the Children’s Aliyah – Part 2 (Hebrew)

From the moment she arrived in Damascus, Ben-Zvi was struck by the vibrant Zionist activity in the Syrian capital, which easily overshadowed the relatively dormant Beirut underground organization. She was impressed by the Jewish youth’s strong desire to immigrate to Israel, even at the price of bitter arguments with their parents.

The eagerness and urgency expressed by the Youth Aliyah representative alarmed the activists who accompanied her: They demanded that Ben-Zvi refrain from speaking Hebrew even inside the Jewish ghetto. Only at the home of the community leader was she allowed to speak freely. She spoke to the dignitaries in Hebrew and French and was pleased to see that “the idea of ​​bringing students to be trained on educational farms was willingly accepted.” After receiving unanimous approval, she scheduled a meeting for the next day with the high school students.

“On my very first visit we informed the older high school girls of the idea of bringing young women to the Land of Israel for training and study. When the girls were asked if they would like to immigrate, they all raised their hands enthusiastically. In the more advanced grades, most high school students were girls,  while there were few young men. I learned that the boys had to work to support their parents. The few young men in class immediately demanded an explanation: ‘Why? Why could only girls immigrate? What would be the fate of the boys?’ I tried to offer comfort: ‘Their time will come, too.’ During the long recess I felt that the news was spreading from one class to the next. As I walked through the yard, I was stared at, hundreds and hundreds of children were drawn to me, calling out, ‘Palestine, Palestine, Eretz Yisrael!'”

After sorting out the immigration process in Damascus, Ben-Zvi moved on to Aleppo, arriving in November, 1943. She was shocked to see the location of the girls’ school – it was adjacent to a Syrian brothel frequented by soldiers around the clock. She heatedly told the school principal, “the whole neighborhood is a symbol of diasporic dispossession.”

Parents in the audience at a performance by members of a Zionist youth movement, 1943, from the book, Syrian Jewry, the Children’s Aliyah – Part 2 (Hebrew)

Just like in Beirut, Ben-Zvi was desperate to meet with the community members, who barely spoke Hebrew. And again, like in Beirut, she blamed the Jewish community in the Land of Israel for failing to send support for the few dedicated teachers of the community.

“On Friday morning, a sense of bustling preparation for Shabbat was in the Aleppo air. The Jews in the streets drew my attention with the words: ‘Erev Shabbat! ‘Erev Shabbat‘[the eve of the Jewish Sabbath]! And in the school classrooms, in every grade, it was heard everywhere – ‘Erev Shabbat!’ Those who mumbled in French, those who spoke Arabic, they all called out, everywhere – ‘Erev Shabbat!’ My heart, too, was filled with the spirit of Shabbat. And isn’t Shabbat as virtuous as the Torah itself? Is it not Shabbat that has kept the flame burning from ages past to this day? It is the eve of Shabbat even now, yet my time is so short! I must gather the candidates who registered at the Alliance, Jamiliya, and Bahsita schools today, on the eve of Shabbat. And I have already scheduled a parents’ meeting after the Shabbat meal.”

Ben-Zvi described the great pressure she was under to accept as many girls as possible: “And the list keeps getting longer; the girls are crying and their mothers are crying, and just like that – they have all turned 14 years old; including one who is almost 18 years old and another who is not even 12 years old.”

In despair, Ben-Zvi decided that “the age will be determined solely according to birth certificates” and girls of the appropriate age were chosen according to a clear criterion: “If they are fit for agricultural training and theoretical studies.” In order to not leave out any suitable candidates, Ben-Zvi herself conducted interviews with each potential candidate.

Ben-Zvi encouraged the boys and adults she met in Aleppo to immigrate to Israel illegally, as she only had enough permits for fifty girls. It was the same message she delivered in Beirut and Damascus. From Aleppo, Ben-Zvi returned to Beirut, where, with Farhi’s support, she gathered the girls from all three cities. Some of the young women were accompanied by Ben-Zvi herself and some by other activists. They were received in Mandatory Palestine at Ayanot, Petach Tikva and Nahalat Yehuda. It wouldn’t be long before many of the young women would become Hebrew teachers and immigration activists themselves. They made the journey back to their communities and helped their families immigrate to Israel.

For the rest of her life, Rachel Yanait Ben-Zvi would take pride in her projects, especially in the achievements of the young immigrants whom she helped reach the Land of Israel. However, one question remained in her mind: “To me, it does not make sense; how could we have neglected these Jewish communities that are so close to us, until now? Damascus, located just an hour from the Israeli border and Beirut, which is just three hours from Haifa!”

A family in the garden of its home in Aleppo, 1910. From the book Syrian Jewry – Pictures for an Exhibition (Hebrew)


Girls at the Ayanot training farm, a few months after immigrating to Israel. From the book On a Mission to Lebanon and Syria by Rachel Yanait Ben-Zvi (Hebrew)


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One Picture, No Words

The story behind one black-and-white picture, glued to a yellowing piece of cardboard

Was it torn from an old family album? The scalloped fringe must have been cut in a photo shop, as was customary at the time, when even a tiny photograph like this one, was given a lot of thought. Yet unlike family photos, which capture moments of happiness, we can’t see the faces of the men photographed here: their heads are lowered, their eyes focused on the straw brooms they’re holding. What are they doing? Who are they? Street cleaners? God-fearing Orthodox Jews (they are, after all, wearing hats!) industriously sweeping the streets before Passover? Then there are the arm bands – the white bands wrapped around their right arms raise suspicions. Is there anything drawn on those bands? Are those Stars of David?

The Holocaust Comes to Rzeszów in Galicia

Contrary to the well-known saying, not every picture is worth a thousand words. There are events so horrific that even a thousand pictures and thousands upon thousands of words cannot express their true essence, not even the brief caption scribbled in a hurry, on the back of the photo: Ghetto Rzeszów.

When our glance returns to the photograph, its contents are now clearer: these are Jews in Rzeszów, in the early days of the German occupation of the city in central Galicia. “In the first two days, the Germans did not hurt anyone,” said one Holocaust survivor about the horrors that took place there, “and on the third day, they recruited the Jews to clean the streets…” This must have been September, 1939, and at first the Germans’ disposition toward the Jewish population didn’t seem all that threatening: some bullying perhaps, search warrants and various restrictions, but nothing beyond the typical abuse the local Jews had grown accustomed to over centuries of wars and pogroms.

Perhaps taking pictures of this forced labor was part of a program of collective humiliation, an attempt to trample human dignity. Or maybe it was just an innocent photograph? Moreover, who was the photographer? Was it a German officer who was looking to commemorate brief moments of pleasure he derived from the grotesque spectacle, or perhaps a random passerby holding a camera? Could someone have taken the photograph secretly, from a second story window? The high angle may support such a possibility. One can imagine a fairly simple backstory: perhaps the photographer was a Pole, who was horrified by the incident and wanted to document the event. He could have developed the image in the local photography store, where an acquaintance of his worked. As always, he carefully cut the margins of the photo so that it would match the rest of the album. When the photographer gave the photo to his friend in the store, he may have told a little joke at the expense of the Jews – “They’re finally getting some work done!” or perhaps he suggested – “We should sweep them away like dirt!” Or maybe he remained silent, his lips pressed into a thin line, the look of a man witnessing the torment of innocents, soon be led to their brutal deaths. Perhaps he stared for a moment at the movement of those sweeping brooms in the hands of the victims, frozen in the camera eye. Their bodies, obviously sentenced to death, seemed still and motionless.


A Pair of Legs in the Left-Hand Corner

These are apparently the legs of an innocent Polish bystander who randomly walked by. It is certainly not a Nazi soldier overseeing the forced labor, since he isn’t wearing the typical high boots. We can’t find fault with the innocent Pole, who witnessed what was transpiring as he walked down the street, any more than we can blame the photographer who captured the moment through the window; they couldn’t predict future events! Even one of Rzeszów’s own Jewish sons, the Zionist leader Meir Ya’ari, then living in Kibbutz Merhavia in Mandatory Palestine, could not comprehend the extent of the horror. Ya’ari stated before his comrades at a meeting of the executive committee of the Kibbutz Artzi movement in 1943, “How can it be that a city like Rzeszów, that entire cities, are put on trains, burned in incinerators, […] within a few hours? Can our minds conceive such a thing, can our souls contain it?”


How Did the Picture End Up at the National Library?

Every piece of documentation must be collected. Every photo, every letter, every document. That was what writers, intellectuals and ordinary people all over Europe thought, during and after the Holocaust. If not, the next generations wouldn’t be able to comprehend what transpired in such a short time. One of those diligent collectors was Shimon Kantz, a Yiddish author, who during the Holocaust managed to escape to the Soviet territories, and after the war ended, returned to his devastated Poland. With endless dedication, he painstakingly collected every scrap of information relating to the acts of mass-murder and widespread abuse, editing the raw material and filing it away. This photograph is one of those collected scraps of information kept in his archives, which were later given to the National Library of Israel. The photo, along with the other items Katz kept in his archive, wouldn’t give him peace. Katz wrote and edited more than fifteen memorial books for various Jewish communities that were destroyed during the Holocaust. When he immigrated to Israel, in 1957, he brought those silent testimonies with him, and despite his extensive literary endeavors, the photo continued to torment him. Therefore, when we look at this photograph, perhaps we should pause for a moment and reflect on the silent horror that it contains.


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Back in the USSR: Recollections of an American College Kid Turned Manuscript Smuggler

50 years later, illicit texts and dissidents remembered

Howard Kaplan poses in front of the Kremlin, summer 1971 (Courtesy Howard Kaplan)

In July 1971 in Moscow, after dinner with my tour group, I hurry along a memorized route in the direction of nearby Red Square. Kids are taught to inform in Komsomol, the political youth organization in the Soviet Union, so better not to ask directions.

I tap lightly on an apartment door. I hear noise within and someone approaches the entrance and speaks through the solid wood in Hebrew, “Erev tov.” “Good evening.”

I am startled that he would speak Hebrew to an unexpected knock. Code? Then the voice speaks in Russian.

“I don’t speak Russian.”


I am an American, on my way back to Los Angeles after spending my junior year at the Hebrew University, with this slight detour. I have to wait as he unbolts three locks. Lev Navrozov throws open the door to a huge and elegantly decorated apartment. Elegant crystal fills a tall cabinet. His wife appears, a half-tied apron dragging from her waist. She motions me to sit and she speaks vociferously to her husband.

Lev Navrozov. (Photo: Unknown family member, CC-BY-SA-4.0)

“My wife would be pleased if you would have supper with us but she is worried since the meat is not kosher.”

I’m stunned at his English, look at her and grin. “It’s O.K.”

She vanishes into the kitchen. I explain that his friend, Professor  Mikhail Zand, a recent émigré and Professor of Oriental Languages, spent an evening in my dorm room writing his official letter of arrival to Prime Minister Golda Meir and taught me how to find this apartment. Zand had introduced Navrozov to the Jewish Resistance Movement, a natural ebb from the ‘democratic’ movement of which they were a part. I unburden myself of the Hebrew primers and histories I’m hauling, completely unavailable in the USSR.

“Thank you,” he says. “You must understand Soviet mentality to realize how important these are to us. Everything here fluctuates, dependent on the caprice of the government. There is a thirst for textbooks. In the USSR, where so much energy is expended on propaganda, books take on an exaggerated significance. They transcend their words to become symbols, nurture strength, foster the will to struggle.”

Soon his wife delivers a full course meal. I am too stuffed from the group Chicken Kiev to eat much. Sensing my embarrassment, she returns with a bowl of raspberries on crushed ice. This opulence stuns me and then he explains. Around the globe, people translate from their acquired language into their mother tongue. Navrozov is the preeminent translator of books and articles in the Soviet Union from Russian into English, has tackled Dostoevsky, Herzen and hundreds of technical articles. Soviets cannot buy books from London. Stalin created the Referent Faculty of the Moscow Institute of Foreign Languages to produce a generation of experts in Western languages and culture. Forty-six years later, I created a character in The Spy’s Gamble with Navrozov’s bona fides.

Tourists waiting in line to visit Lenin’s Tomb, 1971 (Courtesy Howard Kaplan). Click image to enlarge

For the following week, I continue on my tour which takes me to Leningrad, Kiev, and Tashkent and Samarkand in Uzbekistan. In the evenings, I meet with Jewish dissidents in their homes. Saturday, I head through Red Square. The guys are waiting for me outside and guide me back to a basement which I see in the daylight is an artist’s studio. I had been here a week earlier to meet the leaders of the Soviet Jewish movement and discuss the transfer of a manuscript on microfilm that I would carry to London.

I jokingly ask, “Why aren’t you in synagogue?”

Navrozov translates and they all laugh. He says, “We have the address of KGB central headquarters if you would like it. Why settle for the synagogue, it’s merely a branch office.” Informants.

I have a present I’ve saved, a slate, the kind children write on then pull up the plastic to erase it. They go bananas.

Navrozov says, “During a year we probably use tons of paper to talk.”

They provide a list of those in desperate straits. They give money when they can. An artist hands me ten Chagall-like lithographs, ink on parchment. They place the lithographs between tourist posters of the Soviet Union, rolled the posters and lithographs together and slipped them into a tube. I give the artist my address. I’ll mail them to him when he gets out. All unpublished writings and art are considered property of the state and must remain behind.

I take a fresh 35mm Kodak film canister from my bag. London instructed that I can secret the microfilm in it, then throw it in my camera case with a slew of exposed and unopened rolls. In my room I had carefully opened the box with a knife and pried off the end of the yellow canister. I remove the film, sever a long length of lead, insert the roll of microfilm and tape the lead to protrude several inches from the canister the way new film appears. I try to snap the round end back but can’t.

“I engineer,” someone says and grabs it from me.

Another speaks in Russian and they all laugh. “He asked what he knows about engineering. He has not worked in two years.”

Unnamed Soviet dissidents with whom Kaplan met (Courtesy Howard Kaplan). Click image to enlarge

I love these guys. Somebody gets it on and we glue the top of the small rectangular yellow box closed.

That manuscript was My Father Killed Mikhoels by the dissident writer, Vladimir Gusarov. Solomon Mikhoels, the Yiddish actor and director of the Moscow State Jewish Theater, was assassinated in Minsk in 1948 on orders of Josef Stalin who had been pursuing an increasingly anti-Semitic policy.

Before very long, Gusarov’s work found its way to the National Library of Israel.

This article has been published as part of 
Gesher L’Europa, the National Library of Israel’s initiative to connect with people, institutions and communities in Europe and beyond.

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