A young Jew growing up in 1930s France, Marcel Mangel fell in love with silent film. While he spent his days perfecting the pantomime routines he’d learned from Charlie Chaplin movies, he never imagined what he was preparing for: that under the pseudonym “Marcel Marceau,” he would put those silent talents to heroic use to save countless children from the Nazis.
After the Nazis invaded France, 15-year old Marcel and his brother were forced to flee their border town, finding shelter outside of Paris. Their first order of business was to disguise their Jewish identities, changing the surname on their government documents from Mangel to “Marceau.” Marcel then joined up with the French Resistance. He took on the role of altering the birthdates on the identity cards of both Jews and Gentiles so they would seem too young for labor camps or to work at German factories. But to distribute the forgeries Marcel needed help, which he found in fellow French Resistance member Georges Mora, aka “Monsieur Mayonnaise.” Georges’ nickname was well-earned: He’d noticed that during Nazi soldiers’ searches for contraband, they rarely checked sandwiches slathered in mayonnaise for fear of dirtying their uniforms. By wrapping the altered documents in wax paper and tucking them into sandwiches dripping with mayo, Georges and Marcel transported forged ID cards undetected throughout France.
Marcel’s work was vital to the French Resistance, and eventually he was asked to lead a risky operation: rescuing Jewish children from an orphanage near Paris. For the mission, Marcel drew upon all of his acting talents. First, dressed as a boy scout, he convinced the orphanage that he’d been hired to take the children on a field trip. Then, to avoid detection while leading the children through the long and dangerous journey through the Alps to the Swiss town of Annemasse, Marcel entertained the children with his miming, keeping them distracted, calm and quiet. Risking his life to repeat this trip three times, he saved scores of orphans before Paris was liberated in 1944.
After liberation, Marcel enlisted in the Free French Army, where he was offered his first professional entertainment gig: performing for his fellow soldiers. From there, his career took off. In white makeup and a striped shirt, Marcel remained an international sensation until his 2007 death on Yom Kippur at age 84. But what he’d experienced during World War II, including his father’s murder at Auschwitz, was inseparable from his lifelong devotion to what he called his “art of silence,” of which he once 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.”