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He was a World War II hero and the consummate practitioner of his art, but out of costume he may not look familiar.

This year marks the centenary of French Jewish mime Marcel Marceau, whose Yiddishkeit in performance has until recently been clouded by a certain elusiveness.

Marceau’s activities in the Resistance included using mime to teach the Jewish children he was smuggling out of France how to communicate silently. These actions became widely known after he gave a speech accepting the Raoul Wallenberg Medal in 2001.

At the time, Marceau revealed that he opted for mime as a silent response to wartime tragedies, including the murder of his father at Auschwitz. So although such beloved routines as “The Cage,” “Walking Against the Wind” and “The Mask Maker,” as well as “Youth, Maturity, Old Age and Death,” were not overtly Jewish, a subliminal or subconscious issue of identity might have been at play.

Marceau, born Mangel, of Romanian and Polish Jewish origin, had previously only given fans an inkling of his heroism during World War II. In a 1968 interview with the Kenyon Review, he mentioned after noting his father’s fate in Auswitch: “I helped smuggle children into Switzerland. I was in the Resistance — and the liberation of Paris.”

Marcel considered himself “not a Jewish character.” Although he claimed to “respect” the “history and suffering” of the Jewish people, he had universal aspirations for his art. That said, the fact that he was “born a Jew and was in the underground” influenced his work, he said. Marceau’s artistic ambitions ostensibly transcended religion.

Marceau’s daughters recently published a brief autobiographical text by their father, written sometime before his untimely death at a French racetrack on Yom Kippur in 2007. The memoir covers the first 29 years of his life, reaffirming Marceau’s avowal that his choice of silence was inspired by the brutal disappearance of his father.

Marceau’s book also evokes his idyllic Jewish childhood in Alsace, before the rise of antisemitism and the German invasion, which caused his family to flee to West-Central France.

Marceau, who spent his last years ailing and no longer able to tour, died in debt. To settle his estate in 2009, a French court ordered the public auction of his belongings, some of which were purchased by his friends and admirers, hoping to convince the French Ministry of Culture that a proposed museum of mime, a long-time French art, would be an appropriate place to display them. This plan has yet to win bureaucratic support in France.

To celebrate his centenary, Marcel Marceau may best be commemorated by recalling the words of former Grand Rabbi of France René-Samuel Sirat, who read the Kaddish at his burial, informing the attendees that Marceau “always defined himself as a citizen of the world, with Jewish roots.”

Source: The full content of this article by Benjamin Ivry can be viewed in The Forward 15th August 15 2023 and is reprinted by Plus 67J Media.


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