The University Record, May 7, 2001

‘Good exists also and has to reach maturity,’ Marceau says

By Theresa Maddix

Marcel Marceau speaks to a standing-room-only crowd. Photo by Paul Jaronski, U-M Photo Services
Upon receiving the Raoul Wallenberg Medal April 30 in Hill Auditorium, mime Marcel Marceau said, “I don’t like to speak about myself because what I did humbly during the war was only a small task.”

Instead, he spent much of the 11th University Wallenberg Lecture noting Wallenberg’s deeds and those of others, including his brother, Alain, in the French Resistance and the American GIs who fought in World War II.

“I came here to speak about Raoul Wallenberg,” Marceau said, “because my heart was deeply touched about what he did to rescue people. No matter what people, Jews or Gentiles, people are people, and everyone has the right to live. I have been deeply touched to receive the Raoul Wallenberg Medal in the memory of this Gentile who saved thousands and thousands of Jews from the Holocaust.”

Only recently did Marceau publicly break his silence about his own heroic deeds for which the medal was bestowed.

Irene Butter, professor emerita and member of the Wallenberg Selection Committee, noted, “This silence is not altogether astonishing, as many, if not most, survivors of the Holocaust were not able to speak about it for half a century. Marcel Marceau is known as a master of silence. It may have been particularly difficult for him to break the silence about this tragic period of his life.”

Yet in his artistic expression through mime, Butter said, Marceau admittedly has “spent more than half a lifetime trying to express the tragic moment—and war did bring tragic moments to him.”

The Nazis uprooted the Jewish residents of Alsace-Lorraine after marching into the region in 1939. Marceau and his family were given two hours to pack their belongings, as they were to be transported to the southwest of France. Instead, the brothers changed their name from Mengel to Marceau and fled to join the underground movement in Limoges, France. Marceau’s father, a kosher butcher, was captured and deported to Auschwitz in 1944, where he was killed.

While in the French underground, Marceau used his artistic skill to change the identity cards of scores of children so they would appear to be too young to be sent to labor camps. He also posed as a Boy Scout leader, and under the pretense of hiking in the Alps, he led children to safety in neutral Switzerland.

Marceau greets audience members following his April 30 lecture at Rackham Auditorium. Photo by Paul Jaronski, U-M Photo Services
After Paris was liberated, Marceau enlisted in the Free French Army, where he was appointed liaison officer to Gen. George S. Patton because of his fluency in English. Word of Marceau’s pantomime antics spread through the troops, and soon Marceau gave his first performance to Americans in an Army tent before 3,000 GIs.

Before enlisting in the French army, Marceau auditioned for the famous Charles Dullin School of Dramatic Art in Paris before the master Etienne Decroux. After Marceau performed “The Killer,” based on a Nazi soldier, Decroux asked him his name. He gave the name Marcel Marceau. “Why Marceau?” asked Marceau. “I never told him who I was. It was very dangerous to talk about your life.”

Decroux knew the name Marceau as that of a famous general during the French Revolution, and Marcel was accepted to the school.

Marceau said of Wallenberg, “To succeed, he was obliged to bribe and blackmail Nazi officials, issuing thousands and thousands of protective passports to save those people from a horrible death in gas chambers.”

He recounted the experiences of World War II as “a devastating history of the attempt to destroy an entire nation and people from a nation who pretended to be civilized—Germany, who had in the past great people like Goethe, Beethoven, Johannes Sebastian Bach, Thomas Mann, Einstein, who had enlightened the world.”

“We live today in a great democracy, and this is why there is hope for the future. But the main thing is also education, education for the young people—love for the parents, respect for old age, knowledge about the world.

Marceau ended his lecture reflecting on good and evil. “We shall never, never destroy evil, unfortunately, but good exists also and has to reach maturity.”

To demonstrate “a metaphor of the struggle between good and evil,” Marceau performed a pantomime in which his right hand played “evil” with clenched, jerky motions and his left hand played “good” with fluid, flowing motion. At one point, “evil” creates a great sorrow in “good” and almost seems to block it out completely, but by the end, “good” temporarily vanquishes “evil.”