Marceau beloved for artistry, helping WWII orphans

paris | In 1944, the French Jewish Resistance decided to evacuate the Jewish children hidden in an orphanage west of Paris and transport them by train to Switzerland.

Resistance commander George Loinger called on his young cousin, Marcel Mangel, to help him organize the dangerous train ride. Mangel, originally from Strasbourg, on the border with Germany, was a monitor at the Sevres home and was himself in hiding.

After the war he changed his name and became Marcel Marceau, the world-famous mime artist.

On Sept. 22, Marceau died in Paris at the age of 84.

“The kids loved Marcel and felt safe with him,” said Loinger, Marceau’s first cousin, now a spry 97 years old. “He had already begun doing performances in the home, 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 joined the Free French Forces of Charles de Gaulle, in a unit led by Gen. Lattre de Tassigny.

“He and several other French soldiers were in the field in Germany, though I don’t remember where,” when a group of 30 German soldiers led by an officer surrendered to him,” Loinger recalls. “He brought them all back to his base as prisoners. Marcel always said that was his greatest exploit as a soldier.”

Loinger, who remains active in Jewish communal affairs as the secretary-general of the Shoah Memorial in central Paris, thinks otherwise. “I believe his greatest exploit was to survive the war, because so many others did not.”

Loinger points to Marceau’s father, Charles Mangel, a native of Poland who came to Strasbourg, France, where Marceau and Loinger were born.

Tall and handsome with a great tenor voice, Mangel ran a kosher butcher shop there and wore the yellow star on his jacket.

“By 1944 as a Resistance commander, I knew about the death camps and the deportations,” Loinger said. “I went to my uncle and told him ‘get out now, you are in great danger. ‘ He simply refused to believe me. Then the Vichy police came and deported him to Auschwitz, where he died.”

Loinger said Marceau was an artist who felt the pain of the world. “You see the pain and the sadness in his mime skits,” he said. “The origin of that pain was the deportation of his father.”

Marceau is perhaps best known for his 1947 creation Bip the clown, signifying the fragility of life in his striped pullover and battered silk hat, much like the Little Tramp, the alter-ego created by Charlie Chaplin.

Marceau, who according to Loinger chose the name after a general in Napolean’s army who hailed from the Alsace region, was never very active in the Jewish community but continued visiting Jewish children’s orphanages after the war.

Philip Kauffmann, 87, was a Resistance member in the Eclaireur Israelite movement, the Jewish Scouts, and founded a home in Jouy-en-Joisas near Paris after the war where 120 Jewish orphans lived. He remembers Marceau’s visits.

“Marcel came several times to perform for the kids in the home,” Kauffmann recalls. “It was the beginning of his career. He came because it was a home for Jewish kids. He wanted to make them happy after the pain of losing their parents in the deportations.”

Loinger, who was instrumental in helping survivors head for the newly declared state of Israel after the war, said Marceau performed many times in Israel but that “he was first and foremost an artist.”

Loinger organized Marceau’s funeral, which was scheduled to be held Wednesday, Sept. 26 in the Pere Lachaise cemetery. Chief Rabbi Rene Sirat was to preside over the ceremony.