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Bérénice 1934-44

An Actress in Occupied Paris

Isabelle Stibbe

The winner of nine literary awards in France, including the Prix Simone Veil, celebrating a woman of action, Bérénice 1934–44: An Actress in Occupied Paris is Isabelle Stibbe’s poignant debut novel. Now translated into English by Zack Rogow and Renée Morel, Bérénice 1934–44 reveals a young woman’s struggle to fulfill her career aspirations while concealing herself in war-torn France.

Bérénice yearns to become an actress, but her parents insist that career is not proper for a girl. She defies her Jewish family to become the leading younger actress in the Comédie-Française, France’s most renowned theater, right when the Nazis occupy France. Bérénice hides her true identity and last name to avoid detection. Living in a world without tolerance and torn between two lovers, Bérénice must choose between her passion for the stage, and her allegiance to freedom and to her Jewish heritage.

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She won’t tell about the knowing glances, the conspiratorial smiles. “Oh, there’s no such thing as chance,” “It was inevitable”—she overheard those trite phrases hundreds of times. They were the origin of the family legend that her calling for the theater, which caught hold of her at the age of six and never let go, was because of her first name: Bérénice—like the play by Racine. Only one person had a point of view that differed from this belief, through conviction, derision, or more likely because she just had a mind of her own. “It’s a good thing you didn’t name her Sappho, or she would’ve become a lesbian,” joked her Grandmother Mathilde, who was educated and had a sharp tongue, occasionally adding this variation: “You think if you’d named her Isabelle she would’ve become a Catholic?” This allusion to Isabelle the Catholic, that cursèd queen who expelled the Jews from Spain, was guaranteed to toss lightning bolts into this group—Catholic being, in the hierarchy of the Capel family’s values, almost more reprehensible than lesbian. But it was neither Sappho nor Isabelle, it was Bérénice, Gott zei dank—thank God—well, almost.

She won’t tell her grandchildren or even her children that she entered the world on the 28th of June in the year of grace 1919, even more grace given that it was the year, not to mention the actual day, of the Treaty of Versailles. During...

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