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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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The Capel family lived in a working-class neighborhood in the 10th Arrondissement, near the Faubourg Poissonnière, the nerve center of the fur industry. A small, dark courtyard of the apartment building on the Rue d’Hauteville: upper-class women whose purposeful look indicates they didn’t just wander in. They knew that on the fourth floor of this building, a lowly tenement made grimy by time, was the shop of Monsieur Capel, a furrier who worked out of his home—alterations, repairs, dyeing. His ability to find the most beautiful pieces, his skill at trimming the pelts into long strips, the quality of his finishes, and his punctuality with deliveries had all made his reputation. He also knew all of his clients’ habits, and how they could become outright liars when it came to walking away without paying for their orders. To protect himself, he made them sign the pelts they had selected. If there was ever a dispute, he merely unstitched the linings—their initials betrayed them.

Monsieur Capel loved to tell Bérénice about his work, how he chose the pelts, matched the colors, taking the time to assemble the pieces, savoring this task that he compared to a puzzle: “Look, you think this jacket is made all from one hide, when actually it’s made up of lots of different ones. See this—I’m picking out sections with hairs that are the same thickness, ones that have the same shade. The most difficult part is...

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