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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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“Yes, you’re German and Jewish, but what the devil is the likelihood that they’ll come after you, given all our connections?” she kept telling Nathan. But the devil did get into the mix. He appeared right at their door, at their huge apartment near the Luxemburg Garden, Rue Gay-Lussac. At seven thirty in the morning, the bell rang. Nathan wasn’t sleeping. Since the war had started, he was afraid he might be arrested. Several of his compatriots had been rousted out of bed by the police since September 2, they had been detained as “enemy aliens.” For weeks nothing had been heard of them, it was only recently that anyone had gotten word of them: it was said they were being held in secret and that they were languishing in La Santé Prison. There were terrible stories and they didn’t know whether to believe them. Nathan couldn’t explain by what miracle he was still free. Worry had tormented him for a month. Usually he trusted his experience: arrests took place at night, and by daybreak he felt more calm and went to sleep. That particular morning, maybe because of a vague premonition, unless it had to do with having drunk too much the previous evening, he absolutely couldn’t stay in bed. He moved to the living room, trying to resolve the problems posed by a triple fugue for four voices, drinking cup after cup of coffee, trying to exorcise his anxiety by substituting the difficulties of work, which,...

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