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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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Nathan left his internment more shaken by the experience than he would have thought. He was given assurances that he had nothing further to worry about, that he was being looked out for at the highest levels, but he feared another arrest. It even became an obsession. He wrote to the American Guild for German Cultural Freedom to ask for help in emigrating. Several of his compatriots had been able to settle in the United States thanks to help from this institution. He saw himself working at the Metropolitan Opera in New York where Bruno Walter was willing to welcome him. He didn’t speak to Bérénice about this, suspecting that she would refuse to leave the Comédie-Française. It was more difficult for an actress than for a composer to become an expatriate, because of the language—he was well aware of that. Despite all that, as a precaution, he sent the letter.

His Kaddish for Deceased Parents dated from this period. In Roland-Garros Stadium, he thought intensely about his family, murdered during Kristallnacht. Mahler’s Kindertotenlieder never stopped going through his head during his time there, surfacing daily in his musical memory, perhaps because his parents had been dead almost a year and the thought of that terrible anniversary made the memory more painfully acute. This connection between music and the unconscious often struck him: a melody passed through his mind and he realized it was not appearing by accident. When it was...

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