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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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Bérénice now went every morning to join her friends for breakfast at a sidewalk table of the Café de L’Univers to escape as soon as possible the nervewracking silence of the apartment on the Rue Gay-Lussac. That July 12, 1940, several were back in Paris: Le Roy, Chambreuil, Alexandre, Brunot … She realized they were all learning to look at the world at an angle: if you raised your head, you were bound to see the Eiffel Tower topped by the horrible black and red spider. And yet, she refused to lower her head. The defeat was humiliating enough without that. Learning how to adapt to the situation—wasn’t that already a sort of surrender? She was among those who made it a point of honor not to let things slide. That day, she had dressed as elegantly as possible in her severe suit, brightened by her little straw hat ornamented with tea roses. That day, she might even have worn a little lipstick.

What did it matter that it was insignificant in the face of that sinister summer: after Nathan’s departure, the failure of the Massilia, now they had denounced the “Judaization” of the Comédie-Française. A rag had just been published called To the Pillory, “a weekly to fight against Judeo-Freemasonry.” Gracing the first issue, a very refined poem attacked the Comédie-Française:

When you see on stage

Alexandre, Véra Korène all the rage, ← 133...

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