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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 had gone back upstairs to her dressing room. Her hands frozen. Astounded. What to do? She couldn’t believe it was possible that such a thing could happen in France, at the Comédie-Française, that two of the best actors, who had given everything for their country and for the theater, their sweat, their blood, in the literal sense of the word, could be excluded and the sun would still set, that this scandal could take place without it truly shocking anyone since if it had been really shocking it would not have happened, it could not have happened. Yes, there were Dux’s honorable attempts not to yield to the Occupation at the risk of having the theater closed down, but the majority preferred to let the black sheep leave in order to go on with their day-to-day existence. But were they so much to blame? What were the lives of two men when weighed against hundreds, the lives of all those who worked at the Comédie-Française: actors, scenery painters, stage managers, machinists, makeup artists, hair stylists, dressers … Even Yonnel and Alexandre had believed that their own fates weighed less than those of entire families. But were they so much to blame? she would have wanted to ask Nathan. She knew what he’d say. He would’ve said that you’re lost once you begin to sacrifice your principles.

Sacrificed, Yonnel and Alexandre, sacrificed, declared Jews even if they’d converted long ago, even if, like...

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