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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 tragedy of democracies is their weakness. France and Great Britain let Czechoslovakia fall, like Léon Blum with the Spanish Republic.” For ten minutes Bérénice had listened, smiling, to this blond, blue-eyed kid reel off his political analyses in an extremely serious manner. Seeing that his audience was with him, he recounted every step of the defeat, starting with President Wilson’s angelic naivete—he was the first one to blame—right up to Hitler’s lies. In the end, Chamberlain’s appeasement policy was excusable: how could an Englishman from the gentry imagine for one second that Monsieur Hitler would not act like a gentleman?

“This kid is amazing,” she says to Alain. “How old are you?”

“I just turned eleven, I’m going into sixth grade in the fall. I finished third on the entrance exam!”

And so it happened that she met her neighbor on the Rue Poupart, a boy by the name of Guy, a young Jewish Parisian with a Dutch last name, fair-haired and blue-eyed, who had found refuge in L’Isle-Adam with his family since the start of the Occupation. He had first taken a liking to Alain Béron because he wanted to be a lawyer like him.

“My father doesn’t want me to, he says it’s a profession where you starve to death.”

“Your father sounds like he has very good sense,” answered the lawyer-poet. ← 176 | 177 →

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