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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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Alain Béron was no longer writing, except for a journal that he kept regularly beginning in the fall of 1940. The defeat had drained his morale, the Occupation had paralyzed his muse. This conquered and dejected France left him literally disarmed, guilty, maybe about having the luxury of writing poetry. There was still his calling for the law. The courts reopened on October 1 (“We both go back to school the same day,” he joked with Guy). That day, the president of the bar association, Jacques Charpentier, gathered all the judges and lawyers in front of the bronze plaque listing those in the legal profession who had had died during the Great War. Oh, yes, he gave a stirring speech, the president of the bar, imbued with the mentality of sacrifice that seemed to have become the new credo of the national revolution, describing an ideal and bucolic France. How he crafted his conclusion: “Teach us, as the schoolchildren of yesterday were taught, to cherish the homeland that our forefathers built and for which you gave your lives, our vineyards, and forests, our meadows and our wheat fields, the land that stretches from the Rhine to the Ocean and from the North Sea to the Pyrenees, France one and indivisible, that will not die.”

In truth, the lawyer hardly had any confidence in his peers at this point, he who had held in such high esteem his profession and the honor of wearing its robes....

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