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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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Some days, the war seemed far away. This Sunday, for instance. Little Guy didn’t have school so his parents had given him permission to go play on the beach of L’Isle-Adam. Before the war, it was a destination well known to Parisians, who filled entire trains to discover the joys of swimming—and only twenty miles from the capital! The beach was the brainchild of Henri Supplice who, in the years after 1910, had begun to turn the place into a true resort equipped with high diving boards, Normandy-style cabanas, a restaurant with half-timbered beams, and even a music gazebo. For just a five-franc coin, you could get yourself a little Deauville along the Oise River.

The beach, that was Guy’s kingdom. He had his routines. An excellent swimmer, he often went to exercise there. The sun was so inviting that Sunday that Bérénice and Alain agreed to go with him. At first glance, they could almost pass for his parents, until you realized that Bérénice was too young to have an eleven-year-old son. Nevertheless, if you didn’t look too closely, their trio resembled an appealing young family along the Oise River on a beautiful Sunday in October. Guy had asked the elderly local woman on duty for paddles and balls to play ping-pong. Bérénice watched him play against Alain. The sun, the parasols, the cabanas, the sand: the war seemed like a collective bad dream that she was waking...

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