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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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“I was with Nathan in Venice in 1938, I was given a leave from the Comédie-Française to travel with him for a series of concerts. It was the first time I’d been in Venice, unlike Nathan, who’d gone there many times. I’m telling you this because he took me to the ghetto. He told me—I hadn’t known anything about this before—that the word comes from the Venetian geto, a place where they threw the waste products from the nearby foundries. Now, this isn’t certain—others believe that the etymology is from the Hebrew ghet, which is the Jewish term for divorce. In any case, it was fairly late in the day, I think it was December, night was falling, it was dark out and the air was chilly, it seems to me that it had rained during the day, but that it had stopped, we felt close to one another in that silent place, we were moved. I remember that we both thought: if we’d been here in the sixteenth century, this is where we would have lived, in this place with its tall buildings, much higher than the dwellings of Venice, this is where we would have lived, we would undoubtedly have been poor, we would have known all our neighbors’ names, we would have talked from window to window, the whole quarter would have gossiped about our love lives, like in those little campielli that Goldoni describes, and most importantly we would...

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