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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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They blindfolded her, walked her down a few steps. From the dampness she felt around her, from the stale air, from the loose ground under her feet, she understood that they had taken her to a basement. And yet she was no longer afraid. A week had passed since her “kidnapping.” The man who had ducked into the car with her had explained that his name was Gideon—a nom de guerre. She later learned his true identity: Zeev Zilberg. Born in Odessa, he belonged to the Armée Juive (AJ), the Jewish Army, a resistance group founded in 1940, in the wake of France’s surrender. Its objective was to fight the Nazis and to establish a Jewish state in Palestine. Bérénice had suddenly pricked up her ears. Before the war, she would’ve laughed about such ideas, as her father had done when he talked about the meshuganah who broke rocks in the hopes of living like their ancestors. Now she understood the necessity for the Jews to have a place of their own, where they wouldn’t have their identity thrown back in their faces at the moment when they least expected it, an identity they had more or less forgotten. Examples all around her, her own included, made her understand that the world considered them a race. Consequently, no conversion, no assimilation, no integration, even totally successful, was sufficient: at any moment they risked being excluded from society. Because of the roundups, which were increasing...

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