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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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At heart, she was made for groups. She was the one most astonished by this, it had always seemed to her that her solitary and dreamy childhood had pushed her in the direction of individualism, even egotism. She realized that she loved being part of a community. Undoubtedly it was this solidarity that had made the communist ideal so appealing to Nathan. At the Comédie-Française, she fought alongside her friends to make the texts come to life, so the public would be transported. Here, in the Resistance with the Armée Juive, the stakes were different, it was a battle against the occupiers, but she discovered the same sort of group cohesion, and she found it extremely satisfying.

For several months she had undergone a punishing regimen of physical training. They exercised in the scrubland in Biques, established as a base for French evacuation convoys. Bérénice was assigned to make the trek to Barcelona. Three years after her missed rendezvous with Nathan, she would perhaps get to know the café where he had written letters to her every morning and where every morning he had awaited hers. She would gaze at the sea that he had described so thoroughly in his letters. She might even walk by the hotel where that sweet boy lived—but the boy would have grown up, there was no telling whether he would have kept that sweet innocence, who knows, he might even have joined Franco and...

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