Category Archives: history

Finding Babette, My Great-Grandmother

by Ellen Norman Stern (Willow Grove, PA)

This is a story about my maternal great-grandmother, Babette Muhr, whose life has interested me ever since I learned about her from the few memories that my own grandmother passed on to me.

I was fascinated to discover that Babette lived with the “Wundermann,” a famous holy man known as “The Baal Shem of Michelstadt.” For years, I tried to find the truth of this story, and ended up learning more about Rebbe Seckel Loew Wormser (the Baal Shem’s given name) than I did about Babette.

Few people knew the rebbe as well as the little orphan girl named Babette Muhr, who cried herself to sleep in the horse-drawn carriage travelling the 5-6 hours from her small home town of Reichelsheim, Germany to her new home in Michelstadt, near Frankfurt. Having recently lost her father and mother, the young girl was escorted by well-meaning townspeople who considered it a mitzvah to deliver the child to her new home. But wrap-around blankets and comforting arms gave little solace to the grieving child who did not want to leave her hometown and feared the new world ahead of her. The pitch-dark road leading to Michelstadt caused her to shiver with fright.

The legends surrounding the almost mystical rebbe describe him as poor and barely able to sustain his own large family of five children.  My grandmother called him a “Wundermann” for his many so-called miracles known to reach across the borders of Europe. His great heart always made room for those in need of help. At times his house was filled with almost 70 students from many parts of Germany, but it was always large enough to also accommodate orphans whom he fed with his limited means. The orphans lived with him and his large family, and there must have often been times when the rebetzin wondered how much thinner she could make the soup and still provide proper nourishment for the large brood in her dining room.

Little Babette learned many new facts about her new family within a few days after her arrival. One was that her new “father” was a vegetarian who would not touch any food that came from an animal, not even milk, eggs, or butter. On weekdays he lived on soup and coffee. On the Sabbath, he added a little more food to this meager diet. It was a lifelong vow of abstinence he had adopted during his student days in Frankfurt. Of course, in a household run on such sparse funds as that of the rebbe, meat was a great luxury.

Babette discovered very quickly that she would be exempted from his vegetarian diet. From the first day, she sat on a small chair next to her host while he cut up tiny pieces of meat from the family’s ration and fed them to the little girl. He was most concerned she had the proper food to grow on.

The rebbe had a running business that kept his family alive. He manufactured amulets designed with inscriptions to heal diseases. These “kemenot,” made of paper or parchment, included either the name of the Lord God or of an angel like “Rafael” who could heal specific diseases. The amulets were meant to be hung around the neck of the patient and promised speedy healing, especially when combined with prayers.

The twenty-odd Jewish families who made up Michelstadt during the rebbe’s lifetime (1768 to 1847) were well-to-do and did not appreciate his activities, especially those concerning the so-called “miracles” for which he was famous, which in many cases involved the healing of mentally ill patients. He had emissaries travelling in Germany and parts of Europe who took and delivered orders for the amulets and, in turn, collected the payment, which was due the rebbe.

It was around that time that his fellow Michelstadt neighbors rebelled against the rebbe’s extreme piety and his kabbalistic practices. Their complaints to the town authorities resulted in his arrest in his synagogue and a two-day stay in the local jail. These intrigues prevented the rebbe’s elevation to the post of Chief Rabbi in his hometown, handing that job to a competitor, and depriving him of an income.

After his wife of twenty years, Adelheid, died in 1809, the rebbe left Michelstadt and moved to Mannheim where he accumulated much fame as a healer. While there he healed a woman hospitalized for incurable insanity after local physicians had given up on her care. Her name was Benzinger and she had a 17-year-old daughter. While still in Mannheim, the rebbe became engaged to the daughter whose mother he had cured. He returned to Michelstadt, married the young lady, and reopened his yeshiva. It must have been during this second marriage that Babette joined their household and was raised by a woman not much older than her.

My grandmother said Babette lived in the home of the rebbe until she herself was married. Many years later, during a trip to Germany, my husband and I visited the town of Michelstadt, for I was always curious about the place that had sprouted so many family legends. We walked around the rebbe’s house, which is still occupied, but we could not get in because the lawyer’s office, which now rents it, was closed for the day. I looked up to the upstairs windows and tried to imagine Babette’s thoughts as she viewed her world when she lived there.

As I write these words, I am holding a photocopy of a marriage certificate which I recently received from the archivist of the town of Michelstadt. According to the certificate, a couple named Meier Oppenheimer and his wife, Babette Muhr, appeared before the mayor of the German town of Rimbach on September 6 in the year 1859 where he signed a document confirming their wedding performed three days before by the rabbi of that same town. It was their daughter, Bertha Oppenheimer Salomon, born in Fuerth, Germany in 1867, who became my grandmother.

Born in Germany, Ellen Stern came to the United States as a young girl and grew up in Louisville, Kentucky. She’s the author of numerous books for young adult readers, including biographies of Louis D. Brandeis, Nelson Glueck, and Elie Wiesel. Her most recent publication is The French Physician’s Boy, a novel about Philadelphia’s 1793 Yellow Fever epidemic.

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Look to the Sky

by Toba Abramczyk (Toronto, Ontario, Canada)

When I was a small child, my dad, a Holocaust survivor,  used to take me over to the window and ask me to look to the sky. He would take my brother and sister and ask them to do the same thing. This happened all the time, whether it was a barbecue or a family occasion, he would take us out and say “Look to the sky.”

When I got married, he took me outside. It was the hottest day of the year, but he asked me to go out and look to the sky

When I had my first child, he said “I am not good with babies. Don’t let me hold her, my hands can’t carry her and I will drop her.”

His hands were bent and swollen from years of hard labour and butchering meat for years and years.

The day my daughter was born, there were about ten family members in the hospital’s recovery room, all waiting for a turn to hold her. All I could see was her little body bobbing up and down from person to person.

There was so much noise and laughter, but through all this hoopla, I could see my dad holding his first grandchild, tears streaming down his cheeks. He was singing so softly to her. I had never heard my dad sing. Perhaps this was a lullaby his mother sang to him. He then walked my daughter to the window and said, “Look to the sky.”

That’s when I got it, I finally got it, and I started to cry.

I was sobbing so hard, everyone around me thought I was breaking down, but my mom understood. She took my hand and smiled.

All these years, all the times we had “looked to the sky,” my dad was showing his family, everyone who he had lost in the Shoah — mother, father, sisters, brothers – he was showing our faces to them, his legacy, and now his granddaughter.

Toba Abramczyk is the daughter of a Holocaust survivor. Her father was born in Belchatow Poland, the only survivor of seven children. His parents and two younger sisters, grandparents and extended family were taken to Chelmno. One older brother was shot on the street; two older sisters and an older brother were taken to Lodz and then sent to Chelmno in 1944. Her father came to Canada in 1956 after serving in the Haganah as a soldier (1948-1952) in the engineering corp while in Israel. Her mother came to Canada from Rovna Poland in 1930. A single parent of three children, Toba  lectures on the Holocaust, has gone on the March of the Living as a chaperone, and volunteers with various Jewish organizations. 

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The Old Man and the Tortoise

by Ellen Norman Stern (Willow Grove, PA) 

Whenever I think of Olivaer Platz, I remember the old man and his tortoise. A picture of him remains in my mind and brings up a complete memory of a time and a place.

Olivaer Platz was a small public park in the midst of Berlin when I was growing up in the 1930s. It was located near the major artery of Kurfuerstendamm, and it attracted many people. All around the park were shops popular with customers of all ages.

I remember my favorite, Café Heil, where I was occasionally treated to the small meat pastry I loved whenever one of my parents had coffee and cake there, met friends, or just read the assorted newspapers and magazines available to the patrons. There was an ice cream parlor in the same block, too, whose various flavors of ice cream sandwiches were in enormous demand in warmer weather.

In the afternoons I remember seeing older adults reading their newspapers on the benches in Olivaer Platz. It was only a few squares from our home in Mommsenstrasse 66, and I was occasionally taken there to play in the children’s section.

I went primarily to shoot marbles. The object of the game was to propel the marble with one’s thumb in order to hit an opponent’s marble. If the hit was successful, the other child’s marble became yours. I had a collection of colorful glass balls on which I prided myself. Not being very skillful, however, I was often unsuccessful at the game, lost my own marbles, and came home crying.

One day my mother and I arrived at Olivaer Platz and found that one of its park benches had been painted yellow with an orange-colored letter J drawn on it. The bench clearly stood out from the others. Nearby was a sign proclaiming that due to a new ordinance Jews were no longer allowed to sit on the regular benches and were subject to arrest if they disregarded the law. The yellow bench was now the Jews’ bench.

After that my mother, whom I called “Mimi,” no longer took me to the park, except for walking through it en route to the Kurfuerstendamm. She would not sit on the yellow bench. And she could not—and would not—stand around waiting for me to finish my marble game.

I still remember that bench, primarily because of one old man. I saw him only twice. Each time he fascinated me, not because he sat on a bench that had changed its color, but because of what he did when he sat on the bench.

I watched him closely as he carried a shabby leather briefcase to the bench, sat himself down, and opened the briefcase. Out came a large, dark-brownish tortoise. The old man gently placed it on the ground in front of him, presumably to give the tortoise a little air.

I assumed the tortoise was his beloved pet, possibly his only family. It was certainly a sad time for all of us. How pathetic that lonely old man was I could not fathom then. I only knew I felt sorry for him.

But in years to come, the memory of the old man sitting on the yellow park bench with his tortoise became a symbol to me.

In my mind all of the degradation and isolation heaped upon the Jewish people by the Nazi regime crystallized into the figure of that solitary old gentleman, with his reptile friend, sitting alone on a yellow bench.

(Author’s Note: It was not until September 1, 1941 that a new Nazis law required all Jews over the age of ten to wear a yellow star affixed to their clothing identifying them as Jews. The yellow star was intended to humiliate Jews, as well as make them visible targets vulnerable to attack. Not wearing the insignia carried the death penalty.)

Born in Germany, Ellen Stern came to the United States as a young girl and grew up in Louisville, Kentucky. She’s the author of numerous books for young adult readers, including biographies of Louis D. Brandeis, Nelson Glueck, and Elie Wiesel. Her most recent publication is The French Physician’s Boy, a novel about Philadelphia’s 1793 Yellow Fever epidemic.

 

 

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Vienna – 1938

by Mel Glenn (Brooklyn, NY)

It was like speaking to my mother,
my mother who has been dead for 14 years.

Invited to dinner, I sat next to Renee,
an elegant woman of advanced years.

She looked like my mother, sounded like my mother,
and spoke in soft Viennese accents
that sounded like melted chocolate.

But most remarkable of all,
she lived in that classical city in the same year,
my mother did, 1938, the year of the Anschluss.

Spellbound, I listened as she told the following story:

“Ordinarily, a red flower sitting in a pot on the window sill
basks in the early light, its petals rising to meet the emerging sun.

Amid the tightening noose of soldiers swarming, doors knocked open,
the flower appears as a symbol that beauty has not been crushed
under the soles of marching boots.

But the bright red flower has been discolored
by the growing and blackening evil,
and serves now as an ominous warning sign.

‘Papa if you see a flower on the window sill, do not come home.
The Gestapo is here looking for you. Run, please!
I do not know when I -or the flower- will ever see you again.'”

Both my mother and Renee escaped the Holocaust,
one to Palestine, one to Switzerland.

How many other lives were saved, I wonder,
by the appearance of one red flower
sitting in the morning sun?

The author of twelve books for young adults, Mel Glenn has lived nearly all his life in Brooklyn, NY, where he taught English at A. Lincoln High School for thirty-one years.  Lately, he’s been writing poetry, and you can find his most recent poems in the YA anthology, This Family Is Driving Me Crazy, edited by M. Jerry Weiss.

If you’d like to learn more about his work, visit: http://www.melglenn.com/

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Berlin, November 10, 1938

By Ellen Norman Stern (Willow Grove, PA)

Late on the afternoon of November 10, 1938 my mother and I were traveling home on the Stadtbahn, Berlin’s elevated train system. Fortunately we knew my father had already landed in the United States after the torment of a lengthy stay and an eventful release from the concentration camp of Buchenwald.

Now there were many details still left to be settled for the hoped-for emigration of my mother and me and we had just come from the headquarters of a government office located in another section of the city.

It was cold. Because of the winter month darkness came early. What I remember most clearly was that my mother suddenly decided to get off the train several stops before our regular one. She did not explain why, only said, “I saw something,” grabbed my hand, and pulled me with her when the train doors slid open.

What she had seen I did not understand until she and I had run down the steps at the train stop and headed toward an area which I immediately recognized as Fasanenstrasse, the street where our synagogue was located.

That evening as we got closer to the familiar building a strange scene unfolded.

A large group of people stood on the street in front of the entrance and stared silently at the magnificent synagogue illuminated by a bright glow from within. I had visited the building many times when its facade was splendidly lit, but I had never seen it so luminous, shining so brightly, as if its heart was on fire.

My mother was devout and frequently took me to services here at our synagogue on Fasanenstrasse, the home of Berlin’s liberal Jewish community. I had witnessed my first religious observance in its sanctuary and visited my first Sukkah in its enclosed rear yard.

I was introduced to the rituals of liberal Judaism here. The sound of its majestic organ and the brilliance of its choir had opened a portal to faith to me.

But its magnificent cupola had always fascinated me. When I looked upward, I easily visualized it as God’s throne. Its high golden dome became an umbrella of holiness and safety to me and I could imagine Him watching me from its heights. Under it I felt protected and sanctified.

My mother pointed her finger toward the sky. I followed her glance and saw flames shooting out of the cupola. They burned brightly in the cold evening air, sending down crackling sparks onto the synagogue roof. I thought it surprising that I heard that snapping, popping sound from so far away.

We stood at the rear of the crowd. There were smirks on many faces. What was more astonishing was the sight of several idling fire engines forming a circle around the front of the synagogue. Nearby, their crews in firemen’s uniforms stood in relaxed conversation. At a close distance there were watchers all around. But no one moved. It was eerie, as if the whole scene were a bad dream in slow motion.

It became evident that no one would put out the fire. We stood there for what seemed to me a long time.

Trembling from cold and fright, I stood in the crowd, strongly aware that something quite terrible was happening. I was heavily troubled by thoughts that ran through my head.

“Why is God allowing this? Why is He letting them destroy His beautiful sanctuary? Why is He not striking all these evil people down?”

I was an eleven-year old child living through a very upsetting time. I had already learned not to voice such dangerous thoughts.

When finally, my mother reached for my hand, we turned to leave, and silently walked back to the elevated train station.

When we reached the station, my mother said her only words.

“Remember this,” she said to me.

I have remembered. Through all these many years.

To this very day.

Born in Germany, Ellen Stern came to the United States as a young girl and grew up in Louisville, Kentucky. She’s the author of numerous books for young adult readers, including biographies of Louis D. Brandeis, Nelson Glueck, and Elie Wiesel. Her most recent publication is The French Physician’s Boy, a novel about Philadelphia’s 1793 Yellow Fever epidemic.

 

 

 

 

 

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Father’s Phantom First Family

by Sheldon P. Hersh (Lawrence, NY)

When it came to keeping secrets, few were as tight-lipped as my parents. Once these two Holocaust survivors decided to exclude any one particular topic from conversation, no amount of whimpering, urging or cajoling could convince them to reconsider. You see there were some wartime memories that proved just too painful to discuss and so keeping them under wraps was felt to be the only sensible thing to do.

One such prohibited topic dealt with my father’s first family, a wife and three small children, four innocent victims who perished during the Holocaust. They, along with thousands of others held captive in the Lodz Ghetto, had either succumbed to starvation, exhaustion and illness or were ruthlessly singled out, rounded up and taken to nearby killing centers. The story of this first family had become a closed chapter in a book of tragedies that was to be kept out of sight and out of mind. From my earliest recollection, I sensed that this was a subject that was strictly off limits and, though I was always intrigued, I knew better than to ask too many questions.

My father, who was generally an open and talkative sort, never spoke of this phantom first family. There were no details of their lives and no information as to how or where they died. Talk of their appearance, likes, dislikes, mannerisms and personalities was never forthcoming and remained under lock and key. My mother, perhaps fearful of not wanting to open old painful wounds, seldom discussed any subject that was certain to upset my father. “Your father is a nervous man,” she would often say, “he has suffered enough. There are things you should not ask.”

On rare occasions, mother would inadvertently let a word or two slip about the secret first family but there was never enough information that would amount to much of anything. She always seemed to catch herself right in the nick of time. It was like a pinhole in a drawn window shade that permitted a hint of light but resulted in little, if any, illumination or insight. The first family’s names were never mentioned and their faces never graced the pages of our emaciated photo album.

Growing up, I found myself trying to come up with likely names and images for this first family. I played with the possibilities. The color and texture of their hair, the color of their eyes and any distinctive facial features that would make them stand out in a crowd. In spite of a vivid imagination, my efforts failed miserably as these faceless spirits continued to elude me. Whenever emboldened by a jolt of curiosity, I would cautiously approach my father with questions relating to his first family. “Foolish child, how could you ever possibly understand?” was his customary response, a refrain he often used whenever feeling distressed and at a loss for words. I accepted defeat and never gave it much thought until my own children came on the scene.

While visiting my parents a number of years ago, I was determined to be a bit more forceful in my attempt to learn about this first family. Whether it had been the presence of my own children or the appreciation that I could no longer be put off, my father began to appear a bit more receptive to the idea of introducing his first family into our daily conversations. As the lone survivor of his extended family, he, and only he, could provide information about those who had not survived. No photographs, letters or mementos of the first family’s existence had ever surfaced after the war, making my father’s recollections all the more critical. I was well aware of his sensitivity and appreciated his vulnerability, and, at my mother’s urging, I proposed that we go slowly and proceed at a pace of his own choosing.

Father took a long deep breath and began to speak haltingly of the strife and struggle of life in the ghetto. He continued on this theme for a number of minutes before introducing me to his young daughter and two infant sons. Though details were quite meager, a milestone had been reached that, I hoped, would lead to more open discussion in the near future. A major hurdle was overcome and I could immediately appreciate that a bit of clarity had been sprinkled onto a distant blur. Visions of faint images were beginning to inch forward ever so slowly with the promise of additional advancement if time would only permit. But it did not. My father died soon after our initial breakthrough. This first small step had barely scratched the surface and now there was no one left to ask and nowhere else to turn.

Years later, I came upon a most remarkable work by Josef Zelkowicz, a witness to the horrific events that took the lives of so many in the Lodz Ghetto. In Those Terrible Days: Writings from the Lodz Ghetto, Zelkowicz describes how children were brutally separated from hysterical parents, forced onto transports and then taken to extermination centers:

“Hours have passed since these woes, these agonies, were inflicted on those wretched people, but the situation has not calmed down one bit. Mothers have not yet tired of shrieking, fathers’ wellsprings of tears have not yet sealed, and the silence of the night amplifies the reverberations of the screaming and sobbing. No sound reaches your ears, man, but that bitter wailing; no thought occurs to you but death; and your heart ponders, nothing but devastation.”

I will likely never know what became of this first family. I now, however, understand why it was my father could not relive a time when mothers and fathers, all terror stricken and desperate, wept uncontrollably as their loving children were savagely torn from their protective embrace. His common refrain—“Foolish child, how could you ever possibly understand?”—has now taken on a clarity of its own. My father had been right all along. I could not possibly understand. I could not possibly appreciate the horrors that had left him dispirited and at a loss for words. When it came to any talk, any mention, any recollection of the first family, I now realize that my father couldn’t and my mother wouldn’t. He succeeded in keeping his secret intact, thereby helping safeguard his sanity and keeping us, his current children and loved ones, safe from harm.

Sheldon P. Hersh, an Ear, Nose and Throat Physician with a practice in the New York metropolitan area, is the author of Our Frozen Tears (http://tinyurl.com/kuzlscb), as well as the co-author of The Bugs Are Burning, a book on the Holocaust.

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Auschwitz, August, 2016

By Chaim Weinstein (Brooklyn, NY)

I limp in the dark Eicha night with pain in my knee exploding, and I hear dogs barking in the near-pitch-blackness. Tears fill behind my eyes, not from my knee this time, though I say nothing to anyone. I quickly look at my wife and know we are each with private thoughts.

Several friends offer to get the wheelchair or my cane, and I curtly answer that I’m fine, though I’m anything but fine. I’m no martyr, and I don’t love pain. But in this place, my knee is not the source of my torment.

I walk in thin-soled non-leather sneakers where the rock-strewn road hurts the soles of my feet. I am aware that our people were beaten here seventy years ago, tortured, and beaten through hell in ways I pray to God no human being will ever know. So in this place where our people suffered relentlessly, how dare I complain about anything? I remain silent and worry only about how my wife and son are holding up.

Inside the infamous guard tower, we climb up, overlooking the vast Auschwitz acres, and we sit on the floor, leaning against the inside walls. I think of Germans who’d worked the searchlights here looking for “dangerous” emaciated Jews, often shooting them dead for no reason. I hate them all.

And then it hits me: this night it is we Jews who have overtaken this tower, we Jews are in control tonight of this place dripping with evil. We Jews are here: we have won, thriving in our Jewish lives and culture and religion. And the damned Third Reich? Under the ground. History. Pages in some books. In drerd arein, as my blessed father used to say. We Jews are flesh and blood and sinew and bone and we are here, accentuating our Jewishness right here in the lair of the most barbaric people in history.

And here we are, reading from inside this Nazi watchtower the Book of Eicha, Lamentations, over the destruction of the ancient Temple of the Jews. I need to feel sad, but I am nearly giddy with joy that this watchtower, this temple of evil, is in the hands of our victorious Jewish group tonight.

We return the next morning and daven shachrit in the woods of Auschwitz. I see several acorns on the ground, and I pick up a green one and put it in my pants pocket, my personal connection here, the green of it fresh and full of life in this kingdom of death. At home, friends will ask why there’s an acorn on a shelf in my bookcase that holds my Torah books and my collection of Dostoevsky, Shakespeare, Hemingway and others. I will tell them it fell from a tree in Auschwitz where our group davened shachrit together. The customs people at the JFK airport will ask if I have anything to declare, and I will hold out my wrists and tell them to handcuff me because I’ve broken the law, bringing this acorn home in my pocket. The entire world has committed crimes against us Jews throughout history, and my little green acorn has silently witnessed the Nazi massacre of more than a million of my brothers and sisters and I want to own this teeny, silent witness.

Just a week before, we’d walked through Tikochin Forest, where Jews had been force-marched in, many already near death from weakness and starvation. There, the trees have no branches, no leaves. Nothing new grows, just mammoth tree trunks on either side of the dirt path leading to three mass graves, each site draped now in very large Israeli flags, where Israeli officers pay their respects.  In my imagination, Nazis bully us, smash their rifle-butts against our ribs, our heads, our backs to make us go faster. But we can’t, we are so near death. Some of us fall to the ground, lifeless even as we fall.

The Warsaw Ghetto uprising, and the remnant wall. Operation Reinhart. Chachmei Lublin. Treblinka. the Nozyk shul. The Tempel shul. The Rebbe Elimelech of Lezajsk. Majdanek. Crematoria. Krakow. The Rama. Tosafot Yom Tov. The Hocha shul. Schindler and ‘his’ Jews in his factory.

So many reminders of deep Jewish life and most painful Jewish death all over Poland. The Poles, the Lithuanians, the Hungarians, all Hitler’s willing executioners, often gleefully torturing Jewish people. And so many other places and issues and thoughts and pain.

We now have America, as long as that haven lasts.

But we definitely have Israel, our true home, where we Jews will be in charge of the fate of our people. And so it continues for us as Jews whose souls were in Poland, and for us as Jews, part of this mission, living in New York and elsewhere.

On a personal note: when I finished learning the Tractate Taanis in memory of my parents and those of my wife’s, I was excited to make a siyum in Poland. (A siyum is the traditional ceremony one makes upon completing a tractate.) I made a siyum in that very country whose populace sought to destroy the Jewish nation and our Torah, and here I was, in their face, showing them all that we Jews and our Torah live on.

For more than thirty years, Chaim Weinstein taught English in grades six through college in New York City public schools as well as in several parochial schools. His poems and stories have appeared on The Jewish Writing Project, and his short story, “Ball Games and Things,” was published in Brooklyn College’s literary magazine, Nocturne.

 

 

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