Sefer Torah from Sompolno
New York, January 15th, 2000
Letter of Lee Berendt to Dr. Lucja Nowak, Director of the Konin Museum
31 Blauvelt Street
Nanuet, New York 10954-3304
Dr. Lucia Nowak
Regional Museum of Konin
Konin: Poznan, Poland
Dear Dr. Nowak:
I started to write this letter in the summer, but personal and family problems prevented its completion. It was way before I received your last letter and the items that were included in it.
I am the youngest and the last Jewish boy who is literate enough to describe the town and the children's and adults' interactions. It is not only important to you but also for me to put all the thoughts and memories that I have on paper. I'm sorry, but I can only do this in English. I am totally transformed into this language. This does not prevent me from clear thinking in my former languages of Polish and Yiddish.
That last paragraph was how I started this letter back in the summer. I am sitting here on my mount of contemplation, a porch (swiatynia dumania), in New York, USA, a country that Pilsudski dreamed about a hundred years ago that a multi-ethnic state should be. He was prevented from executing his multinational dream by all kinds of religious and prejudicial forces in his time.
After reading your letter, the first things that came to my mind were the opening lines from Pan Tadeusz, Slowacki's experiences in the Holy Land, and Sienkiewicz's trilogy to the tune of some of Chopin's (Szopen's) melodies. If I would have some of Sienkiewicz's talent, I could write about the fire and mayhem that others and I went through in our time.
The lady from Israel, Ada, whose parents came from Gombin, wrote that the connection to me is through Chelmno. That is partially incorrect. Jewishly and in Polish culture as I remember it, cemeteries were never desecrated. Jewishly we connect only with living things; a cemetery and a place of murder or atrocities are only to be kept in high respect but are not to be worshipped.
The sefer torah that you are mothering over is a living item for Jews and Christians. That torah is part of our dual culture -- it makes no difference in which language it is written, but it has to be followed with a good heart.
Although almost a secularist, I was well-educated in Sompolno. I knew Polish well, its literature and history, and also Hebrew. I still read Hebrew well and would still be able to read from your torah's archaic print and match it up with modern print.
I knew the Baumgart household well. (I will send you a map of the town with outlines.) I am glad to hear that our synagogue became a library; all those people who ever worshipped in her would heartily approve. You also mention that houses were built on the cemetery land, but this was done while the Communists were in power. I have to inform you that in that cemetery were eight graves from the Battle of Ignacewo in 1863. There are also graves of heroes from the same struggle in the Catholic cemetery. They were all under the regional command of General Taczanowski.
Is Mr. Zbigniew Lukaszewski from Gombin, who was born in Sompolno, the son of a ksiengarnia owner in Sompolno who died in Dachau and the brother of an Edmund Lukaszewski who married my schoolmate, a brunette girl with the family name of Tokarska?
About the boznica (synagogue), this was a fairly new building. The first one was a wooden structure built on land just north of it. All the insides from the wooden synagogue were transferred to the new masonry structure. It had three entrances, one on each end and a double-door main entrance in front about two meters wide, separated from the sidewalk by an elegant wrought iron fence and gates for each entrance. When you entered the synagogue, there was a vestibule and a separate room to the right where all religious and funeral paraphernalia were kept. Straight ahead were two very heavy French doors on double action hinges, a little platform, and one step down to the main floor. In the center of the total area was the reader's platform, about four steps high from both sides, topped by a black wrought iron railing. That platform was curved on the east and west sides. The north and south sides were straight so as to accommodate the steps. On the east side of the platform was a table with a slanted top to lay the torah scroll down for reading. There was enough room to accommodate a gabbai standing on each side of the table. (The last gabbai's name was Zalman Berendt.) The last torah reader and religious and Hebrew teacher in the public school was Mr. Mordechai Niewolski.
On the west side of that platform was a bench made to fit the curvature of the railing. This bench was used when the torah was being dressed to be put back into the altar. In front of the platform were pews along the whole length of the curvature on the east side. On the west side of the platform was an open area where adolescent boys or young men would congregate for services. I personally never reached that age. On the east wall, there was an imposing altar reaching up about two-thirds the height of the building centered in the inside part of the curvature of the wall itself and directly in line with the platform.
The east wall had a curved, protruding section outside into which the ark was built. The closet or cabinet where the torah scrolls were kept was about one-third above the floor and covered with doors and fine drapery. To reach it there were two staircases on either side set about 60 degrees apart spaced on top about one meter apart for a person to address the audience.
In between the two staircases, the floor tilted down slightly and there was a lectern toward the wall on this floor and there was a Jewish religious (God'sh) sign, a menorah, and a kiddush cup on the wall itself or perhaps part of the lectern for a cantor to perform part of the services. The last cantor's name was Mr. Gdanski. The staircases, the platform, the railings and spindles, and the altar itself were all made out of wood of a very fine craftsmanship and painted a brilliant white accented with gold trim.
On each side of the synagogue interior, separated from the center reading platform by about a meter and a half and about three-fourths of a meter from each wall were rows of benches. Starting from the east wall, and about three-quarters of the length of the floor area, were seats with all kinds of contraptions for reading while either sitting or standing and with enough space to accommodate a father and two children. The first row of seats on the east wall were reversed. The rabbi's place was on the left side of the floor of the altar platform. The last rabbi's name there was Rabbi David Laski, the grandson of the first rabbi after whom your torah was dedicated.
The open areas on the floor were used for single people or for people who wanted to have a little quiet talk while the torah section was being read. The lower floor that I have just described was for men only. The upper floor was the width of the building (going north to south) and U-shaped. The center of the upper floor was reaching out about a little less than halfway over the center platform on the floor, extending on each side in line with the benches below, going east about two-thirds of the way.
The upstairs had rows of wooden seats for women to sit on and there was a wooden banister all around with the most exquisite latticework. To reach this upstairs area, there were two entrances on either side of the building. The entire upstairs area was anchored to the wall and supported with wooden posts on the inside, set between the downstairs seats.
The windows in the synagogue went all around the building, starting from about a meter and a half off the floor and extending almost to the ceiling, almost like Gothic windows, thus permitting plenty of light to enter. Electric lights were added later on.
On the west wall, to the right of the door, was a bronze plaque commemorating three fallen soldiers from the 1920 war, myunincluded. This synagogue's walls wenever painted on the inside and were decorated with the instrument described in the 150th Psalm.
This region was quite prosperous before the First World War. It supplied foodstuffs, grain, horses, cattle, and livestock to Germany. A large number of farm laborers were also supplied. Before 1914, most of the army's equipment, in addition to the cavalry, was moved by horses, but after the First World War everything stopped. The country was impoverished, milked dry by the German armies occupying it. After the war, what could Poland produce or manufacture and sell on the open market in competition with the Western countries?
A school system needed to be started from scratch where before almost none existed. Buildings, administrators, and teachers had to be built and trained with very little outside help. In the old Russian Empire, the Polish state was only a fiction after the 1831 uprising. The Russian Empire had hundreds of tribes, some large and some small, and all handled with the hand of a Cossack. The Jews were one of the tribes dispersed among the other ones, but they did not claim any territorial rights.
In the newly independent Poland, there were Poles and Jews, a large group with a small group living amongst it, one citizenship with dual nationality for the Jews. In the poverty after the war and the reconstruction period, there was economic friction, lack of industrialization, and a lack of distribution of the large estates for the peasantry. The Jews eked out a living servicing the non-Jewish population by tailoring, shoemaking, and small merchandising where unlimited hours of work were required. The Jews could not have entered the workforce in the large factories even if given a chance because the factories operated six days a week and the Jews would not work on Saturdays.
In Sompolno, we had a very amicable relationship among Jews, Poles, and Germans. It was a sight to see the proboszt walk through the town flanked by the rabbi and the pastor on a national holiday's parade. If anyone would insult a Jew ethnically, several Poles would come to his defense. There were never any pogroms in the whole territory as far as I can remember.
In October 1945, I returned to Poland. To describe how ingrained my family was in the town, I encountered a woman who knew my father 20 years before I was born. When she saw me, she exclaimed to her kuma, "This is Kuku Laihiwnuk." My maternal grandmother's name was Rachel Leah. The Polish women had a play on words on her name and would call her this behind her back. (My grandmother had died in the spring of 1939.) Needless to say, my father was a native of Konin.
I have to describe some incidents from the town about how the German population behaved. Born and raised in the town among the other Christians, they took and demolished all the Catholic statues and signs in 1940, while I was still home. Some Catholics with German names took German citizenship and applauded these actions. I met Mrs. Staszczak, our neighbor and my mother's confidante, who told me, "My son was married to that Ficner girl and he applauded when they were tearing down the large retaining wall of the church."
I was on the crew in late 1940 that demolished and gutted out the interior of the synagogue on Wehrmacht orders. All the lumber was taken to the schoolyard on Kaliska Street, where the Wehrmacht was stationed, and chopped to pieces to be able to be fit into the tile ovens for heating. Sometimes an individual soldier would stop, look around, and say in German, "We (Germans) will pay a high price for all these things."
Sompolno was quite a literate town for its size. It had a German gymnasium where other people could also attend. The Jewish community had its own religious and middle-level schools, each of which also taught secular subjects up through the fifth grade. All of these schools were for boys only. The girls went to the general public schools. Everything was under the direct control of the kierownik from the government's public schools.
I attended my first two years in these Jewish schools. In third grade, all Jewish children were transferred to the new government school, which I attended until the spring of 1937. Prior to opening that school, classes were held in rooms throughout the town. The Jewish community also had a large multilingual library that served all the neighboring townships. I have seen the books through the basement windows in the old Town Hall in 1945. This library is where I first got my love of reading books.
From your description, I can tell that you are not familiar with Jewish customs and ethics. It is not your fault because there was no one there to teach you and so all kinds of printouts are needed to get you familiar with the items you have in hand. I am the last guy who attended these ceremonial feasts as a boy with my father as other boys did with theirs. Chances are that I might have sipped wine from that cup inscribed with Bibrowski's name.
In my time, there were three Bibrowski families around town; how or if they were related to the Bibrowski to whom the cup is inscribed, I don't know. All three of these families were very prominent in the town in my time but none of them survived the war.
I am the last literate Jewish boy who grew up and was educated in that town, ran barefoot on the scierniska with other boys, played in a summer downpour with little bark boats in the gutter (there was no filth in these gutters), sometimes stole fresh carrots from the gardens, picked ripe fruit from the trees, learned a trade, and almost grew to manhood. It finishes with me, but where did it start?
Let's start with the promiscuous Chrobry. When he advanced east, he captured Kiev and must have brought back some Jews or khazars and perhaps a Jewish damsel. How else can you explain Polish coins with Hebrew letters?
His descendant and ruler of the province invited Jews to his territory as you stated in your letter. I have seen in Israel a copy of this statement from 1264 written in Latin and Polish by this noble prince, Boleslaw the Saint, inviting Jews to the territory for commerce and industry.
My maternal family tree most probably came from that group who lived in towns all around Poznan. The Polish state and its rulers tolerated and protected its Jewish inhabitants and never tried to force conversion. When Jews were driven from other lands, they could always find a place in Poland, where they lived under the protection of the realm. German escapees from the Thirty Years War also found refuge in Poland. Therefore I can state that all the Polish kings were also my kings the same as George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, Lincoln, and Roosevelt were my and my children's presidents.
There is a statue in New York City's Central Park of King Wladislaw Jagello. When I courted my wife, I explained to her that this man, a Lithuanian by birth, married a Hungarian princess, a daughter of a Hungarian king Ludwig. She was also the granddaughter of Kasimir the Great, the last of the Piasts.
Needless to say, my wife is from Hungary. This couple ushered in the golden age in Poland and also for the Jewish people. In their illustrious realm, the Jewish well-wishers at the coronations were not murdered as they were in England or France. This dynasty issued the most advanced edicts of toleration and goodwill. I myself ate bread from the same ground as their teacher and the founder of the Jagellonian academy, namely, Wojciech of Brudzewo. In that state (Poland), the Jews were allowed to organize as separate entities under Jewish law courts with separate taxation and education, with minimal interference from the state, only to collect taxes for Poland. The question is: why did the kings of the state want to have the Jews in there to do the commercial jobs? They had other alternatives, as the rulers in the western countries had. After all, this land was not an unknown item, as it was called Sarmatia by the Romans and Kalish was known to Tacitus.
In my opinion, it is the just, non-prejudicial nature of the Slavic race that wanted to have a controllable alternative independent of the HolyRomEmpire for economic and commercidevelopment, and only the Jewish people, with their physical and political weakness and high moral and religious standards, could give the king and state this service. Poland became a Roman Catholic country in 966 via Prague and Czechia. They were also pressured from Christian Germany economically. The German monarch had designs on annexing Polish lands from the time Poland became a state 1000 years ago. Only in 1945 was that boundary reversed and Poland reclaimed the western provinces.
As I mentioned before, as long as the Polish state existed, my people, the Jewish people, had a good landlord, better than in any other place. The Jewish people regrouped, learned some self-government, and were treated as a nation until the Polish state disintegrated. The Polish people and its Jewish inhabitants found themselves occupied by three rapacious, eighteenth-century powers. It will be too long to repeat here what each section had to go through, but the national spirit of Poland did not die. Although the Jews were treated indifferently, the Constitution of the Third of May 1791 did not forget its Jewish inhabitants and gave them more rights as a people than anywhere since we had lost our independence. Even the "great" Bonaparte found it too liberal and suspended it for 20 years. Even the Polish people, the most devoted to his cause, he offended, naming the state that he created the Duchy of Warsaw.
The next question is: what do the two groups, the Jews and the Poles, owe each other? Poland, the landlord, gave the Jews housing and protection. Part of the Jewish culture rubbed off on the Polish Christian culture. Some of the framers of the Third of May constitution were enlightened theologians and noblemen. Kosciuszko did not hesitate to take Jewish volunteers. In the 1831 uprising, General Chlopicki did not want sacred Polish blood to mix with Jewish blood. In the 1863 uprising, Traugut and Plater sent out a call for the whole nation to join in the rebellion against Russia, and Jewish volunteers participated. (Traugut and Plater were of German stock, and so was Colonel Miller, who led the cavalry charge in 1939 into East Prussia. So was my last capo in Auschwitz-Monowitz on the 147th commando, a Silesian.
Not everybody who was of German stock joined the German cause; some resisted and paid the price.) Out of that 19th-century struggle for independence, many factions arose in Poland, some accomodating the occupying powers and others looking for a way to gain political independence. On those Slavic lands, by the end of the 19th century, in Russia there was Narodna Wola (The People's Will) and the Poles had Pilsudski's P.P.S. Each group wanted to bring a more enlightened state of affairs to the lands occupied by the autocratic regimes.
The Jews learned, when they left their clustered, religious surroundings, to embrace Socialism as the panacea of the future. And so was organized the Socialist Bund to work for improvements on the lands where the people lived. Other varieties of Zionism (nationalism) were created there, some left-of-center Socialists to almost liberal democrats, all propagating to re-create a new national home in Palestine to be able to have cultural and political independence. It is no accident that all of the early Zionist and Bund theoreticians and leaders of Israel came from the Polish-White Russian-Lithuanian lands, copycats as they were of the Polish revolutionaries of the late 19th and early 20th centuries.
The only place that I personally knew in Poland where a pogrom had occurred was in Golina, where the Swedes instituted one when they ravaged the whole land. The pogroms in Ukraine on the lands that Kasimir the Great annexed were the result of the struggle between the Poles and Ruthenes, and the Jews fell right in between because they were identified with the Polish state.
In the Poland where I grew up, there was total safety for a Jewish boy to travel by foot or on wagon without being molested by anybody. Agreements were concluded by a mere handshake, money exchanged without a receipt. Jewish peddlers walking through the villages, taking items for sale to town, gave the money to the peasants when the items had been sold. The poor Jew had no money to lay out--he only gave a service for which he made some profit.
The Polish population knew exactly what types of food that Jews were allowed to eat as kosher. The Poles were willing to share the little food that they had with the Jews with whom they did business, and when some of the Jews would not partake, then the Poles would be very offended and wouldn't do business with those Jews. Business was conducted six days a week for the Christian merchants. The Jewish businesses were closed on Friday evenings and Saturdays. I can only remember menfolk going home from the houses of prayer with their children, being greeted lovingly and in a friendly manner by the Christian population.
Friday nights in clear weather, summer and winter, people would go out for a spacer on the main sidewalk along the whole length of Warsawska Street. On Saturdays, the less religious Jewish population walked after dinner on the street and in the surrounding areas of the town to enjoy the fresh air in the summer, greeting the Polish farmers working with, "Wczesc Boze," while the farmers answered with, "Bog zaplac" without any rancor or prejudice. Sunday morning was the Christian turn of events, with couples dressed in their holiday finery walking hand in hand with their children in tow. So were grownups, men and women, going for church services greeted by the Jewish population as they passed.
All this finished sometime in mid-September 1939. The Jewish population lost their rights immediately through their property and limb. The Polish population was defeated and, under international law, had some rights as Christians. The Jewish property and businesses were confiscated immediately. By 1940, the Germans terrorized the leading Polish citizens of Sompolno and took them to Kolo, never to return. Only boxes of ashes returned. Entire families were expelled from their businesses, farms, and households and were then sent to central Poland. Even Mr. Freidenreich and his two daughters in Kolo were taken across the street from where they lived to the Jewish cemetery and were executed.
In July 1941, I was taken away to work on the Autobahn near Zbaszyn. On February 2, 1942, my whole family and my whole town were exterminated in Chelmno.
We in the town had a probosz, a saintly person, a man like John XXIII, who treated the whole town's citizens, Jew and Gentile alike, as his own children. The Lutheran minister was an anti-Nazi and was taken away with his wife and children by the Nazis as soon as they arrived in town. I don't know what happened to him and his family.
Rabbi David Laski left the pulpit in Sompolno for a position in Radigoszcz, near Lodz. When he, a tall man and dressed in his rabbinical attire, walked the streets of Sompolno, the gentiles would stop and tip their hats to him and would call him Nasz Rabbin (our rabbi). He was one of the speakers who represented the Jewish authorities to the Seim.
There was also propaganda in Poland from the papal nuncio Hlond which said that the Jews cannot be trusted and are all Communists. The rabbis in their answer ran to Cardinal Sapiecha, no friend of Pilsudski, for protection. It is no wonder that the present pope is a direct ecclesiastical descendant of Cardinal Sapiecha, while the present papal nuncio is a descendant of Cardinal Hlond.
Jewish men drafted into the Polish army wore that uniform with honor and pride. A large part of the KOP battalions used for guarding the border with the Soviet Union were Jewish. The Polish state and army did not think of them as traitors. I still remember Rabbi David Laski's only son, who was drafted into the Polish army and was stationed during his service in the heavy artillery in Modlin, with what pride he walked the streets of Sompolno on furlough on Saturdays in his military uniform with a long sword hanging by his side.
My own mother told me when I was about seven years old, in the timwhenmy oldest brother was in the th Cavalry in Poznan, "The day should never come that they [the Poles] would not want to take you into the army."
My dear friend, although I have never met you personally, I can feel that you are favorably disposed to our lost Polish-Jewish culture and you have tried to preserve, document, and display artifacts of a people who were completely destroyed. I will prove to you that my feelings in this letter are not merely being made up for you by including all writings and testimonials that I have given through the years.
It is history as I have seen it and felt it and, as they say in America, let the chips fall where they may. There is always talk about anti-Semitism (anti-Jewish feelings), but the whole Christian world is not free of it. The Polish people generally are the least susceptible to that propaganda -- there is no ingrained racial or superiority complex among your people. Just to illustrate one point, when Israel in 1967 won a decisive victory over three Soviet-supplied armies, the Communist Polish government broke relations with Israel. The Polish people played Israeli martial music in their windows and they said, "Our Jews whipped the daylights out of the Russians." ("Nasze zydki pobily Moscalow.")
I believe that there should be a meeting of our two peoples' representatives to enlighten our common past and cohabitation. After all, the Polish state and government did not hand over its Jewish citizens to Nazi slaughter as other enlightened countries did. The Polish state and its people were powerless to do anything to stop it and the moral forces in the West pretended not to see it.
Coming back to the matter of what happened to the Jewish graves in the Sompolno cemetery, were the remains removed and buried somewhere else? Simply violating graves and building over them is definitely not a Polish custom. When they built the new school on Kaliska Street in the late 1920's, they unearthed a tremendous graveyard. I saw it when my father or mother took me for a walk and there were crates lying out in the street just off the sidewalk, going up the hill until the railroad crossing. As I remember and as I learned later, these must have been remains from the Swedish invasion of Poland in the 17th century. The bones were interred respectfully by the authorities. There is also a graveyard or Swedish mound in the village of Lubstowek, just south of Sompolno.
Now, I'm sitting in New York, in the waning years of my life, remembering my youthful past, the lively clamor, the interactions of people on market days when the streets and the town square were full of people. That world does not exist anymore. It will never be resurrected. Too much useless spoilage has come in between. At the end, only the real truth shines through and you have your thumb on it.
It would be folly for me to compare myself with the Polish greats and where they ended up. Mickiewicz could not go back to his beloved Lithuania. He was favorably disposed towards Jews. To the annoyance of some later anti-Semites, he had a Jewish ancestor, but his verses are a living testimonial to the nation he loved. If only Slowacki, who was not to favorably disposed towards Jews, as neither my father nor his father were towards backwards Jews, could see that the children of the despised Jews have built a gleaming city on the sand dunes of the Holy Land where his family expired. Chopin, beside his love and health problems, couldn't understand in his short life that the Jewish ear was not accustomed to his lovely music, but it is now.
Koscioszko, the greatest humanitarian of all time, as I read it in an American paper, has the most endearing love from my family and those people whom I know. His name is as American as Washington's. Pulaski tried to give us freedom in Poland, failed, came to America, was killed in battle, and I enjoy the freedom that he paid for.
As for myself, I remember when I was a first- or second-grader that there was a Mr. Zlotnicki who was not much taller than the children he led around town and to whom he told the lore of the town. For example, he told us that the town square used to be only a hill, whereas in the 1930's the hill had been leveled off and paved over with medium stones. To us children this was unbelievable. He died in the late '30's, being close to 90.
Now, all remnants of the stones of the town square have been eliminated where they were once laid out in a radiating pattern; today it is only a sitting park.
There is nothing to go back to except in my memory. Mr. Zlotnicki was also present as a boy in 1863 when they brought the fallen Jewish heroes from Ignacewo for burial in our local cemetery.
P.S. On the Jewish festival of Simchat Torah, which comes out on the 23rd day of the seventh lunar month, there is a torah reading. In Sompolno, there were two readings which took place simultaneously: in good weather, a special reading took place outside between the iron gate and the door of the synagogue, and in bad weather inside the vestibule, completely separated from the other reading of the torah in the main sanctuary.
Persons such as left-wingers, atheists, Socialists, or Communists who would never attend synagogue otherwise went to this special reading; they called this holiday Constitution Day.
Dressed up in a dark suit and with a red buttonierre in his lapel, the torah reader for this group in my time was a master tailor and a native of Dabie by the name of Joseph Skokowski who lived across the street from the synagogue. You must have heard or read that in the Soviet Union the Jewish people congregated on Simchat Torah in the only legal synagogue in Moscow, the Chorale Synagogue, to the annoyance of the authorities. The holiday's name is taken from the portion of the torah read that week, part of Chapter 33 of Deuteronomy, from the phrase "This is the blessing."
Perhaps you can arrange a yearly reading to commemorate our common past. Perhaps it will give a blessing to our people. Your present foreign minister, Mr. Geremek, had a Jewish father who became a leading member of the Polish Communist Party before the war. I read an article by Mr. Shechter's friend Mr. Rosenthal, who was also a leading figure in the pre-war Communist Party, stating that while they were both students at the University of Warsaw in the 1920s or '30s they were sentenced to prison for illegal Communist activities. Upon release, they were subsequently readmitted to the university. The provost then asked Rosenthal, "Did you work for a foreign power?" He answered, "No, I only worked to improve the lot of the Polish proletariat." In the article, he stated that he was totally oblivious to the economic plight of the Jews at that time in Poland. By the time he realized it, the Poles didn't need him and there were no more Jews to help.
Mr. Rosenthal's son was at that time the chief correspondent of The New York Times in Warsaw. You informed me that a single Jew landed in Sompolno recently. Let me know where he came from and the address where he lives. It is a beginning. Mr. Geremek wants to make Poland a multi-ethnic state as Pilsudski and Zeromski once dreamed about.
When Senator Boleslaw Limoniewicz passed away in the mid-'30s, at about the same time as the Hebrew poet Bialik and the Zionist Sokolow, he was mourned as much as the other two. We youngsters in our naivete thought that any day there would be free elections in Poland and Tomasz Arcziszewski would become president and Zyndram Niedzialkowski would become prime minister. We never had any ideas that any Jew would attain that high a position.
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