The Holocaust

The Beginnings of the Holocaust

This is an extract from a book by Sever and Alice Sternhell titled Our Mob: A Family Chronicle, published privately in Sydney in 2005. Professor Sever Sternhell (above) was one of Australia’s most distinguished scientists. He was Professor of Chemistry at the University of Sydney and a Fellow of the Australian Academy of Science. In June 2018, he was made an Officer of the Order of Australia “for distinguished service to education in the field of organic chemistry, specifically to nuclear magnetic resonance, as an academic and researcher, and to scientific institutions”. He was a highly valued member of the board of Quadrant Magazine Ltd from 1998 until his death in November 2022, aged ninety-two. Sev, as his friends knew him, was an Ashkenazi Jew and a Holocaust survivor. He was born in Poland in May 1930 and grew up in the city of Lwow (now known as Lviv, the principal city of western Ukraine). During the Second World War he lived through the Nadworna massacre, the Lwow Ghetto and the Bergen-Belsen concentration camp. The article here comes from Chapter Four of Our Mob, titled “The Holocaust”.

* * *

The Nadworna Massacre

Nadworna was not situated on a major strategic route, and the German mechanised units just passed through, shortly after the long columns of the retreating horse-drawn vehicles of the Red Army left. Before retreating, the NKVD, the precursor of the KGB and the main instrument of internal terror, killed all the political prisoners in their hands. Even in little Nadworna (population about 6000), there was an NKVD prison and they killed about eighty prisoners and buried them in a shallow grave in an area known as Bukovinka (beech forest) on the outskirts of Nadworna. When the local Ukrainians discovered this grave a few weeks later, they rounded up a couple of hundreds of Nadworna’s Jews, including my uncle Milek, and forced them with great brutality to disinter the bodies and clean them up. A pogrom resulted, with several deaths, as the Ukrainians chose to blame the Jews for Soviet atrocities. Interestingly, my uncle Milek observed that several of the victims of the NKVD were in fact Jews: they were circumcised.

After a short period of chaotic rule by armed Ukrainian gangs, the Hungarian army allied with Germany occupied this area, which was quite close to the Hungarian border. The Hungarians were civilised, did not bother Jews or anybody else, but unfortunately departed after a few weeks. While they were in occupation, the Hungarian regime deported (essentially chucked over the Carpathian mountains) some thousands of Hungarian Jews whom they considered not to be Hungarian citizens—they were people of Polish-Jewish parentage. About 2000 of these poor people, burdened with only what they could carry, turned up in Nadworna, swelling its Jewish population to 4500. The local Jews billeted these refugees in their homes and fed them: in our place landed an upper-middle-class family who spoke excellent German, as well as of course Hungarian, but not Polish. They were a middle-aged couple with three handsome strapping sons aged between eighteen and twenty-nine.

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After the Hungarians departed, the Germans set up a civil administration headed by a “Landesrat”, sometimes also called “Landeskommissar”, a sort of chief public servant. This middle-aged and somewhat bewildered German recruited a few Jews as his advisers and helpers (after all, the Jews were educated and spoke German!) with the principal adviser being a physician, Dr Schall, an in-law of Milek’s and a very close friend of our family. This would save my life.

We continued living fearfully, but not dramatically, till October 6, 1941. The day dawned like any other, except that I noted some Ukrainian youths being led down the street by a few armed and helmeted SS men: the first SS I had ever seen. They were obviously from out of town and were, as I much later discovered, members of the Einsatzgruppe C commanded by SS Brigade Fuhrer Dr Otto Rasch. The young Ukrainians were loudly repeating in Ukrainian, “We have nothing to fear, we have done nothing!” but the SS paid no attention. We had no idea what this was all about, but they were in fact loaded into a truck and taken to Bukovinka to dig mass graves for us, after which they were simply let go. At exactly 11 a.m., all hell broke loose: numerous trucks disgorged what appeared to be hundreds of helmeted SS-men carrying their “ein-und-dreitzigs”, the thirty-one-shot machine pistols, around their necks. Guided by uniformed Ukrainian militiamen they brought along, they went from house to house and herded all the Jews out. They must have been helped by local Ukrainians, who were the only ones who knew where the Jews lived, but I don’t recall this. We were totally bewildered and shocked as our family of six (Milek, Genia, Tania, Grandmother Caroline, Rela and myself) was marched down the main street to the soccer field in front of the main church of Nadworna. The very large soccer field appeared from a distance to be covered with bundles of clothing: in fact they were the Jews of Nadworna, made to kneel and get up, kneel and get up, over and over again—there must have been at least 1000 people on this field by the time we arrived.

The SS surrounded the field and some Ukrainian militiamen kept belting people on the edges of the crowd with long sticks rather like the laths carried by the police in India and Nepal. To one side stood their commanding officer (SS-Standartenfuehrer Erhardt Kroeger—according to my research on the internet sixty years later, who was the commandant of Sonderkommando 6, under Rasch) with an Alsatian dog which was attacking (not very severely) the Jews nearest to Kroeger. We joined the crowd and were made to kneel and get up repeatedly (God only knows why), while more and more Jews were herded onto the soccer field. After a while, trucks began to load groups of Jews of about fifty at a time and drove off—they were loaded from the front of the field while we were close to the back. Suddenly, we heard a loud yell of “Schall! Schall” and “Micka! Micka!” the latter being the diminutive name of Mrs Schall, who was Milek’s sister. Seconds later, one of the Ukrainians next to Kroeger yelled out “Mannheim! Mannheim!” and the six of us ran towards Kroeger. Next to him stood Dr Schall, white as chalk, and the German Landesrat, only slightly less bewildered and terrified. It transpired later that the Landesrat wished to save Schall, who in turn tried to save his immediate family and us. When Micka and their little daughter failed to appear after a few minutes, Kroeger turned to us and harangued us to help the Landesrat, who could only interject numerous “Jawohls!!” (Yes indeed!!). A couple of armed SS men escorted us back to our house and told us to stay put, which we certainly did. I emphasise that we had absolutely no idea what was really going on. We scrapped together a meal and tried to sleep.

Next morning, Miedzic, a Ukrainian foreman in the oil refinery, a decent man and a long-time loyal subordinate of Milek’s, turned up to see if we were still here and told us what happened: the trucks took their loads to Bukovinka, where the Jews were made to strip naked and were machine-gunned into the freshly dug mass graves. Earlier that morning, Miedzic had walked to those graves, which were yet to be covered, and identified people we knew in the top layer of corpses. The trucks kept going back and forth between the soccer field and Bukovinka till the last load went to their deaths at 11 p.m., at which time the “aktion” (a dreaded word we later got to know well) ceased abruptly. The last 200 to 300 people still on the soccer field were simply left behind unharmed. Murder by the clock! 11 a.m. to 11 p.m.! How German!

Of the 4500 Jews in Nadworna about 2500 died that day. Micka Schall and her little daughter were never dragged out of the crowd: either they got there after we left, or they were too fearful to heed the life-saving call. Of the family of five Hungarian Jewish refugees in our house (they were caught apart from us) only the mother survived: she lost her husband and three sons on that one day and, I am absolutely sure, did not survive for long herself.

The story of the Einsatzgruppen (imaginatively named A, B, C and D) is not as well known as the story of the extermination camps (Auschwitz, Treblinka, Belzec, Sobibor, Chelmno and Majdanek), but in 1941-1942 they followed the advancing German army in the east and by “actions” similar to what I witnessed in Nadworna, killed an estimated 1,500,000 Jews. The notorious massacre in Babi Yar (Old Woman’s Ravine) near Kiew in which 30,000 Jews were killed over one weekend and 90,000 in total, is the best-known of these actions. As the Germans retreated in 1943-1944, they dug up most of the mass graves and burned the decomposing bodies, using Jewish slave workers who were subsequently killed. However, they missed a few smaller graves and, as with all massacres, enough of us survived to bear witness.

I have found on the internet a number of memoirs by survivors from Nadworna, which feature that day, October 6, 1941, very prominently. Otto Rasch (below) was tried in 1948 but died of natural causes before being sentenced. Erhardt Kroeger was tried in 1967; I could not discover the result. Other commanders of the Einsatzgruppen were tried and hanged or sentenced to long prison terms.

Since the appearance of the first edition of this memoir, I have come across two documents highly relevant to the events that took place in Nadworna on October 6, 1941, which came to be called the Nadworna Massacre. They are the monograph The Origins of the Final Solution (2004), by the noted Holocaust scholar Christopher R. Browning, and a Shoah Resource Center document by Dieter Pohl dated 1998, titled Hans Kruger and the Murder of the Jews in the Stanislawow Region (Galicia).

Briefly, the SS-uniformed thugs I escaped by the skin of my teeth on that date were not members of the Sonderkommando 6 of the Einsatzgruppe C commanded by SS-Standartenfuhrer Erhardt Kroeger (right), but the Reserve Police Battalion 133 commanded by SS-Hauptsturmfuhrer Hans Kruger, a much bigger and nastier beast. My confusion arose from the similarity of their surnames: I knew that the chief murderer of the Jews of Eastern Galicia was headquartered in Stanislawow and called “Kruger” and when I read about the activities of Einsatzgruppe C (which actually did most of their “work” further east) and the fact that the commander of one of its Sonderkommandos was called Erhardt Kroeger, I put two and two together and got it wrong. This does not affect my actual memory of that day, which was of special historical importance, as some historians of the Holocaust, such as Dieter Pohl, believe that the Nadworna Massacre marked the actual beginning of the “Final Solution”.

Hans Kruger (born in 1909, right), whom I still vividly remember in his SS uniform with the “Totenkopf” (skull-and-bones) emblem and boots, was a real horror who reportedly enjoyed his “work”. At the end of the war he was captured in Holland but as his activities in Poland were unknown, he was released in 1948. He lived and prospered in West Germany and became so confident that he started to participate in right-wing German politics. However, his past caught up with him in 1959 and eventually he was sentenced to life imprisonment by a German court in 1968 after a trial lasting for two years during which he indulged in numerous anti-Semitic outbursts. He was released in 1986 and died in 1988.


The Lwow Ghetto

Back in Nadworna, the family decided that I must be returned to Lwow and rejoin my parents. A brave Polish lass, about nineteen years old, took me to Lwow by train as her little brother, and we made this perilous journey without incident. Lwow’s Jews, about 140,000 people (the numbers swollen by people from some neighbouring small towns), had not yet been subjected to serious mass murder: the worst that had happened was a pogrom causing the deaths of about 3000, when hundreds of bodies left in the NKVD prison were discovered by the advancing Germans and their Ukrainian followers. I brought the first news of the operation of the Einsatzgruppen, but even though many similar reports followed, we still did not realise that we were dealing with a program of extermination.

The Germans herded Lwow’s Jews into a Ghetto (below), but the district was not walled in at this stage: it was a so-called open Ghetto. You could walk out of the Ghetto, but if you wore the identifying white armband with a blue star you could well finish up in the dreaded Janowska labour-cum-transit camp where many thousands perished. If you took the armband off and were discovered, you also finished up in Janowska or were shot on the spot.

We shared a small flat with a family called Blind, a one-time business partner of my maternal grandfather’s. The Blinds had three children aged fourteen to seventeen, one girl and two boys to whom I grew quite close. The Blind family was eventually totally exterminated.

The Germans also organised a Jewish self-government under what we would now call a committee of twelve prominent Jews, the so-called Judenrat. The membership of the Judenrat had a high turnover, as the SS when seriously displeased occasionally executed (by public hanging) some, or all, of the Judenrat. The Judenrat ran the Judische Gemeinde, a bureaucracy about 4000 strong, which looked after the usual municipal matters in the Ghetto, such as food rationing, hospitals and garbage removal, including an (unarmed) Jewish police force of a few hundred which kept order and criminals at bay. My father was the personnel chief of the Jewish Gemeinde and thus formally the immediate boss of these 4000 people. His “Ausweiss” (identity card) stating this, complete with his photograph, is in my possession: an undoubtedly unique document.

Winter of 1941-42 went by without any massacres in Lwow, but hunger was beginning to be felt. As my father’s salary was a mere formality and as the food rations were very small, we and everyone else lived by selling our belongings to peasants in exchange for food. While the Ghetto was open, this trade worked without interference from the Germans. Psychologically, this was a disastrous time, for what with German victories in the east and south and with Japan’s own blitzkrieg in the Far East, it looked as if the war was being lost.

At eleven years of age, I was healthy and irrepressible and somehow never doubted our survival. My maternal grandparents Julius and Rose Wachs lived just around the corner from us and I had many friends from my Soviet School very near. Three of us (me and one boy and one girl, both exactly my age) were organised by our parents to be tutored by a tragic widowed and pregnant school teacher (her husband was killed in the pogrom in Lwow in the first days of German advance), who valiantly tried to teach us arithmetic, Latin and Polish literature. This “school” lasted till the first great action at Easter 1942 when over 30,000 Jews (including our teacher and her new baby) were taken to the just-established local death camp of Belzec. Even though Belzec, where at least 700,000 Jews were eventually killed according to a study I found on the internet, had only two survivors, we soon got wind of what was going on through Polish, Ukrainian and even some German sources. This action worked by selection of “non-working” people (the old, the young, the sick) and even then we still had not cottoned on to the fact that eventually absolutely all of us were earmarked for death.

In July 1942, a ferocious one-day action claimed about 8000 victims and started with a close shave for me. I was visiting a friend’s place about half a kilometre from our flat along the main street of the Ghetto, Sloneczna Street, when trucks carrying helmeted SS appeared all around and the SS started to grab people off the street. I took off in the direction of our flat followed by a yell of “Halt!” and a stream of bullets whistling past my ears. I think that I did a credible Olympic time for 400 metres. For some reason, presumably on information he got from reliable sources, this was the moment when my father and many others realised that we were all to be exterminated. Indeed, shortly afterwards (between August 10 and August 23, 1942) the Germans carried out the biggest action in Lwow and the second-biggest (after an action in Warsaw at about the same time) single mass murder of Polish Jews during the Holocaust.

It started with a request for all identity cards to be stamped by the SS-Polizeifuhrer Galizien office, to determine if the holders held jobs useful to the Germans. Any people without a stamped identity card were subject to deportation to the death camps of Belzec or Sobibor, but the system worked erratically and many people whose identity cards had been stamped were also taken away. By then I had learned to recognise the really dangerous Sonderdienst (special service) or Sicherheitsdienst (security service) units, by the yellow-edged diamond with SD on their sleeves. Truckloads of such troops would arrive in the morning and the helmeted and armed thugs would go through the streets house by house, selecting people and taking them away. They stopped in the evening, leaving the Ghetto surrounded by armed SS, and came back the next day. Anyone who ran or tried to hide was shot on the spot.

People who had lost their children, parents or spouses occasionally committed suicide by jumping from upper-storey balconies. On Sloneczna Street, between our house and the notorious “most” or bridge (a railway viaduct which is still there) corpses littered the roadway. It was hell on earth and it lasted for two weeks. When it ended, the Jews of Lwow were a mere remnant.

The Judische Gemeinde estimated that 55,000 people had been killed. I lost any number of relatives and friends. My maternal grandparents were taken away and a friend later told me that my poor crippled grandmother Rose was cruelly beaten by an SS man because she could not walk fast enough to the truck on her crutches. My mother went to her grave in peaceful Australia in 1991 without ever having been told about that.

The Germans never admitted what was happening: the lie, which no one any longer believed, was that the people taken away were “resettled in the east”. When my father asked one German Army (Wehrmacht) officer, whom he knew through the municipality, what on earth would happen in a “resettlement camp” with old people who could not work, particularly with my poor crippled grandmother, he was told: “Aber kartoffeln schalen kann sie doch?” (“But can she peel potatoes?”). To this day, whenever I peel potatoes, this phrase comes back to haunt me.

The Encyclopedia of the Holocaust (1990) deals with the history of the Lwow Ghetto. It tallies pretty well with my memories, although some numbers of victims (though not the dates of the actions) are significantly different. If you add their numbers, the total number of Jews exterminated in or from Lwow was 110,000 while my father’s and my recollections added up to 124,000. A chilling memorial tablet on the site of the Ghetto erected by the Ukrainian authorities states 136,800. Whatever is the case, it was a horrendous number. My father would have been in an almost unique position to write an authoritative history of the Lwow Ghetto, but he never did. A pity.


28 thoughts on “The Beginnings of the Holocaust

  • Bron says:

    Thanks for publishing this important article. Sometimes I get so upset by the horror of these events
    that I think comment from Australians is inappropriate. Unless you have skin in the game you have no right to write anything.

    • cbattle1 says:

      You have said, Bron, that:
      “I think comment from Australians is inappropriate. Unless you have skin in the game you have no right to write anything.”
      Well, I disagree that Australians without “skin in the game” have no right to comment on this article. Last time I checked, Quadrant didn’t have a policy of discrimination on the basis of racial or cultural affiliation. In recent years there has been an escalation of peoples advancing their historic grievances, real or imagined, into the public domain, and demanding that the majority of the population acquiesce to those demands by genuflecting and atoning for what has happened in the past and/or far away in distance. Let us live by respecting one another in the here and now, which is the only sane reality.

      • Sindri says:

        In what way is the late Professor Sternhell, in recounting his horrifying experience of persecution (which you or I, in comfortable circumstances in contemporary Australia, could hardly even begin to imagine), “advancing historic grievances, real or imagined, into the public domain, and demanding that the majority of the population acquiesce to those demands by genuflecting and atoning for what has happened in the past and/or far away in distance”? – except in what seems to be your resentful imagination?

        • cbattle1 says:

          Sindri: My comment to Bron was not to criticise Professor Sternhell, or suggest that he was,
          “advancing historic grievances, real or imagined, into the public domain, and demanding that the majority of the population acquiesce to those demands by genuflecting and atoning for what has happened in the past and/or far away in distance”.
          Rather, it was disputing Bron’s assertion that I had no right to comment on this article, based on my race, religion, ethnicity, gender or whatever. I personally feel no obligation or debt to any group of people, nor do I agree that Australian governments should offer collective apologies for this, that or any other historic event on my behalf.

  • Tony Tea says:

    Are we quite sure Erhardt Kroeger didn’t escape to Australia and change his name to *** ****? (EDITED)

  • Daffy says:

    Almost too heart-breaking to read. But did. Human depravity knows no bounds.

  • BalancedObservation says:

    What I find disturbing, in fact horrifying, is that the atrocities by the Palestinians, though totally incomparable in scale, seem even more inhuman, cruel and depraved than the German atrocities.
    For example there was a special emphasis on sexual atrocities and depravity by the Palestinians. Sexual murder and mutilation. They spared no one in that: it included, babies, children, grandmothers – women of all ages.
    The atrocities weren’t the depraved actions of rogue terrorists. They were organized systematically from above according to captured terrorists. Eye witness accounts describe the inhuman and depraved atrocities with frightening clarity.
    But what is even more sickening, disgusting and despairing is that 75% of Palestinians in a very recent poll ( November 14 last) support the attacks in Israel of October 7. In the same poll HAMAS is viewed favourably by 76% of Palestinians.
    Many have said that the people may have elected HAMAS to govern them but the UN supervised elections were way back in 2006. Well they still support HAMAS and they even clearly support the attacks of October 7.

    • BalancedObservation says:

      Obviously the German atrocities described in this article are not simply history – we are arguably seeing worse now.

      • BalancedObservation says:

        And we are seeing obfuscators and apologists for these atrocities daily in social media. And also frequently in ugly demonstrations on our streets.
        Even at the hotel where grieving relatives of those murdered or taken hostage were staying. Those relatives had to flee to the protection of a police station.
        Many came out in support of the Palestinians on our streets and in social media right after the attacks on October 7, before Israel had responded. So they weren’t demonstrating for a ceasefire then. The war hadn’t started. You can only assume they were supporting what just happened. You can be pretty sure those chanting ” gas the Jews” were.
        These protesters, apologists and obfuscators sicken me. Many spend a lot of time on it so they’d have to know the gruesome facts. There’s no way I’ll debate with such people. As I’ve said before, doing so would be like swimming in sewer.

  • Sindri says:

    Will there be a response from Horst Wessel, aka “David Isaac”, who thinks the Holocaust was a hoax, and that Hitler was on a noble crusade to save the “the ingenious, fractious, restless, warlike white folk” (his words) from the jewish-bolshevik-commissar beasts from the East?

  • Katzenjammer says:

    A problem with teaching the Holocaust as a foil against antisemitism is the Holocaust was an extreme aberation – it’s doesn’t inform about the subtle deeply held mythological “Jew” that western civilisation has overlaid on actual Jews and Jewish communities. The Holocaust teaches about resultant actions much more than causitive images.The Holocaust as the primary example of antisemitism allows the constant huming of images about Jews to continue un-noticed as the prepared ground for perpetuators and supporters of the events such as Pogroms, Holocausts and Hamas.

    That’s not to dispute the valid comparison of 23 Tishri 5784 (7 Oct 2023) to the Holocaust. What’s that phrase, “feel the quality, not the quantity”. Mark 23 Tishri as the yahrzeit on future calendars. It’s not Tisha B’Av, but it’s definitely a date for memorialisation into the distant future as a reminder that Jews have been told we’re always walking a tightrope, and unlike the Holocaust led by Christian cultural Europe, this is when free thinking educated Europeans chose to be led by Islam.

  • Sindri says:

    Antisemitism has deep roots in Europe (and elsewhere), no doubt about that, but the Holocaust was not “led by Christian cultural Europe”. It was an aberration dreamed up by the crackpots of Nazi Germany. Your characterisation of it, if I may say so, rather disrespects the memory of the millions of “Christian europeans” who gave their lives fighting against it.

  • Ceres says:

    Such a poignant article. No wonder so many survivors couldn’t live with the memories and committed suicide. Primo Levi author of the Drowned and the Saved was one. A clear reminder that evil walks amongst us in large numbers and can easily emerge under the ‘right’ conditions.

    • David Isaac says:

      This is the real message of ‘the Holocaust’, namely that WE are EVIL unless by our strident mildness we can prove ourselves to actually be good. It’s a perversion of the already perverted doctrine of Calvin. Of course such considerations are only for horrible oppressor Europeans, especially the ones who dare to stick up for their own, and not intrinsically good, victim Jews to grapple with. Nice.

    • Brian Boru says:

      Yes. It is good to remember that “The Enabling Act of 1933” was part of the “right conditions” that you mentioned.
      Our legislators are in many cases too ignorant to understand that fact.

  • Bron says:

    I acknowledge the suffering of Jewish elder Sev Sternhell during the Holocaust and his bravery in describing the Nazi massacres in Nadworna and the transportation of Jews from the Lwow Ghetto to Belzec and Sobibor death camps. My experience talking with survivors of Nazi persecution is that the last thing they want to do is to recount their experiences. They want to look forward not backwards (unlike our local whingers).
    In my earlier comment, the expression “skin in the game” meant those having lived through the Holocaust. These individuals deserve our respect. They include Poles, Romani people and gays.
    When I was in Poland I visited the Krakow Cloth Hall where I came across a stall packed with figurines of mythological hooked-nose Jews. Antisemitism is alive and well, bubbling away. Despite the empty synagogues and proximity to Auschwitz.
    “An aberation dreamed up by crackpots of Nazi Germany” is spot on. But look at Germany now. A beautiful country which takes antisemitism very seriously. I understand it may be possible in the future (being legislated) you may not be able to obtain a German passport if you have committed an antisemitic act. Rules out a few Aussies.
    You keep making inflammatory antisemitic statements as part of a Strawman argument with D.I. Did he tread on your sari or something? You have made your point and please could you stop.

  • Sindri says:


    Good God, I’m making anti-semitic comments? You haven’t read my posts. I’m ridiculing “David Isaac” – an admirer of Hitler and National Socialism who takes a jewish screen name, apparently because he thinks it’s funny – by throwing his stupid antisemitic tropes back at him. And don’t tell me when to “stop”, if you don’t mind.
    This odd jibe about him treading on my sari! Not that it matters a damn, but “Sindri”, has a nordic, not a sub-continental connection here.

  • Bron says:

    “There was no such thing as the Holocaust” and “Hitler was a nice guy” as part of a Strawman arguement
    In an earlier article. Bit antisemitic don’t you think?

  • Sindri says:

    Weird. If I used those phrases, it was in the context of saying that a certain commenter here was asserting those things.
    You don’t know the meaning of “strawman”, by the way.

  • Bron says:

    One fact that emerges from this article is the collaboration of some Ukrainians with the Nazis. The Poles and the Ukrainians fought a small war in the late 1940s in the south-east of Poland. The Poles think of Ukrainians as country bumpkins A Polish politician used anti-Ukrainian.themes in election propaganda only few years ago. And yet the Poles have accepted more than a million Ukranian refugees with the resultant strain on their own country’s infrastructure and standard of living.
    Contrast this response with Arab countries and Gaza.

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