A psycho-geographic walk in Warsaw

Posted in Art and Culture, Crooked Mirror, Life and What about It, Poland, Travel with tags , , , , , , , , on September 4, 2017 by Louise Steinman

The last days of August I spent in Warsaw, holding animated conversations with my Polish friends about the abounding dangers in their country and my own. On my second morning in town, my friend Wojtek Szaszor a conceptual artist, offered me an unusual gift, a Warsaw map with circles drawn around locales he considered “symbolic chakra-Monuments” of Warsaw.  It was an invitation for what Wojtek calls “a free association- self-guided psycho-geographic tour in the spirit of John Cage,” all within walking distance of his Powisle neighborhood.

Wojtek uses conversations and dialogue as part of his art practice (in the arts district in LA, in the mid-90’s, he was an organizer of the alternative space on Traction Avenue called Spanish Kitchen), and until a few months ago, with his wife—artist and theater producer extraordinaire Joanna Klass, they ran an an “experimental incubator of art” called Curie City in central Warsaw near the Palace of Culture A storefront with theater artists creating new work alarmed the conservative Polish government. Curie City got hassled out of their lease.

What were the criteria for inclusion on this tour? Wojtek suggests that, in these present troubled circumstances, it could be helpful  to “assemble a team” composed of the living and the dead, those who are, he says, the true non-conformists and have some kind of knowledge of what is happening. Very few people in Poland, he added, are true nonconformists. I asked if he would join me on this walk but no, he said, his presence would spoil it.

My first stop was just a few blocks from my apartment, on the banks of the Vistula. The sun was bright and children were soaking up the last days of summer, splashing themselves in the fountain at the base of the Syrene of Warsaw, the mythical symbol of that grand city’s defiance, who rears up on bronze waves on her Piscene tail, holding her sword aloft.  A mermaid as a symbol of a city? I thought about the value of hybrids, what it means to be part human and animal, how hybrid forms are for non-conformists, for breaking norms that we’ve outgrown. And most of all, the siren must be heard.

The statue was unveiled in July, 1939, just a month before the German invasion of Poland. The statue survived the war, but the young poet on whose visage the sculptor, Ludwika Nitschowa, modeled the Syrene, did not. Her unblinking gaze belongs to the young poet and ethnographer, Krystyna Krahelska, who died on the second day of the Warsaw Uprising. Krahelska fought for the AK, the Polish Resistance, under the code name Danuta. She was nursing a wounded AK soldier when she was shot three times by a German sniper.

Her face was pure and idealistic, the face of a woman who would do what she needed to do for her country. It made me think of my young grandmother, who took refuge in Warsaw in 1920, two young children in tow, on her solo journey from Russia during its civil war. She secured her visa to come to the States at the Belgian legation in Warsaw, part of my own mythology. (I have not yet found the Belgian legation in Warsaw) . She did what she felt she must do to get her family to safety. She took risks. And so did Krystyna Krahelska.

I consulted the map for my next site, some commemoration of a woman named Eliza Orzeszkowa, located in a park crisscrossed with paths and lush pines. I needed practice navigating by street map. Where was she? There was the spring house that Wojtek had mentioned, where generations of Warsovians have filled their bottles from a natural spring. And there was the duck pond with some  mallards paddling around; I saw no plaque, no statue.  I sat down on a bench to ponder, to be still. It was a relief not to speak; Wojtek was so right to send me solo.  It took some minutes then I glanced over my shoulder at a noise– Eliza Orzeskowa, obscured by bushes, was staring right at me. Orzeszkowa, I learned, was a 19th century reformer and a prolific novelist who wrote about social conditions and campaigned for social reform in partitioned Poland, fought for the rights of women, espoused tolerance for Jews, and was nominated for the Nobel Prize in 1905. Russian authorities placed her under police surveillance for five years. Her solidity reassured me. I got out my pencils to draw her.

The Marie Curie Museum, on Freta Street in New Town, is in the townhouse where Maria Sklodowska was born. I observed flasks and beakers from her childhood lab, photos of Marie with Pierre Curie on their bicycle honeymoon, her spectacles in a glass case.

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It is always worth meditating on Marie Curie– her daring, her intellect, her dedication and imagination, her resilience in surmounting the many tragedies life handed her. As a young woman in Warsaw, she defied the Czar and attended the Flying University, where classes were in Polish. She allowed herself to imagine the freedom, as a woman, to study at the Sorbonne. She coined the term “radioactivity.” As chronicled in the beautiful Lauren Redness graphic novel about Marie, titled  Radioactive: “…in the lab she learned to counterbalance the unknown with the known.” She and Pierre attended séances, they were fascinated by all attempts to “coax the unseen into plain view.” She invented specially outfitted X-ray wagons and drove them herself to treated wounded French soldiers, pioneering new medical treatment on the battlefield.  Her discoveries—of radium, polonium (named for her native country) earned her two Nobel Prizes and were, she hoped, to be used for the common good.  Full stop.
Oh long-lost sisters, oh Vistula siren,
Oh Risk-taking Spirits, oh free radicals
Please guide us, hybrid as we may be

as we find our way

to resist
to exist
in these perilous times.

…and, since Wojtek invoked John Cage, I took the long way home, walking slowly along the Vistula, pausing for awhile under the Slasko-Dabrowski Bridge to listen to the songs the trams made as they clattered by overhead.

Quite beautiful songs, each one unique.

July 4th 2017

Posted in civil rights, history, Human Rights, Life and What about It with tags , , , , , , , , on July 5, 2017 by Louise Steinman

Today seems a good date to start a new document, a new journal. A date that is supposed to be patriotic. In which we might feel the weight of our national experiment, now verging towards national calamity. In which we try to keep our chins up and our hearts strong. In which we feel the sickness churning in our stomach as our malevolent buffoon-in-chief insults twists lies trammels all the values we hold dear. As he creates suffering for the vulnerable. As he loosens restrictions on pollution. As he pulls out of the Paris Climate accords. The list is long and growing. Hold back the tears and bring out the magic markers. Make our signs. Make our phone calls. Steel our wills.

A second visit to the Kerry James Marshall show at MOCA, the last weekend before it closes, is a stirring reminder of what an artist can do to deepen our understanding of our country’s tortured race history and as well, its resilience. He does so by including those who have been excluded from the shared narrative, by painting them back into the national story,putting them center-stage into the American storybook, into small towns, into the backyard barbeques in Culver City,CA in the 50’s of my childhood, barbecues in parks to which no African-Americans were invited. To the neat streets-on-a-grid post-war stucco one-story houses in the city where I grew up– where African-American families were not allowed to buy a home, not allowed to live. It was called a covenant. it was silent. And for what was absent– I then had no questions.

The galleries at MOCA are more crowded than I’ve ever seen them. Everyone in this diverse crowd is absorbed in these astonishing paintings. I watch a man pushing his diminutive fine-boned grey-haired mother’s wheelchair through the exhibit. They pause in front of each painting to examine it closely. He is tall; so he kneels down beside her in the chair, pointing out the images– the yellow birds, the couple in the grass. The two of them enter the painting, smiling, occasionally frowning. Taking it in. As does the little girl whose sequined shirt glitters in gold synchrony with the drapes of rope—– a sinister signifier– on a painting of the blue sea. The angel in them middle of the living room adjusts a vase of flowers, bends before a wall-banner of mourning—JFK, RFK, MLK, reminds of the Watts living room of David Ornette Cherry’s aunt Barbara, Ulysses Cherry– who wanted his grandchildren to see all of Los Angeles, to see the Los Angeles beyond Watts. Who’d pile them into the station wagon on Sundays to drive west from Watts to the west, through Culver City, through Beverly Hills. But, David told me, “We always had to be back before sundown.” And why was that? I asked in all innocent ignorance. Because Culver City was a Sundown town, he said. And what, I asked in all innocent ignorance, was a sundown town? A town where African-Americans were not wanted. A town where you’d best leave before sundown. This the unofficial policy until the 1960’s in the town where I grew up. I didn’t know. I am ashamed I didn’t know. Until now.

Ceremony of Forgiveness/ Night before the Electoral College

Posted in history, Human Rights, reconciliation, Uncategorized with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , on December 18, 2016 by Louise Steinman

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Reeling from the latest barrage of globally catastrophic images—my mind gravitates to that startling and necessary image—beamed to us from Standing Rock.

It is the image of a U.S. veteran named Wesley Clark, Jr kneeling down, with veterans of various American combat units standing behind him—offering his formal apology to Lakota Medicine Man Leonard Crow Dog.

Who ever thought we would see this in our life time?

In his fine L.A.Times front page feature, reporter Sandy Tolan describes the veterans’ forgiveness ceremony: “Clark, organizer of Veterans Stand with Standing Rock, noted that some of the veterans had served in the same military units that had fought during the Indian Wars. He wore the blue jacket and hat of the 19th century 7th Cavalry, evoking the 140 year old memory of Gen. George Armstrong Custer. As it happened, he spoke on Custer’s birthday, Dec 5.

‘We stole minerals from your sacred hills. We blasted the faces of our president onto your sacred mountain. Then we took still more land, and then we took your children and we tried to eliminate your language.. We didn’t respect you. We polluted your Earth, we’ve hurt you in so many ways.’

He removed his hat, dark blue with a gold braid, and lowered himself to one knee, as did the veterans behind him. ‘We’ve come to say that we are sorry,’ he said, bowing his head. ‘We are at your service, and we beg for your forgiveness.’”

You can’t smell the smoke from the sacred bundle of cedar, sage and sweetgrass while watching this scene on YouTube. But you can intuit the gentle weight of Leonard Crow Dog’s large hand placed on Clark’s head.

Tolan writes, “Someone let out a ululating cry, and fellow Sioux spiritual leaders offered prayers and songs of cleansing and forgiveness. Hardened veterans wept openly…. Then Clark and the other veterans, their faces twisted with emotion, began to embrace their Native American hosts. It was apparent that the former service members received far more in the forgiveness than they gave in supplies and the goodwill they brought with them.”

The veterans’ assembly at Standing Rock is a ‘gesture in the world’ in an age of symbolic gestures. A counter-image to the Morton County sheriffs in riot gear, wielding the infamous water cannons they used against peaceful demonstrators.

In her book, A Human Being Died Last Night, Pumla Gobodo-Madikizela—the only psychologist on South Africa’s Truth & Reconciliation Commission- lays out what an apology must contain in order for its words to “perform.” The one who apologizes must name the deed, acknowledge wrongdoing and recognize the pain of the victims. The apology must be unconditional. She points out how the victims hold a particular power in this dynamic: they can give or deny forgiveness. “They hold the key to what the perpetrator so desires — to rejoin the realm of moral humanity.”

These are veterans brave enough to bend on one knee, willing to ask forgiveness of the Sioux, on behalf of our government, on behalf of all U.S. citizens– for all the ways we have harmed them. Those veterans participated in this Ceremony of Forgiveness to rejoin a human realm from which they felt excluded. They did it for themselves. And they did it for all of us.

………..

I write this on the somber eve before tomorrow’s meeting of the Electoral College. Regardless of the petitions we’ve signed, the phone calls we’ve made, the emails we’ve sent, the outrage about the election that we’ve expressed— we’re not likely to stop the juggernaut. We’ll likely see the outcome we’re dreading come to pass.

In the late 19th century, philosopher William James called for “the moral equivalent of war.” He was asking, “How can we get the United States to have a great moral cause, that can unite us to do marvelous things?” As we gird ourselves for the weeks and months ahead, well need these symbolic gestures to guide us as we embark on our own “moral equivalent to war,” as citizen-activists. It may not be exactly what William James had in mind, but in opposition to the ransacking of democratic values by the Trump administration, oh yes, we will be united.

I’ll keep the images from Standing Rock close at hand, deep in my heart: the soldier bending his knee; the old man placing his hand on the young man’s bowed head, the undeniable presence of a terrible history, the unearthly yet human sound of those joyous ululations.

Elegantly Wrapped Dung: Or, a Polish Journalist’s Posthumous Victory

Posted in Crooked Mirror, Human Rights, Poland with tags , , , , , on October 5, 2016 by Louise Steinman

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A few weeks ago, I received an email message from one Ronan Ó Fathaigh, a researcher for the European Court for Human Rights in Strasbourg. This euphoniously named gentleman wrote to tactfully inquire if the late Maciej Ziembinski, whom I’d written about on my Crooked Mirror blog, had been the plaintiff in a case he was writing up for the Court: ZIEMBIŃSKI v. Poland (No. 2). READ MORE on the LOS ANGELES REVIEW OF BOOKS BLOG

Maciej Ziembinski, Radomsko, Poland

Maciej Ziembinski, Radomsko, Poland

 

 

A Return (Chatham Cemetery, August 2016)

Posted in history, Pacific War, The Souvenir: A Daughter Discovers Her Father's War, Travel on August 22, 2016 by Louise Steinman

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My friend Beth lives across the street from the rural cemetery in the town of Chatham, in New York’s lush Hudson Valley. On summer visits from bone-dry L.A., it’s a balm to walk between the pair of centuries-old sentinel maples into the cemetery’s vast silent greenspace; to stroll the rows of mossy granite headstones, shaded by ancient hawthorns and oaks.

I calibrate lifespans– the gravestones of women whose lives ended in their twenties in childbirth or flu pandemic. I ponder those who lived across the cusp of centuries and savor the musicality of their names: TenBroek and Van Tassell, DeMoranville. I always visit the graves of the three veterans of the Union Army’s “Colored Infantry,” their names erased by wind and rain on stone. Small headstones mark births and deaths of children who succumbed perhaps to whooping cough, diphtheria—- sending my thoughts veering to front page photos: young children dying now in besieged Aleppo.

Usually when we walk, we’re the only ones there.

A few days ago, we encountered a rare invasion: pick-ups parked along the gravel drive; young men with weed whackers cleaning around graves. What had summoned so many volunteers on a hot afternoon? A friendly matron collecting litter filled us in: a WW2 soldier was soon to return home. She pointed to a grave bedecked with small American flags where the remains of PFC George Traver, a Marine born in Chatham in 1918, will soon be re-interred from a mass grass on Tarawa, a coral atoll in the Pacific. Travers died there in November 1943, along with a thousand other Marines and some 4500 Japanese (most of whom fought to their death rather than surrender)– in one of the most hideous battles of the Pacific War. Exposed to the heat, the bodies decomposed quickly and the Marines buried their dead in one large grave. A Florida-based group called History Flight discovered Traver’s remains along with 35 other fallen Marines in May 2015.New radar penetrating technology revealed the decades-old mass grave on Tarawa, and George’s remains were sent—with those of the other Marines—to an Army facility in Hawaii. They identified him by dental records and the Boy Scout knife in his pocket. He’d written to his mother requesting it, wanting to carry into battle a souvenir from home.

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George Traver will be buried next to his Gold Star mother, Nellie V. Cramer, who received a Western Union telegram on December 23, 1943: “Deeply regret to inform you that your son was killed in action in performance of his duty and in the service of his country.”

Our now-tearful informant added that George’s mother waited thirty-five years for him, “until she couldn’t wait anymore.” For the ceremony coming up on August 29th, she added, there would be “full military honors—a firing squad and all…” I knew she meant a twelve-gun salute.

On our way back, we paused in front of the grave of another younger Chatham veteran, Joseph J, Wright. he was born in 1987, fought in Iraq, came home in 2012 and died two years later, in 2014. By mistake, the metal plaque from the government with his birth/death dates was delivered by FED EX to Beth’s doorstep on Cemetery Road. She searched out the young man’s obit, noting requested donations to the Wounded Warrior Project. The photo attached to this still-shiny headstone shows a handsome young man in uniform, “a beloved husband and father.”

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At dinner that night, we were joined by a mutual friend who grew up in Germany. When we told her about Private Traver’s impending return, and the mother who waited 35 years, she recalled an image from her own childhood right after the war: her young aunt sitting by the radio each night, listening intently to Deutsches Roteskreuz, the German Red Cross broadcast, hope fading that her lost soldier husband had been found somewhere. No matter the war, someone is waiting at home. I learned this when I made the trip to Japan in 1995 to return the flag my own father acquired in combat to the family of Yoshio Shimizu, who was twenty-one when he died. “You brought us back Yoshio,” one cousin told me. “The government just sent sand in a box.”

On today’s early morning walk, I followed the path by the cemetery pond, surprising a great blue heron who took wing towards the cemetery’s new Jewish section. There are only a few graves so far, all recent. On the headstone of Saul Cohen, someone’s “beloved father and grandfather”—his kindred have left copious small stones—as is the custom. The summer sky is blue with voluminous moving clouds. Crows chant sporadically from the high branches of the elms, the dead sleep their sleep and soon—after long delay, and in this long summer of our national discomfort. Private First Class George Traver, a native of this town, will join them.
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A Peaceful Return

Posted in Family History, reconciliation, The Souvenir: A Daughter Discovers Her Father's War, Travel with tags , , , , on February 15, 2016 by Louise Steinman

IMG_0967It was startling to walk into a museum in Astoria, Oregon a few weeks ago and behold WW2 Japanese flags framed on the gallery wall. Those flags with their  bright red disks on white silk were just like the one I found with my father’s possessions, after he died, in an envelope with one of his letters home from combat in Luzon and wrote about in my memoir, The Souvenir. These flags on display in the darkened gallery are the centerpiece of an unusual exhibition called “A Peaceful Return: The Story of the Yosegaki Hinomaru” at the Columbia River Maritime Museum in Astoria, Oregon.

The yosegaki hinomaru are good luck banners, given to Japanese soldiers when they left for war, inscribed with messages of protection from their friends and family.  The inscription on my father’s flag,  translated, said:  To Yoshio Shimizu in the Great East Asian War… to persevere is to win… I realized I possessed the name of my father’s “enemy.” But who was Yoshio Shimizu?

It took five years after my discovery of the flag to the spring day in 1995 when my husband and I formally returned Yoshio’s flag to the Shimizu family (his sisters, cousins, nephew) and friends (who’d signed the flag when Yoshio went off to war) in the town of Suibara in the snow country of Japan. Yoshio was 19 when he set off to fight for the emperor, 21 when he died. “You brought us back Yoshio,” his sister told me, “…the government just sent sand in a box.”

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Suibara, Japan at the Shimizu family home, 1995

A friend who heard about the exhibit at the Columbia River Maritime Museum commended me for “starting a whole movement of returning flags to Japan,” but I had to correct him. These current efforts to return the yosegaki hinomaru are a project initiated by a remarkable Astoria-based non-profit group called Obon Society, founded by a husband-wife team of Rex and Keiko Ziak. They receive, analyze, document and research the flags’ place of origin and, when possible, return these heirlooms to families of soldiers in Japan at no cost to the veterans or their families. To date they have returned fifty-two flags to Japan on behalf of US veterans as a gesture of healing and reconciliation. These flags on exhibit await their repatriation. Like the flag of Yoshio Shimizu, they represent souls who want to return home.

The Souvenir was first published right after September 11th. The U.S. invaded Iraq soon after, and in the fifteen years since then, our country has been in a perpetual war with no end in sight. There was no doubt as to the continuing relevance of this story as I spoke to the audience in Astoria about how the war transformed my gentle father and shaped the life of our family.  They in turn shared their own stories—as veterans, children of veterans—about an uncle in the Bataan Death March, a brother wounded in Vietnam, a son in Afghanistan. It was an emotional morning.

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Oregon veterans’ memorial, Eugene, Oregon 2008

After my talk, my friend Susan and I drove across the cantilever bridge spanning the wide mouth of the Columbia, aptly called “The Graveyard of the Pacific” because of its shallow shifting sand bars. Over 2000 ships have gone down here and over 700 people have lost their lives to the sea.

At Cape Disappointment State Park, where Lewis and Clark ended their journey, we ran our hands along the smooth surface of a fish-cleaning table formed out of native basalt (one of Maya Lin’s several projects as part of her Confluence Project) and read the text of a Chinook song of praise. We picked up driftwood wands and danced on the black sand beach.

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Before we drove back across the bridge to Astoria and Susan’s sweet house, we paused above the officers’ quarters at Fort Columbia. The gun turrets and batteries reminded me of Fort Worden, up in Port Townsend, Washington, where I first began The Souvenir so many years ago,  holed up in a cabin with my husband, my dog, and my father’s letters.

In both these strategic west coast defensive fortifications, the soldiers were battle-ready but never saw combat. They waited. Each day, each night they scanned the sea for the enemy, but the enemy never arrived.  As they waited and watched– my father and his buddies in the 25th Infantry fought in the Caraballo Mountains against General Yamashita’s troops in the brutal battle of Balete Pass. It was during that campaign when my father acquired Yoshio’s flag as a souvenir. He sent the blood-flecked flag home to my mother and after he did, he regretted doing so. He mentioned it five times in his letters. “It was the stupidest thing I did in the whole war,” he wrote to apologize.

At another talk I gave recently, on “Memoir as an Art of Healing” at a university in SW  Florida, a young woman, her hair streaked blue and her nails painted black, sidled up to me afterwards to say she had something to tell me.  It wasn’t a question per se, she told me, hesitant. She said that sometimes she hears “messages from beyond”and she’d heard one during my talk.  She wanted me to know that my father was very glad that I returned the flag of Yoshio Shimizu. She hoped I didn’t mind her telling me that.

I didn’t mind at all.

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Among the Righteous, on the passing of Marian Bereska

Posted in Crooked Mirror, Human Rights, Life and What about It, Poland, refugee crisis with tags , , , , , on December 31, 2015 by Louise Steinman

IMG_6326I can’t let 2015 fade into the night without making mention of a remarkable man who passed away in a little town in central Poland on December 20, the day before the winter solstice.

I had the privilege of meeting Marian Bereska first in 2009, when he finally was willing to tell his story of how he and is mother Janina together hid five Jews from the Radomsko ghetto in their little house.

(Below: Janina Bereska with young Marian)

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For seventy years, he’d kept this story to himself. He hadn’t told his wife, his children, or any of his neighbors or friends in the town where he’d lived his entire life. In the postwar years, under Communism, secrecy about the past had become a habit. For a while it appeared that Marian Bereska would carry his secret to the grave.

IMG_6327 I will always remember that remarkable winter day in an empty hotel dining room in Radomsko, with snow falling outside the windows– when Marian met with me, his grandson Szymon (who helped persuade his grandfather that it was safe now to tell his story), my journalist friend Maciej Ziembinski, and my translator Tomasz Cebulski, to tell us his story, even sketching out the dimensions of the bunker in my little black notebook—the trapdoor in the kitchen, the second door to the potato cellar. His mother Janina was a young widow with young children (Marian was eight). They hid five people—Berek Ofman, his schoolmate Regina Epstein, her parents, and her cousin– in their bunker for two years. Young Marian procured food for the hidden guests, trading linens for bread. They came close to disaster more than once. In occupied Poland, the Nazi’s penalty for anyone found hiding Jews was death for the entire family.

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When I asked Marian why he and his mother had assumed the brutal risks of harboring fugitives during the German occupation, he brushed off my query: the question had no meaning. They saw people who needed their help. They responded.

As we move into the New Year, at a time when so many around the globe and in our communities are on the move seeking safety, shelter, sustenance– it’s worth pausing to think about those like Marian and Janina Bereska who said yes to rescuing strangers, even at grave risk to themselves. Rest in peace, Marian.

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photo: Marian Bereska in 2011, Warsaw, with Leo Ofman, son of Berek Ofman, who was rescued with 4 others by Marian and his mother Janina. This was the day of the ceremony in which Marian received the Medal of the Righteous Among the Nations, from Yad Vashem on behalf of his mother and himself.

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