Archive for the Life and What about It Category

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.

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.

where he ran Marian

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.

70 Years After

Posted in Human Rights, Life and What about It, reconciliation, The Souvenir: A Daughter Discovers Her Father's War with tags , , , , on August 8, 2015 by Louise Steinman

On August 6, I joined 35-40 others in a mosaic-tiled garden in L.A’s Beachwood Canyon for a service commemorating the 70th anniversary of the Hiroshima bombing. We sat in silence for half an hour and then, at 8:15 AM, the moment the Enola Gay dropped the bomb over Hiroshima, a cellist began to play. We listened to the trancelike drone of his bowing, the occasional plane above our heads in our peacetime city, the rumble of service trucks up the wooded canyon road, a dog barking across the street. A Buddhist priest chanted sutras and rang a bell 10 times, a Zen monk in maroon robes lead a chant of compassion for all beings.

In Los Alamos, NM– where the bomb was conceived and engineered– on this same day a group of citizens walked the streets in a silent march for peace. The organizer, the Rev. John Dear, proclaimed: “All roads lead to Los Alamos.” What is the connection between where the weapons of war are conceived and where the fall? What binds the people of both places together?

In Calais, desperate Somalis and Syrians risk their lives to cross the Chunnel into England, convinced that somewhere, there’s a better life. A life without bombs falling. They float across the Mediterranean in flimsy rafts, to wash ashore on Greek islands. A grey-haired woman sitting on the rocky beach of Lesbos watches for them. She says the flow of desperate people– including women and children– onto her local beach– “has driven me mad.”

When the British Prime Minister David Cameron refers to the “swarms” of people heading for British shores, does he realize he’s speaking of people, not insects? In Susan Southard’s new book on the bombing of Nagasaki, she quotes bombing survivor Yoshida Katsuji who puts it simply: “The basis for peace is for people to understand the pain of others.” Is he right?

One of the speakers at the Los Alamos peace march, the Rev. James Lawson (a civil rights veteran) was quoted in the NYTimes as saying “Today’s weapons of mass destruction are nothing but the evolution of our understanding of violence.” When asked what he meant by that, he replied: “The police officer who shoots an unarmed boy or sees a young man as a demon rushing at him represents the same lost regard for human life we learned with the bomb.”

His statement makes you stop and think. Stop and think. Take a moment. How does it all tie together? Tomorrow is seventy years from the day the United States dropped the bomb on Nagasaki, the last city to have endured an atomic weapon. In this nuclear-armed world this world of desperate people on rafts at sea– we must somehow continue to try to understand the pain of others.

Notes on a Warsaw Residency, 2

Posted in Crooked Mirror, Life and What about It, Poland, reconciliation, Travel with tags , , , , , , , , , , on April 22, 2015 by Louise Steinman

image Shall I write about the storks clacking their beaks high in their nests on the road to Sejny? And in Krasnogruda, near the border with Lithuania, the hare that bounded across the road and straight out of Milosz’ beautiful poem? In the candle-light coffee-house, Song of Porcelein Cafe, in the basement of what was once Milosz’ childhood summer home, surrounded by Polish listeners from surrounding villages, I speak with my host–Krzysztof Czyzewski– about my “time-based” work, this ten year journey to learn about the actual Poland, our shared history, to “re-imagine” the “Poland in my head.” image Three institutions were just a dream when i began this project– the POLIN Museum of the History of Polish Jews was just an idea among some people in an office; the House of Words in Lublin was just some printing presses in a basement; and the poet Czeslaw Milosz’ childhood estate, Krasnogruda, near the border with Lithunania,was a dilapidated forestry hut in the woods. What dynamic visionary enclaves have sprung from those ideas and on this 2015 trip to Poland, I pay a visit to each one for book talks and conversation. image Now POLIN in Warsaw is a magnificent museum chronicling 1000 years of Jewish history in Poland; Krasnogruda is a magnificent conference center for poets and bridge-builders from around the world; the House of Words in Lublin occupies the whole of that building and thrums with historical necessity and present-day creative energy– master printers, school children, archivists, book binders, paper-makers. Here, local children learn the (almost) lost traditions of their city, in a place where the Nazis murdered the staff of the printing houses, the presses are rolling. The good people of the Grodzka Gate scrutinize old photographs for the clues to the identities of the murdered Jews of their town– to honor them, to restore their names. “This is not an exhibit anymore,” the founder, Tomasz Pietresewicz tells me, “this is a library of lives” and Tomasz and his colleagues are “the reliable workers of memory.” image In Lublin, after my talk, in the Brama Grodzka Cafe, musicians pulled out traditional Polish fiddles, bass and drum, tables were pushed away, shots of Zubrovka appeared and dancers whirled and sang and stamped their feet. There is joy in the room; I can feel it pulsing through my body. image In Sejny, at 5 AM the morning after my talk, too wired to sleep, I walk to the edge of the lake, looking towards Lithuania, and watch the clouds that roil across from Lithuania to Poland, from Poland to Lithuania. Two loons on the water and five flying cranes silhouetted overhead in the dawn light. Tonight, back in Warsaw… I accompany Joanna Klass, my indefatigable Warsaw host, to a small alternative space called XS for an improbable and rigorous discussion/practicum on the subject of LAUGHTER which is, as we all know, beneficial, contagious, and sometimes– even hard work. OK! and onwards to Krakow. image[drawing from POLIN Muzeum confersation by Mariusz Tarkawian]

Notes from a Warsaw Residency, 1

Posted in Art and Culture, Crooked Mirror, Family History, Life and What about It, Poland with tags , , , , on April 13, 2015 by Louise Steinman

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some notes from this Warsaw residency (courtesy Adam Mickiewicz Institute, courtesy Warsaw Bauhaus)… the word “resident” from the Latin <em>sidere</em> to abide awhile, to settle down. To settle down on ul. Smulikowskiego, to read and write and move and think in this quiet flat not far from my friends Joanna and Wojtek, to emerge from this quiet flat to walk in the morning, drink coffee in cafes near the university library, to observe the animated conversations of young Warsavians, the changing exhibitions at Warsaw Bauhaus…

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to enter the Warsaw zoo where the sight of flamingos ignites the landscape, where strolling families are exiting after a Saturday looking at zebras… to a special ceremony to dedicate the villa residence of the Zabinskis, the zookeepers who rescued many Jews during the German occupation of Warsaw..

that was two days ago, sitting under chestnut trees listening to Chopin with geese clacking overhead and i swear i heard other creatures (wolves?) adding to the melange of sound and feeling… late afternoon walk on the nearby Vistula, admiring a barge named Atalanta, thinking of the saviors of Atlantis who wandered and collected the shards of Jewish history in Poland after the war, to the present, the vibrant present here in Warsaw today… walking through the doors of the new POLIN Museum and where I will be in conversation with my dear friend Tomasz Kitlinski in just two days… a chance to sit and talk with Barbara Kirshenblatt-Gimblett, the scholar, the nimble mind who designed, oversaw, strategized, curated the core exhibition… which, as she points out, is told without foreshadowing or backshadowing, where we are asked to walk through a 1000 years of history, an exhibition worthy of debates, an exhibition that left me emotional and asking questions and remembering that moment years ago, when my friend Cheryl asked, startled, “Am I Polish?”

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To sit in the flat of the journalist Kostek Gebert, with his cat Kescia on my lap, purring… to feel at home in Warsaw. To walk Dobra at night, under the bridge where the tram clacks along, a mysterious night walker passing by, wearing  a coat with a fur collar….

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to wander the Warsaw flea market with Joanna and Wojtek, where discarded dolls speak from boxes of clutter, postcards of alpine flowers and soldiers from a war a century ago, tools that had a meaning in another age, that stretched a woman’s elegant shoes, a Ukrainian ceramic of a fish with a wide-open mouth, bent-wood chairs, 60’s jazz playing on an old turntable, a yellow china teapot my grandmother might have used to brew her dark tea, which she’d drink through a sugar cube, held in her mouth.

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Anna the Almaziful: Remembering Anna Valentina Murch (1949-2014)

Posted in FRIENDS, Life and What about It with tags , , , , , on December 31, 2014 by Louise Steinman

img453 On Friday nights, the Sabbath prayer that my husband and I recite is from James Joyce’s Finnegan’s Wake. We light the candles and chant: “In the name of Anna the Almazifull, the Everliving, the bringer of plurabilities…” and as we praise Anna’s “haloed eve,” I think of my beautiful friend, Anna Valentina Murch, who died this year. It’s been nine months; I’m having a hard time believing she’s gone.

She was lovely, my friend. Playful. An artist through and through. Anna’s house on the peak of San Francisco’s Bernal Hill, shared with her husband and collaborator – Doug Hollis– was full of candles and mirrors, living room windows open to the glittering city below. Anna loved light and shadows; harnessed them to great effect in her installations for museums and public spaces over the last decades. Her lighting design for Portland’s new Tillicum Bridge (with Doug) completed after her death, casts jewel-colored beams of light above into the night sky and below, onto the surface of the Willamette River.

16543200-mmmain Anna and I held an Old Country in common; though hers was probably more Nabokov’s White Russia and mine hewed more to the shtetles that Isaac Babel described in his diary. Her mother’s family was from St. Petersburg, and fled to Shanghai after the Revolution (when my grandparents emigrated to the Lower East Side). During the second World War, Anna’s father—a British naval officer—was stationed in Shanghai, and fell in love and then married Anna’s mother—a beautiful red-haired Russian actress.

Her mother, Valentina, played a role in the 1948 film of Anna Karenina, and, like the romantic title character, eschewed the maternal role. Anna was packed off to a strict English boarding school at the age of three. Her liberation came in her twenties, art school and graduate work in lighting and architecture in London. Her adventurous spirit brought her to the U.S, to San Francisco.

Her first art works as a newcomer to the American West in 1976 were in the desert. She planted glass rods in the shifting gypsum sands of White Sands, New Mexico, a test missile site. Where did one space begin and other end? How could beauty co-exist with destruction? Light with dark? The presence of geological shiftings and fault lines in her adopted land, both geological and psychological, engendered a series of “volcanica” installations, red neon illuminating black coal. Anna always wanted to know, wanted us to wonder, what lay underneath the surface of things?

“I want things to unfold slowly,” Anna once said of her installations. “Often my things are quiet and simple enough that it takes time—a kind of slow overlapping—before people feel it.” She wanted to make time palpable. In her installation, “Voyages” at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, you entered a small room, crunching underfoot stones washed smooth from years of river time. You could feel time in your feet.

From early childhood, she was fascinated by ruins and abandoned buildings, old barns in the Devon countryside she knew well, stone houses in north England, bombed out residences in London. Who had lived there? What secrets and memories had been shared in what were now the empty shells of dwellings? The remnants of a structure often provided the basis for an imagined archeology. She was also consistently  fascinated with psychological thresholds, boundaries, and what it was that empowered people to cross over them.

She built her “Staged Garden,” on the crumbling concrete foundations of an abandoned lot in downtown San Francisco. At night, the installation was entirely transformed by gelled theater lights, hidden in the long grass, which illuminated the stage and left long low shadows. A “stage door” lit by blue neon—though sealed– beckoned from a niche of weathered bricks. To explore the piece as a spectator, you became a performer.  And part of the performance was the sight of bejeweled opera patrons promenading past the empty ghost stage on their way the San Francisco Opera House two blocks away.

Anna loved dressing up, giving dinner parties, inviting friends for Twelfth Night with the house glittering with candles and redolent with savory aromas from their kitchen. She adored hats, silver sandals, a jacket with a good cut. Even when she had to wear a wig, she did it with style. annahat2 She was explicit as to what I meant to her as a friend. We talked about artist- husbands and the demands of our jobs (she was a much-loved professor of art at Mills College for two decades), about balancing our responsibilities while trying to do our own creative work.

On our last visit, in January, we took a slow walk around Bernal Hill, leaving “the boys” as we called them, to their own pace. We sat on a bench and looked out over the city. She told me she knew she didn’t have much time. I wanted to push it away, to say that wasn’t so, but I couldn’t. it was likely true. She still had good days, like the previous week, which ended with Anna and Doug strolling arm in arm on the sand, tide lapping around their bare feet, in Pacifica. I reached them by cell, their voices were happy,light. They’d made it to the beach without having to walk down steps. Doug said they would go there again, it was so easy.

“Space is our friend, but time has death in it,” the poet Gaston Bachelard has written.   Perhaps the fact that much of Anna’s art was a meditation on time helped her cross the threshold from this world with what appeared as equanimity. She told me she was not afraid of death, and I believed her. The more time you spend in a space, she once said, the more choices you have in what you see and how you see it. She had bravely struggled with, lived with breast cancer for years. She worked in the garden and together with Doug on their collaborative public art projects almost to the last day. She spoke on the phone to old friends here and in England. As Doug said, “She used her time very wisely.”

On that day in January, our last visit, in the late afternoon, the four of us brought deck chairs up to the garden, leaning back to catch the last rays of winter sun, clocks of our life spans ticking. Anna shoulder to shoulder with Lloyd to the right; Doug next to me on the left end. It was a sweet and unburdened hour, four friends talking quietly or sitting in companionable silence as we might have on a trip together to Yosemite or Joshua Tree. We left in early evening, so that Anna could get some nourishment, so that we could drive across the Bay Bridge and relieve the babysitter at our nephew’s house. We said goodbye with such tenderness, pushing hard against the thought that this could be the last time we’d see each other face to face in this world.

In the name of Anna, the Almaziful, The Everliving,

The bringer of plurabilities

Haloed be her eve!

Her sing time sung,

her rill be run, unhemmed,

as it is uneven. img452 [top photo: Anna, SF, wearing Jim Pomeroy’s shell earphones… they really work!]

MACIEJ and IDA

Posted in Art and Culture, Beacon Press, Crooked Mirror, Family History, Human Rights, Life and What about It, Literature, Poland, reconciliation, Travel with tags , , , , , , , on June 4, 2014 by Louise Steinman

Maciej and Lulu

My dear friend Maciej Ziembinski, a pioneering journalist and editor (and a central figure in my book, The Crooked Mirror), recently passed away in Radomsko, in central Poland. Maciej was fiercely devoted to this little town, where my mother’s family lived for generations. When poet Adam Zagajewski wrote of those Poles imbued with “the ecstasy of the provinces,” he must have had Maciej in mind.

Before World War II, Jews made up approximately 40% of Radomsko’s population. Very few survived the war and most who did survive left the country. Under Communist rule, there was but one sanctioned narrative of the recent past— the patriotic war against the German Fascists. Discussion of the town’s vanished Jews, of local rescuers or those who betrayed—was taboo. Maciej’s father, who’d rescued a Jewish woman to whom he’d been secretly engaged, raised his son to have an open mind. Even as a young man, Maciej was determined that the history of Radomsko’s Jewish population must be told, too. He understood it was an essential part of the town’s story.

He carried on, he told me, “his own private war with town hall.” When Poland transitioned to democratic rule, he established Radomko’s first alternative weekly. Until then, newspapers were the mouthpiece of the state. He named his paper, most appropriately, Komu I czemi (For whom and what for?). As its editor, he wrote and published over sixty articles about Radomsko’s Jewish history. He oversaw the translation of the Radomsko Yizkor, the Jewish memorial book, from Yiddish to Polish and published it in his paper. He was a principled man. A scrapper, a gadfly.

Pawel Pawlikowski’s exquisite recent film “Ida,” set in b&w provincial Poland in the early sixties– gives you some idea what obstacles Maciej faced under Stalinist rule. (In an interview, Pawlikowski calls his film, “a crooked mirror… so whoever looks can take away different things.”) The film’s young protagonist is a wide-eyed novitiate, an orphan, living an austere life at a convent in the countryside. With her downcast eyes, this young woman is the model of obedience and humility. There is no indication she’s made any inquiries about her origins. Soon she’ll take her final vows. Before she does, however, her Mother Superior orders her to visit her aunt, who’s suddenly requested to see her.

It’s the first time this naïve young woman learns she has living relatives. Within moments of her arrival at her aunt’s flat in Lodz, there is more surprising news. Her dead parents were Jews. Her real name is Ida Lebenstejn. “You’re a Jewish nun,” her aunt informs her with a harsh laugh. Ida’s swift response: “I want to see their graves.” Another hard truth: there are no graves. Most likely her family’s bones are in a pit in the forest.

In Poland, there are hundreds, thousands of adults with stories like that of young Ida in Pawlikowski’s film. They were Jewish children whose frantic parents, during the Occupation, entrusted their precious sons and daughters to Catholic neighbors or clergy. Several of those crooked stories are in my book—one of them is about a survivor named Ania Poniemunska, born in Radomsko in 1937.

In 1941, before they fled to Russia, Ania’s parents left their four year-old daughter in the capable hands of her maternal grandmother, a local midwife. The grandmother escaped the ghetto with Ania, and found shelter with a Polish farmer and his wife. The headman of the village betrayed them. The Germans dispatched the Polish farmer to Auschwitz. They surrounded the village, rounded up all the hidden Jews, marched them to the forest, forced them to dig their own graves. Before she was shot, however, the grandmother handed young Ania into the arms of a farmer’s wife who pretended the child was her own. Of the twenty-three Jews hidden in the village, only Ania survived.

In 2009, when Ania came back to Radomsko with her son for the first time since she’d emigrated to Israel after the war, she was in great conflict. Could she bear to visit the site where her beloved grandmother was murdered? Ania quickly found her way to Maciej; after all, he knew more about the Jewish history of the area than anyone else around.

In Pawlikowski’s film, Ida and her aunt elect to go into the forest, to the place where the unspeakable happened. Ida points to the open pit and asks the man unearthing her family’s remains: “Why am I not here? Why did I survive… not the others?” She needs to know. Maciej advised Ania: “Go to the forest. It is important to your son. It is the big story of your life. It made you who you are.” Maciej understood that. Ania, like Ida, was strong enough to bear the truth. She needed to bear witness.
ania goldman i babcia grafika
[drawing of Ania Poniemunska with her grandmother Chava Borys, by Kasia Kabzinka]

Over the years, Maciej and I spent many afternoons in the Radomsko cemetery—in sun and snow—walking unruly rows of tilting stones. Maciej, between puffs of a harsh Polish cigarette, would tell me stories of the more recent burials– about the few Jews who survived the war and stayed. Over there, he’d say, “that’s the grave of my friend Borkowski; he had an affair with the wife of his friend Andomierski; but they all wanted to be buried near each other anyway.” Maciej was like the narrator in Our Town.

Maciej helped me find the grave of my great-grandmother, Golda Zylberman Wajskopf. That afternoon in the melancholy Radomsko cemetery was magical. Blue butterflies fluttered through yellow gorse. Golda was luckier than most of her relatives—she died fourteen years before the Nazis invaded Radomsko and turned life for all its inhabitants into hell on earth.

“Saviors of Atlantis” is how a Polish friend refers to those non-Jewish Poles who gathered up the shards of Jewish life and history in a post-war Poland, then a broken country living under the strangle-hold of Communism.

Maciej was one of those saviors. He was also a gifted storyteller, a great friend, a good—if sometimes troublesome– man to have in your town. I am among many who will miss him.
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Radomsko cemetery, painting by Natan Spigel, courtesy Natan Spigel Foundation

Photo of Maciej and LS in Radomsko cemetery by Tomasz Cebulski

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