Fighter Jets Over Auschwitz |

IAF Commander Talks About a Mission That Shaped Israel's Future Decisions

The Israel Air Force's flyby over the death camp in September 2003 has proved to be of tremendous significance for the military. Eshel and others involved in Flight 301 discuss the mission's implications and why they're haunted by a flight that never actually occurred.

Ari Shavit
Ari Shavit
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Ari Shavit
Ari Shavit

Flight 301 was one of the most unusual operations ever carried out by the Israel Air Force. Almost exactly 10 years ago, on September 4, 2003, three F15 planes took off from the Radom-Sadkow military airfield in Poland and flew 200 kilometers southwest. In stormy weather, they passed over a series of sleepy Polish villages until they reached Oswiecim. After turning west, they descended from an altitude of 10,000 feet to 1,200 feet, emerged from the clouds and assembled in formation. At precisely the designated hour, noon, the Israeli fighter jets passed over the red-brick gate of the Auschwitz-Birkenau extermination camp. They flew over the infamous train tracks, over the infamous selection platform, and over an Israel Defense Forces memorial ceremony taking place amid the crematoria. A plunge, an eastward turn, a northward turn, a photograph. After three minutes in the skies of Auschwitz, for three hours the three F15s flew back to Israel, landing at the Tel Nof air base.

The record of the Radom-Auschwitz flight rests, to this day, in the left-hand drawer of the IAF commander’s desk. While Maj. Gen. Amir Eshel is planning possible strikes in Lebanon, a possible strike in Syria and a possible strike in Iran, he keeps beside him the operation journal and the navigation map of Flight 301.

Eshel considers the flyby he himself led a decade ago the flight of his lifetime. This intelligent, energetic, short man attaches tremendous importance to the few moments in which he flew a blue-and-white jet above the dense green fields, in which the rectangular cement panels of the barracks and stone ruins of the gas chambers are still imprinted. For the man now tasked with overseeing Israel’s skies, and, to a great extent, Israel’s security, the flight over Auschwitz tells the whole story. It encapsulates our tragedy as well as our strength and our life imperative.

Amir Eshel is not alone. While the man who led the Auschwitz-Birkenau flyby is the current IAF commander, the man who commanded the simultaneous IDF memorial ceremony in the concentration camp grounds was former IAF commander Ido Nechushtan. The one who approved the flyby is former IAF commander Dan Halutz, and the one who publicized the picture of the flyby is former IAF commander Eliezer Shkedy.

Flight 301 wasn’t a marginal event that took place on the Israeli fringe, but rather a core event orchestrated by the center of the defense establishment. Four different air force commanders were involved in it. Three air force commanders − Shkedy, Nechushtan and Eshel − ascribe great value to it. The IDF’s strongest and most important corps produced and embraced the event and placed it in the heart of its consciousness.

Years ago, U.S. columnist Thomas Friedman wrote that Israel is Yad Vashem with an air force. The big surprise is that the air force itself thinks of Israel as Yad Vashem with an air force. But why? Why do the most cool-headed and performance-focused Israelis feel a need to fly to Auschwitz; to document their flight to Auschwitz; and turn the Auschwitz flight into the Israeli icon of the new millennium?

What made the corps that in recent years has come back to occupying a central place in our lives dedicate itself, with such tenacity, to such an odd aerial operation, with its surrealistic element of time travel and its morbid element of a journey into the inferno? Why do the people who work around the clock to ensure Israel’s strategic supremacy devote so much time and energy to a symbolic flyby, the likes of which has never been carried out by any other air force?

A personal trauma

Eshel was born in Jaffa, in 1959, and grew up in Ramat Gan. His father’s extended Iraqi family was numerous, while his mother’s Russian family was not around, and the discrepancy between the two bothered the young sabra. Eshel began his military service in 1977. He became a Skyhawk pilot and an F16 pilot and later commanded leading combat squadrons. In the 1990s and 2000s, he served as commander of the Ramon Air Base; commander of the Tel Nof Air Base; head of IAF intelligence; air force chief of staff; and head of the IDF planning directorate.

Since May 2012, he has been the IAF commander, and during this time the corps has become more active − in fact, foreign media sources say the IAF has been active throughout the new, wild Middle East. If Israel has a military option on Iran, Eshel contributed greatly to building it, Eshel is maintaining it, and Eshel is the person who, when the time comes, will activate it, or not.

In 1987, Eshel experienced a personal trauma during a routine training drill in Germany, when he found himself feeling completely helpless when faced with a German nurse in a white uniform. He says that right then, he made up his mind to return to Auschwitz with strength, in a plane. Sixteen years later, the Polish Air Force invited the IAF to participate in an aviation exhibition in the city of Radom, some 100 kilometers south of Warsaw.

Brig. Gen. Eshel saw his opportunity and urged commander Dan Halutz to accept the invitation − on condition that the Poles would allow a flight from Radom to Auschwitz. From that moment on, the base commander became an amateur historian. He read everything there was to read about the Final Solution, about the chance it could have been halted, and about how this chance was not acted upon.

He made himself intimately familiar with the aerial photos taken by an Allied squadron over Auschwitz in the spring and summer of 1944. He became obsessed with a question that drove him mad: Why didn’t the American pilots who photographed Auschwitz bombard the camp from the air? Why, out of 2,800 missions carried out by the Allied forces in southeastern Poland between March and November 1944, was not a single mission dedicated to destroying the railroad tracks or the crematoria?

Eshel is a pilot with a keen sense of history and a deep sense of symbolism. So he insisted that his partners in the Auschwitz flight come from a Holocaust background, and also carefully selected the Holocaust-related items that he would carry with him in his cockpit − pages of testimony from 21 of the victims of the Transport that arrived at Auschwitz from France precisely 60 years before the flyby.

Together with journalist Eitan Haber, he composed the brief text that he would recite above the extermination camp. At the same time, Eshel worked as the professional planner of a meticulous air force operation. Again and again he drilled the Auschwitz flyby above the Tel Nof air base, which he used to simulate the concentration camp. Finally, on August 28, 2003, the brigadier general led the official IAF delegation to Radom. It also included a fueling plane, a Hercules plane and the 669 search and rescue unit.

For the next four days, he worked tirelessly on coordinating the one-time flyby with the Polish authorities, who had been taken aback by the Israeli plan. A few opposed fighter planes over Auschwitz on principle, while others were against the option of an earlier practice flight and of a flyby at low altitude. They wanted Polish planes to escort the Israeli jets.

In the end, though, Eshel got his wish. On a very stormy day, he took off, together with two more F15s and five other air force personnel ‏(including the late navigator Shimshon Rozen‏), from the Radom air base, into the heavy cloud cover over southern Poland.

The photography mission

Avi Maor was born in 1956, in Moshav Ein Vered. His parents were both Holocaust survivors who had lost most of their families in the war. No one talked about the Holocaust at home or on the moshav. As a youth, Maor refused to acknowledge that the Holocaust was a part of his past and played a part in shaping his identity. He refused to go on any “roots” trips to Poland, insisting that his roots were in Israel, not Poland.

In the 1980s and ‘90s, Maor commanded a Phantom squadron, an F15 squadron and the Ramon air base. More than a decade ago he also served as the air attache in Washington. But when Amir Eshel put the Auschwitz flyby on the table, Maor wanted in. “That’s the way I am willing to go back there,” he said. “Only that way. In an F15.”

During the air show in Radom, Maor went to search for his mother’s house in a small village near Treblinka and visited the bare spot in the beautiful forest where the Treblinka extermination camp once stood. The kaddish that was never said before, he recited in Majdanek. But up until the last moment, his gut feeling was that Eshel’s ambitious operation wouldn’t actually happen. Dan Halutz was trying to convince the Poles from Israel, and ambassador Shevah Weiss was exerting pressure in Warsaw, but the Poles were not at all keen on the idea. The obstacles they placed before the plan seemed insurmountable.

But somehow, on a morning when the clear weather turned stormy, Maor found himself at the end of the runway at Radom, awaiting takeoff. In his cockpit was the only item his father brought to Israel from his previous life − a tallit ‏(prayer shawl‏). And there were also black-and-white photos of both his mother’s and his father’s lost families.

The sky outside the cockpit canopy was like milk. Practically zero visibility. You lock radars and fly in a row, with two kilometers separating each plane. Even from an operational standpoint, it was a difficult flight. Approaching the destination, the planes had to move closer to one another inside the clouds. Contrary to normal practice, they had to form the initial formation inside the clouds, and then descend to a low altitude. Come out of the clouds and tighten the formation. There is the gate. The train tracks. The platform. It’s deathly silent in the cockpit.

Avi Levkovich was born in Petah Tikva, in 1962. His parents were Holocaust survivors from Hungary. Hungarian Jewry was being exterminated at Auschwitz-Birkenau in the summer of 1944, when the bombers that didn’t bomb were passing over the camp in the skies above. After enlisting in the air force, he became a pilot of the Skyhawk, Kfir and F15, and now is a pilot for El Al. But when Eshel was conducting the preliminary training sessions over Tel Nof, he decided that Levkovich and his navigator were the ones who could obtain the desired photograph of the planes flying over the camp.

So after the flight through the milky sky and the initial formation in the clouds and then the construction of the tighter formation and the descent to a low altitude, and after the gate, the train tracks, the platform and the crematoria, it was Levkovich’s job to break away from his Number 1 and Number 2 planes. It was the job of Levkovich and his navigator to photograph the two F15s flying diagonally over the women’s camp and over the men’s camp and over Crematorium 2 and over Crematorium 3. The lush green of Auschwitz-Birkenau. The neat rectangles of Auschwitz-Birkenau. And the impossible-to-photograph silence in the cockpit.

Holder of the portfolio

Ido Nechushtan was born in 1957, in Jerusalem, to parents who had been underground fighters in the Haganah. He attended the Leyada High School and began his IDF service in 1975. After piloting the Skyhawk, Phantom and F16, he served as a commander of combat squadrons, commander of the Hatzor air base, head of air force intelligence, and air force chief of staff. From 2006-2008 he was head of the Planning Directorate, and from 2008-2012 was IAF commander.

In early 2003, Brig. Gen. Nechushtan was the one who received the mission file for the flight to Auschwitz. The original idea was to have the air force conduct a flyby salute over all the concentration camps. But when the Poles’ objected to having war machines flying over the sensitive sites, the planned operation was reduced in scope. Nechushtan decided to add an element on the ground: While the three F15s flew over Auschwitz-Birkenau, 200 IDF soldiers and officers would hold a ceremony of witnesses in uniform.

Nechushtan himself headed this delegation. While Eshel’s team was at the lively and colorful Radom air show, Nechushtan’s group was visiting mournful sites such as the Janusz Korczak Orphanage in Warsaw, and the Treblinka and Majdanek concentration camps.

One evening, the delegation’s commander showed the group a presentation he’d prepared on his laptop the night before. In the spring of 1944, three things happened, Nechushtan’s presentation explained: The Allies achieved air supremacy over Auschwitz-Birkenau; the Allies obtained accurate information about what was happening in Auschwitz-Birkenau; and Hungarian Jewry was sent in sealed train cars to Auschwitz-Birkenau.

Operationally, they could have been saved. In human terms, 500,000 people could have been saved. Politically, the decision to save them was never made. The world knew about the existence of the site where 10,000 people were being murdered daily. The world could have shut down the extermination camp, and the world did not do so.

On the morning of September 4, the witnesses in uniform strode into Auschwitz-Birkenau. The march is done in threes. There is a Torah scroll, wreaths of flowers, Israeli flags. Musical interludes. The El Maleh Rahamim prayer of remembrance. A very respectable ceremony in keeping with the air force’s high standards.

But at Auschwitz-Birkenau it’s different, Nechushtan feels. Something happens to you. You feel it through the earth. It’s like with Jerusalem. You feel that you’re in a different sort of place. You’re in a place that bears within it all the tragedy of the Jewish people. You’re standing on the train tracks and your legs freeze. The hairs on the back of your neck stand up. You think of the ashes. You know this is your first time here, and your last. It’s impossible to fully take in this place where you are standing.

The ceremony itself is held at the end of the train track, between the crematoria. The audience is facing the famous red-brick entrance gate. Shevah Weiss speaks, a bereaved father speaks, and the head of air force intelligence speaks. When he finishes speaking, the air force intelligence chief turns around so that his back is to the audience and he, too, is facing the red-brick gate. Will they show up or won’t they, he wonders.

Ten seconds behind schedule, Eshel’s voice booms from the loudspeakers: “We are pilots of the Israel Air Force in the skies over the camp of atrocities. We arose from the ashes of the millions of victims, we carry their silent cry, we salute their heroism, and pledge to defend the Jewish people and its country, Israel.”

And then Eshel’s formation is over the gate, sitting pretty. Emitting the thunderous noise of the F15 engines as it makes a 30-second pass over the railroad tracks, the platform and the crematoria. Not leaving a single dry eye in the audience. Including the eyes of the air force intelligence commander.

Distributing the image

Eliezer Shkedy is the son of Moshe, who, in 1944, as an 18-year-old, leapt from a train near Budapest. Moshe Shkedy’s father, mother and sisters were murdered and cremated at Auschwitz-Birkenau; he was the family’s sole survivor. His son Eliezer entered the IDF in 1975 and went on to pilot the Skyhawk, Mirage and F16, to command combat squadrons and the Ramat David air base, to be air force intelligence chief and air force chief of staff. From 2004-2008, Shkedy was the IAF commander.

In 2002, Brig. Gen. Shkedy headed an IDF delegation to the concentration camps in Poland. Although his grandfather, grandmother and aunts all perished at Auschwitz, it was the visit to Majdanek that really shook him. The fact that the camp actually exists. The camp commander’s office, the camp commander’s house. The entry to the gas chambers. The smells. And the mountain of ash. The bones in the mountain of ash. “You see it, and suddenly you realize what you are seeing. The feeling stays with you for months,” he says.

So when Dan Halutz, Ido Nechushtan and Amir Eshel began formulating the idea of the Auschwitz flyby, Shkedy was an enthusiastic supporter. He didn’t have a key role in the planning of the operation, but he followed its progress closely, on a daily basis. And when it seemed likely that the only way to go through with the operation would be to defy the Poles, Shkedy phoned Eshel and ordered him to go ahead with it: “Young man, the last time the Poles told us what to do was 60 years ago. Do what you need to do.”

In 2006, Shkedy was the air force commander during the Second Lebanon War. According to foreign sources, in 2007 he was the one who initiated and commanded the operation to destroy the Syrian nuclear reactor at Deir al-Zor. In 2006-2007, he prepared the operational plan for what would come to be known as Operation Cast Lead ‏(in Gaza‏). But amid all of this, Shkedy was tasked with a much weightier mission. According to various assessments, Shkedy was the first air force commander to formulate a serious military option in regard to Iran. In late 2007, the tension over Iran reached its first peak. The U.S. Bush administration was concerned that Israel would surprise it with an attack. But in early 2008, the tension dissipated and action on the Iran challenge was deferred.

Upon concluding his stint as air force commander in April 2008, Shkedy was looking for a symbolic way to express all that was done during his tenure, and all that remained to be done in order to defend Israel’s security. He chose to make use of the photograph of the three F15s passing over the red-brick gate of Auschwitz-Birkenau. Every squadron commander and every base commander in the air force received a copy of the photograph of the flyby. Every general in the general staff received a photograph of the flyby. The Shin Bet security service chief, the Mossad chief, the defense minister and the prime minister received a photo of the flyby.

On each copy of the photo, Shkedy added these carefully chosen words: “The Israel Air Force over Auschwitz − on behalf of the State of Israel and the Jewish people. To remember, not to forget, to rely only on ourselves.”

The Iranian context

The Auschwitz flyby took place within the context of 2003: the second intifada, suicide bombings, targeted assassinations. A wave of anti-Semitism sweeping Europe, just when Israeli civilians were being murdered on buses, in cafes and nightclubs. The isolation of the Shin Bet, IDF and IAF while they were defending the Jewish state from a terror offensive was unprecedented. And in the backdrop, there was also the Ilan Ramon tragedy.

Flight 301 took off just seven months after the horrifying explosion of the Space Shuttle Columbia. In Israel as a whole, and within the air force in particular, there was great awareness of the symbolic images that Ramon took with him into space. So the pilots who were sent from Tel Nof to Auschwitz also had the feeling that they were Israeli astronauts being sent on a symbolic mission to some kind of outer space. But for them, this outer space wasn’t beyond the atmosphere that surrounds Earth but a different era in which darkness descended upon the planet.

The distribution of the Auschwitz flyby photograph took place within the context of 2008: Iran. In Natanz, the first thousand centrifuges ‏(that were not supposed to become operational‏) were already active. The Israeli government was becoming increasingly frustrated by Western powers not lifting a finger to halt the ayatollahs’ march toward nuclearization. The army brass worried that the Mossad would not be able to accomplish the strategic mission it was tasked with by prime ministers Ariel Sharon and Ehud Olmert. So the air force began to think Iran, plan Iran and drill Iran. At the request of IAF commander Shkedy, the corps’ history department conducted a careful comparison of the statements of Ahmadinejad and those of Adolf Hitler. The results were chilling.

When Amir Eshel flew over Ido Nechushtan’s ceremony at the order of Eliezer Shkedy, none of the three was thinking about Iran. The Shi’ite superpower’s nuclear ambitions weren’t on the air force’s operational map. But five years later, Iran was on everyone’s mind and filling schedules. Now there was a new resonance to the question of why the Allies didn’t bomb the railroad tracks, and to the question of whether we’re really on our own. The photographic message that Moshe Shkedy’s son left in every defense establishment office in Israel took on a new and very powerful meaning.

The view from above

On Amir Eshel’s desk is the booklet of photographs produced by air force intelligence 18 years ago − a shot of the synthetic fuel plant next to Auschwitz prior to an Allied bombing; a shot of the synthetic fuel plant next to Auschwitz following the Allied bombing; a shot of a column of people walking on the Auschwitz train platform that the Allies didn’t bomb; a shot of the bombs that were dropped from above the extermination camp but weren’t meant for the camp, but rather for the synthetic fuel plant. “I’ve pored over this I don’t how many times,” the air force commander tells me. “In 1944, they knew what was happening there. They knew, they knew. Let me remind you. In May, the Budapest Transports begin. This reaches Roosevelt and Churchill. Attack it, stop it. But both Churchill and Roosevelt received this information and didn’t do anything with it.”

But why is the IAF commander in 2013 so preoccupied with the question of 1944, I ask. “Because I’m one of the six who saw Auschwitz from above,” Eshel replies. “It’s a unique perspective. At first I didn’t see anything. I was focused on guiding the plane toward the entrance gate and on being right in position. I wasn’t sure we’d be able to get to the lower altitude. I wasn’t sure we’d arrive on time. After that, I read the text. I was focused solely on that. But after we finished the 30-second pass and began the turn and climbed to 2,000 feet to get the picture, I suddenly started to think. Not to think, but to really encounter this thing, with all of its implications. The first thing I noticed was how green everything was, how peaceful. Like a beautiful park. But at the same time, you know that here is a man-made hell. Here is a crazy death machine that only human beings could devise. And this contrast is inconceivable. Just inconceivable.

“The second thing that hit me was the thought of this aerial photo showing people walking on the train platform in 1944,” he continues. “Suddenly I was seeing with my own eyes that very same platform on which they walked. And amid all this green, the platform is kind of yellow. And it’s all there. The gate, the crematorium, our people standing there for the ceremony. And then the third thing hits you: Thousands of people saw this view from above. Just like this. They didn’t know, but they saw. They were there. And it puts this question in your head: Why didn’t they bomb? Why? It drives you crazy.”

Do you have an answer?

“I don’t know, I don’t want to say,” he responds. “But it’s not because they were anti-Semites. It’s because it was comfortable for them. I think they didn’t bomb because it was easier for them not to bomb.”

But you’re a technical guy, a man of technology, focused on the next mission. Why are you so involved with this?

“I don’t know,” replies Israel’s number-one pilot. “It’s part of how we’re programmed. We’re born with it. It’s in our DNA. Maybe I’m a little more sensitive about it, but it’s not my story and it’s not about me. It’s our story. Because that’s the fourth thing that hit me during that flight. Because of its uniqueness, it afforded a perspective that we usually don’t have. Think about it. In 30 seconds we completed a journey that represents some 60 years. And since it’s all so fast and strong and so powerfully felt, you think to yourself, what power this nation has. Do we even understand it? Do we really understand what happened here and what is still happening here? I’m no one’s political commissar, but when you come out of the everyday cynicism, there’s no way to describe it. There are no words. Here is where we walked with yellow patches on our sleeve. And now we’ve come back with a huge Star of David beneath the cockpit. It’s inconceivable, simply inconceivable.”

What you’re trying to tell me, I say to Eshel, is that the picture you produced over Auschwitz 10 years ago is essentially a kind of science fiction.

“This picture is much more than science fiction. It’s the most profound picture there is. It’s hanging in my office for good reason. There’s a good reason I talk about it with every foreign visitor who comes here. Think about it. In 1944, no one could ever have imagined such a picture. No one. And what you see here is where we were 70 years ago. At Ground Zero. And look where we are 70 years later. Therefore, it’s not a picture about the past. It’s a picture that looks toward the future.

“Nothing is guaranteed, of course. But I think that people don’t truly appreciate the tremendous strength we have here. They just don’t grasp it. So we brought this picture of the flyby above the gate to say, ‘Wait a minute, look where we were and where we came from, and where we’ve come to.’ Yes, it’s technological. It’s the air force. But it’s not just technological and it’s not just the air force. It’s the thousand feet separating what was then and what is now.”

One could view this as kitsch: the Holocaust and kitsch; the air force and kitsch; the Holocaust, the air force and kitsch. One could see it as a new version of “1944 syndrome,” from the other side of the fence.

But one could also say that the Auschwitz flyby and the photograph of it were also about meeting a profound Israeli need. Ever since the Yom Kippur War, the Israeli story has been coming apart. Because of the occupation and because of the internal rifts and because of the cynical criticism, that sense of common meaning has gotten lost. Therefore, in their own way, the three senior pilots felt that they had to restore meaning to the story.

With Israel having lost the ability to tell its story to itself, the air force commanders felt a need to put this picture in the place of the crumbling story. And being men of action who know how to carry out a mission, they did it. They mustered the resources of the air force in order to place at the center of the Israeli consciousness a photograph that is a substitute for a story. And they live in front of this photograph, they work in front of this photograph. Day in and day out − Lebanon, Syria, Iran.

The phone rings and Amir Eshel answers it. He nods, smiles, asks the bureau chief to open the windows in the adjacent conference room. A few minutes later he glances at his watch, halts the conversation and ushers me into the conference room. After a brief wait staring at the open windows, there suddenly appears − between two central Tel Aviv office towers − a great fiery candle, rising skyward. You don’t have to be Werner von Braun to realize that this is not a shot from the Iron Dome antimissile system, or an Arrow missile. “Is Mars in our hands?” I ask the air force commander. “The aliens surrendered unconditionally,” he replies with a sly grin.

In the 1960s, Ezer Weizman and Motti Hod were in charge of Operation Focus ‏(Moked‏) − an unusual and brilliant strike on the Arab airports as the opening shot in the Six-Day War. Over the past decade, one could say that Shkedy, Nechushtan and Eshel have been tasked with the preparation of Operation Focus for the new millennium. Although they seem to hold dovish stances and are not keen on the idea of a strike on Iran, they are the ones who had to prepare for such an eventuality. “Our job is to create capabilities, and that’s what we’ve done,” Eshel tells me. “We’re ready.”

Are you proud of the capability that you’ve built?

“I’m proud that we have incredible Israeli industries that are able to produce things that no one else in the world can. We’re an arm of the high-tech nation, that uses high-tech to defend against regional dangers. We’re not complacent and we’re not eager for battle, but we’re confident. We’re doing the best that’s possible, to be the best in any Focus 2 or Focus 3 that should happen.”

And the threat? Does the threat of Natanz and Fordo remind you of the threat of Auschwitz and Treblinka?

“No. We’re not in the situation of the 1930s or the ‘40s. The threats are significant, but we have survival capability that you can feel in this room. It’s our privilege to carry the strength that was produced in this country under our wings. You know, maybe that’s why we flew to Auschwitz. Because we see something that others don’t always see. With the capabilities that we’re familiar with, we see just how unbelievable our story is. And we wanted to share this experience with all of Israel. We brought back from Auschwitz the symbol that says it all.”

The Israel Air Force flyover above Auschwitz.Credit: IAF Magazine
Maj. Gen. Amir Eshel in front of a photo of the Auschwitz flyover he led in September 2003.Credit: Ilya Melnikov
The sign 'Arbeit macht frei' at the main gate to the Auschwitz concentration camp is seen on Jan. 27, 2013. Credit: Reuters

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