Holocaust Restitution Group Seeks Eviction of German Pensioners From Homes That Belonged to Jews

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Jews who settled in Gross Gaglow before WWII.
Jews who settled in Gross Gaglow before WWII.Credit: Leo Baeck Archive
Itay Mashiach
Itay Mashiach

GROSS GAGLOW, Germany – The elderly folk who gathered around us at the far end of Siedlerstrasse – Settlers Street – in the remote village of Gross Gaglow, about two hours south of Berlin, didn’t hold back. In a burst of rapid speech, driven by a sense of great urgency, they began recounting in detail the history of the town’s buildings, pointed to the boundaries of their modest plots and quoted German property law with surprising fluency. Around us were quiet, green fields; in the background, the delicate chirping of birds. Nothing on that gray February morning bespoke a sense of urgency. But the old people, who kept interrupting one another to offer emotional explanations, displayed nothing of that serenity. For them, it was yet one more morning in a struggle they’ve been waging for two decades: a struggle to retain their homes. Soon they will have to leave. The new owners, the Conference on Jewish Material Claims Against Germany, will auction off the houses, and transfer the proceeds to organizations that assist Holocaust survivors around the world.

The dispute revolves around four houses out of a total of 30 that were built on plots of farmland in the early 1930s by a German-Jewish society that promoted agricultural settlement. For two or three years, the houses were occupied by Jewish farming families. In 1935, following the Nazis’ rise to power, the society was dispossessed of its assets and the Jewish residents were evicted. The properties were transferred to a German agricultural organization, which sold them to buyers from across the country. The new owners moved into the empty houses, had families, spent the rest of their lives in them and bequeathed them to their children, who continue to live in them to this day.

In 1990, following the reunification of Germany, new laws on returning property to victims of the Nazis were applied in the east of the country, just as they had been implemented in West Germany in the second half of the ‘40s by the Allies. In this framework, the Claims Conference, the organization founded six years after the war by world Jewry to handle Holocaust-restitution issues vis-a-vis the German government, was stipulated as the body that would inherit all Jewish property that had no heir. Since the German-Jewish society that purchased the homes in Gross Gaglow had no heirs, the Claims Conference sued for restitution of the properties in its name – among hundreds of thousands of other claims submitted to the German government. After a decision was handed down in the case, the inhabitants filed an appeal.

“This has gone on for 19 years already,” says Renate Homer. Aided by Nordic walking sticks, she leads us with quick steps to her house at the end of the street. The first official letter announcing the restitution claim arrived in 2000, she explains: “We were frightened. And also angry. And it was also very confusing, of course. The letter said that everything was going to be expropriated. It was already there, in that letter.”

Homer, 75, was born in the Sudetenland, then occupied by Nazi Germany. She’s smiling and affable, but her tone is curt and assertive. The parents of her husband, Karl, arrived in town from Bavaria in 1935, having read an announcement in a newspaper. “They didn’t have a clue,” she says. “The sale [of the property] was advertised in the paper. What do you think was written there – ‘We’ve expelled the Jewish settlers,’ or something like that? It said, ‘Land for sale,’ that’s all.”

Renate Homer in front of her home.Credit: Ayala Gazit

We enter a small, warm living room with a window that frames the gray skies, a thick carpet, two cats. On the mantel is a photograph of Karl adorned with a black ribbon. He died three months ago, at age 80. He dealt with the restitution claim for many years; his correspondence with German government ministries, which fills a pile of fat binders in the corner of the room, contains abundant notations in his handwriting.

Asked about their lengthy battle, the candidates for evacuation tell about sickness, loss of joie de vivre, sleepless nights. “The day before yesterday, I was on the brink of utter exhaustion,” says Monika Freier, 75, with tears in her eyes. Her husband, Günther, 88, moved here with his family when he was 5. They met at a local wedding, married, and in the 1960s, after his parents died, moved into their house on the upper part of the street. “I spoke with the lawyer, and didn’t understand, and when you receive a document like this” – she waves the latest letter from the authorities, 40 pages full of footnotes – “I had to ask for an explanation. And he said, ‘Mrs. Freier, everything must go.’ What is there to say? You fall into a deep pit and don’t know how life is supposed to go on.”

“And the nights,” adds Siegfried Wehlan, 82, who was born and raised in the house in which he still lives, and is also on the evacuation list. “The thoughts fill your head and you can’t sleep.”

German law stipulates very clear conditions for cases under which property confiscated by the Nazis can remain in the hands of the current owners; if the criteria are met a procedure involving state compensation to the legal heir is set in motion. One such criterion concerns whether the property was acquired in good faith. On that basis, the German government earlier paid the Claims Conference compensation for 26 of the 30 original Jewish-owned plots in Gross Gaglow. However, the law also states explicitly that “acquisition in good faith” was possible only beginning in May 1945, after the war; it’s not relevant to the four remaining houses, which were purchased in the 1930s.

Siegfried Wehlan, left, and Gemma Graf. “We had a beautiful childhood here,” he recalls; she calls Gross Gaglow “the most beautiful place in the world.”Credit: Ayala Gazit

Settlers Street, along which the 30 Jewish-owned homes were constructed, is somewhat disconnected from the rest of Gross Gaglow, today a village of fewer than 1,500 residents. “Over the years, a very unified community was formed here, somewhat separate from the village,” says Gemma Graf, a 50-year-old ceramicist who has a small workshop in Renate and Karl’s yard. “That is why we are fighting in this way.”

“We had a beautiful childhood here,” Wehlan recalls.

This summer, Gross Gaglow will mark 630 years since its founding. The very question of why the residents of the four houses remained all these years bewilders them – it never seems to have occurred to them.

“We had no reason to leave,” says Wehlan. “This place has everything.”

Günther Freier’s mother at the door of their Gross Gaglow house, back in the day. He’s lived there since he was 5.

The people who purchased the homes in dispute – the parents of the present generation of residents – came from around the country. One can reconstruct the process that led to the sale of the plots of land by means of the paper trail. The Third Reich’s agency that regulated food production laid down the condition that every citizen who wished to acquire a new farm “must be politically reliable.” When Edmund Homer, Karl’s father, submitted his request to purchase property in Gross Gaglow, the Nazi Party headquarters in his native Bavaria was asked for its evaluation of him. “There is nothing to his detriment, politically or otherwise,” was the reply. “Homer is an industrious, very orderly person who is very popular in his place of work. He is also, by the way, a naive and harmless individual. He can be relied on to support the Nazi state.”

A document produced by the East German police after the war noted that in 1942, about six years after purchasing the land, Homer had registered as a member of the Nazi Party. According to his family, he joined so as to avoid being drafted into the Wehrmacht. As a farmer, he was protected from the draft, but pressures mounted, the income from the farm was meager, and a farmer who was unable to support himself independently was liable to lose his privileges and be sent to the front. By joining the party, his family says, he sought to improve his prospects of receiving an additional plot of land, which would supplement his income and allow him to maintain his draft exemption.

The documents show that two-thirds of the 22 heads of households still living in the homes in 1947 had been Nazi Party members, but only two or three had been members when they made the purchase. The East German police also noted in their records that some of the locals had joined the party under duress. Among the settlers, there is at least one well-known name: Rudolf Zilkens, a leading Nazi propagandist. However, there is no additional evidence about the political leanings and attitudes of the other farmers, among them the four who left their houses to heirs who are now on the eviction list. Legally, in any event, these questions have no bearing on the case.

In a conversation shortly before his death with Gemma Graf, Karl Homer recalled a story about the day his parents arrived at the house. When they entered the first time, they stopped, utterly flabbergasted at the sight of the walls, which were painted in a shiny red aniline. (Aniline dyes were popular for painting walls before their ill effects on health were discovered.) Karl’s mother, who was from a family of paint salesmen, looked around and remembered her own parents always saying that Jews liked strong colors. She turned to her husband and said, “Jews lived here before.”

'The villager knows the Jews only as merchants. If the farmer will come to know the Jew as a worker of the land, anti-Semitism will die.'

Spiritual order

On a lovely Sunday in the spring of 1931, several hundred people assembled for the cornerstone-laying ceremony of Gross Gaglow’s Jewish community. There was a festive atmosphere, and the foundations of the first house were decorated for the occasion. A tremor of excitement passed through the crowd as Rabbi Leo Baeck, one of the most important leaders of the country’s Jewish community, explained that the return to the soil was the realization of an ancient Jewish longing, and declared that forging a renewed connection between man and the land was the spiritual order of the day. The local press, too, trumpeted the momentousness of the event, reporting that the community in Gross Gaglow was as the first stage in a plan intended to have “Germany’s Jews strike roots in Germany’s soil.” The leaders of all factions of the community, it was noted, viewed this effort as being of supreme importance in shaping the fate of German Jewry.

Behind the settlement initiative at Gross Gaglow was the second-largest Jewish organization in the country, the National League of Jewish Frontline Veterans, which was established in Berlin in 1919 by soldiers returning from World War I. Initially it was a classic veterans organization, which sought to ensure its members’ rights and whose journal published heroic memoirs about fighting at the front. But in the wake of a surge of anti-Semitism in the 1920s, the league broadened its scope, from defending the honor of the Jews who fell in the war, to defending Jews as a whole, and in some cases doing so physically, by means of self-defense units.

“The National League of Jewish Frontline Veterans was a German national organization, and in this sense the comparison between it and the Zionist movement is particularly interesting,” explains Prof. Guy Miron, a historian at Israel’s Open University. “On the one hand, they were strong opponents of Zionism, but on the other, in terms of their assertiveness and their approach, they were very similar. For example, sports, a culture of physical fitness and the concept of the strong Jew were espoused jointly by the two movements. At this point, the agricultural initiatives also enter the picture, and that’s another parallel with Zionism. Both German-Jewish nationalism and the Zionist movement believed that something had gone awry in the process of bourgeois emancipation – something that needed correction. The solution was to return to the soil.”

Interwar agricultural settlement was also a general aspiration outside the Jewish context, the hope being that it would help solve two problems simultaneously: to address rising urban unemployment and the volatile atmosphere this could foment, and to streamline the rural economy by breaking up the large estates and distributing the land to small farmers. But for Jewish organizations, the farming initiative also bore an important internal Jewish aim. Agricultural training for Jews who saw their future in Germany would prepare them for anticipated hard times and the vicissitudes of political life, and would correct the Jews’ anomalous distribution in the workforce by having self-employed city Jews become farmers.

“A people of Luftmenschen is doomed to extinction,” the Jewish veterans’ organization warned in one of its bulletins. “But if they return to the land, to Mother Earth, they will bloom eternally.” In a 1928 article, the league’s head, Leo Loewenstein, noted the historical connection of German Jews to the soil. The yearning for nature and working the land was powerful among anyone who had fought in the war, “But we, the Jewish soldiers of the front, have a special reason to request German land,” he wrote. “We gave our lives for it – 12,000 of our Jewish brethren fell in its defense. Accordingly, we have a right to this land, and we do not intend to allow it to expire.”

Jewish farmers in Gross Gaglow in the 1930s.Credit: Leo Baeck Archive

In another article – titled “To the Land!” – Rudolf S. Mosse, a decorated soldier and a founder of Jewish Gross Gaglow, asserted that Jewish land settlement was also of special significance in the struggle against anti-Semitism. “As to the fact that it undercuts the argument of Jewish non-productivity, there is no need to elaborate. But another aspect is more important. The bastion of anti-Semitism is the countryside, where our struggle does not reach at all. We make speeches, hold meetings and write convincing articles, but with those we cannot reach the very people at whom they are chiefly aimed. The villager knows the Jews only as merchants. If the farmer will come to know the Jew as a worker of the land, like him, anti-Semitism will die, and at the same time a spiritual transformation will take place among the Jews that will draw them close to the non-Jew. In this way, the bridge to full mutual understanding will be built. Those with enough insight to see the question of land settlement as the fateful question of German Jewry will no longer torment themselves with doubts about whether the settlement of Jews in Germany can succeed or not. It will succeed. It will and must succeed.”

After the land at Gross Gaglow was purchased and divided into parcels (the smallest of which included 27 dunams, or nearly seven acres of land), preparations were made for the new Jewish settlers to move in. Fences were erected, fruit trees were planted, irrigation and drainage systems were installed, and construction of the houses began. The residents included bankers and merchants, as well as a baker, a shoemaker and an upholsterer. The training of the fledgling farmers was entrusted to Martin Gerson, an experienced Jewish agriculturalist.

“Forty families will shortly move onto the land and will be able to work their own plots,” the land-settlement organization founded by the veterans’ league wrote in an undated brochure from the early ‘30s. “This is an important step in the professional training of German Jewry. The meticulous preparations, the professional advice and the assistance from the state, from the communities and from the Jewish organizations ensure that Gross Gaglow is no passing episode. This is not an end but a beginning.”

Reuven Schanzer was about 9 when he moved with his family from Eydtkuhnen, East Prussia to Gross Gaglow. “We had a wonderful time the two or three years we were there,” he wrote afterward in his memoirs. His father, who had enlisted in the army in World War I, and following it joined the National League of Jewish Frontline Veterans, sensed that the Nazis were gaining power and wanted to live in a place where he would be “surrounded by friends from the army.” The family raised cattle, chickens and geese, built a greenhouse for vegetables in the yard and tended an apple grove and an asparagus field. The little settlement slowly filled up with small families. Children romped between the plots. The inhabitants bicycled to the department store owned by the Schocken family in the nearby city, Cottbus.

Schanzer: “On Saturday morning we also went to shul …. After lunch on Saturday … the men discussed politics …. Papa and his friends always said, ‘The government will fall. Hitler will not survive. The military would not allow it.’”

'Justice is at work when property that was confiscated from Jews returns to a Jewish organization and the money is earmarked to Holocaust survivors.'

According to Schanzer’s memoir, the Jews, only about 30 families, were respected in the village, and the Jewish children, who attended the village school, never experienced discrimination. “I was even in the Hitler Youth,” he recalled. “They accepted me like everyone else …. The Hitler Youth was like the Boy Scouts, only a little sharper, more military .… As a small boy I marched with them, I sang with them and played soccer, and later on I found out what it was.”

But ominous portents hovered over the settlement from the start. One night in the summer of 1932, when only half the plots were inhabited, an almost completed building was demolished by a bomb. Five members of the Nazi Party from Cottbus were detained on suspicion of involvement. “Not only will this assault not stop us,” Jewish settlers told the local press, which reported the event extensively, “but we will complete the work we have started with redoubled stubbornness.” Under the guidance of Martin Gerson, the farmers decided to form a cooperative and establish a small factory to manufacture preserves.

Tensions in the small settlement intensified immediately after the Nazis’ rise to power, in late January 1933. Its ideal location, alongside the rail line to Berlin, and the Jewish residents’ big plans were looked on askance by local farmers and Nazi Party members, who protested to the authorities.

“We must at any price see to it that this Jewish settlement, which constitutes a danger to order and security, will disappear at the earliest opportunity,” the president of Brandenburg province wrote to the local council in November 1933.

The meaning of the phrase “at any price,” before the passage of the Nuremberg Laws and the consolidation of the Nazi regime, was not totally clear. German bureaucracy worked industriously to find a creative solution. The heads of the land-settlement organization were summoned time and again to meetings with German agricultural societies, which tried to persuade them to sell the land at a low price. Finally, in early 1935, the Reich agriculture minister ordered that ownership of the land would revert to a non-Jewish agricultural organization no later than April 1 of that year. The Ministry of Finance was asked to compensate the Jewish organization, but this was rejected on the grounds that “expulsion of the Jewish settlers by the authorities is a political matter.”

Rabbi Leo Baeck, at the cornerstone-laying ceremony for Gross Gaglow's Jewish community in 1931. Credit: Leo Baeck Archive

Ultimately the farmers left Gross Gaglow, most of them for Palestine. Thirteen families tried to join a project for resettling Jewish refugees in an agricultural community near Rio de Janeiro, but in the end Brazil never approved this, and they tried their luck in Argentina instead. Schanzer moved with his family to Berlin, and in 1940 immigrated to Palestine with the last group of immigrants organized by the Jewish Agency under Gestapo auspices. His mother, Bertha, died in Berlin in 1941; his father, Simon, and his sisters, Betty, Ingeborg and Ruth, were murdered in the Chelmno death camp. Martin Gerson continued to run courses in agriculture for Jews in Germany. In 1944, Gerson, his wife Bertel Beila and their two daughters, Ruth and Miriam, were murdered in Auschwitz.

Gross Gaglow was conceived and brought to fruition at a moment of transition, when Nazi officials, who would soon send millions to their death, were still engaged in trying to seize control of small Jewish property under the guise of legal negotiations. It was a moment when Reuven Schanzer could march with the Hitler Youth, because that’s what the kids did on the way to the soccer field, and when Jewish frontline soldiers still believed, with boundless optimism, in the future of German Jewry.

Fresh paint

After much effort and several coats of paint, the Homers covered the red aniline on the walls of their new home, the last vestige of the Jewish settlers who had lived there. But Jewish Gross Gaglow was not forgotten so quickly. Until the 1990s, this part of town was still called the “Jewish colony” by longtime locals. And the archives also didn’t forget.

In 1990, within the framework of the unification of Germany, the Law on the Regulation of Open Property Issues – aka the Property Law – was enacted. In principle, the legislation was aimed at arranging the return of property that had been owned by people who later lived in West Germany and had been nationalized by the communist government of East Germany. Following the intervention of the Claims Conference and pressure from Washington, a clause dealing with the period of the Third Reich was inserted into the law. In practice, the clause applied the laws for property restitution instituted by the Allies in the 1940s to the former communist-held areas. Thus, on the margins of the massive property transfers that accompanied the breakup of East Germany, an opportunity arose for the heirs of Jewish assets that were seized during the Nazi regime but had been out of reach behind the Iron Curtain, to present their claims.

The Claims Conference also succeeded in being granted a special status, which made it the legal heir of all unclaimed Jewish property. Accordingly, the organization made a concerted effort to find every former Jewish-owned plot of land in East Germany and to submit claims within the short time the law stipulated until June 30, 1993. The group’s historians pored over the archives and submitted about 125,000 property claims to the German government. At the same time, the Successor Organization, a unit of the Claims Conference, was established, charged with receiving the restituted property and selling it. In cases when it was impossible to return property, such as that that had been sold after 1945 – as in the case of the 26 other plots in Gross Gaglow – the Successor Organization received the compensation from the German government.

'There's nothing to be said against the Claims Conference – they're demanding what they're allowed to demand,' Homer says.

To date, the Successor Organization’s revenues from this procedure regarding claims in East Germany total about 2.5 billion euros. Not all the claims that were submitted were accepted, and of the 16,500 claims that were accepted, ownership was transferred to the Successor Organization in only about 4,500 cases, and compensation was paid to the Jewish group in the other cases.

The bulk of the revenues are transferred as grants to various organizations that assist Holocaust survivors. The numbers for 2013 to 2017 show that the Successor Organization is responsible for administering about one-quarter of the grants budget of the Claims Conference. During that period, the organization transferred about $500 million to approximately 750 groups. Nearly 30 percent of the amount ($140 million) went to the Foundation for the Benefit of Holocaust Victims in Israel. But the data also indicate that while 86 percent of the grants went to welfare organizations, the remainder ($67 million) was earmarked for education, documentation and research on the Holocaust. Effectively, the Successor Organization is responsible almost exclusively for underwriting the grants that the Claims Conference makes available for these purposes, which are considered more marginal at the Conference. Among the grants distributed under this category are projects including a Holocaust seminar in the Birthright project in 2014 (525,000 shekels, or about $150,000) and the expansion of the library of the Ghetto Fighters Museum ($500,000) at Kibbutz Lohamei Hageta’ot.

The involvement of the Claims Conference, a wealthy Jewish international organization, in reclaiming four modest houses in the state of Brandenburg is generating interest, as might be expected, in very specific circles in German politics.

“We make efforts over and over to explain that [our conflict is with] an American organization and that it has nothing to do really with Jews or with Israel,” Renate Homer says. “But people just don’t get it.”

“By now we are experts on the subject,” adds Gemma Graf. “But for most people, there is no difference between Israel, Jews and the Claims Conference. You can’t blame them – not everyone has learned to tell them apart.”

The villagers Haaretz spoke with are all quick to note that no far-right organization has tried to join their struggle in a direct way, although there have certainly been indirect attempts.

“Last year, we held a small demonstration in the center of town and expected about 30 to 40 neighbors to attend,” says local council head Dieter Schultz. “Around 300 or 400 people showed up. That drew a great deal of attention in the local press. Many requests were made [to participate in the struggle]. We don’t want activity here on the part of Homeland Future [a local far-right organization]: They didn’t suggest anything concrete, but they put out feelers. There is also the Alternative for Germany [the far-right AfD party]. But whenever that was the direction, we said, ‘No, thanks.’ We don’t want to be drawn into those stereotypes.”

“It also has to be said that a great many people have encouraged us and said that it’s not right,” Monika Freier adds. “I am worried that at some point things will get out of hand, that if justice is not done to us, people will rise up.”

Monika Freier. Concerned about things getting “out of hand, that if justice is not done to us, people will rise up.”Credit: Ayala Gazit

‘Silver platter’

The issue of anti-Semitism does not impress Roman Haller, director of the Successor Organization in Germany. “The only thing we can do is abide meticulously by the regulations that the law stipulates,” he says. “I have been in Germany for 70 years and I know the society well. It is impossible to persuade people not to be anti-Semitic by bending the law in their favor. Anti-Semites are anti-Semites and there is only one thing to do – which the Claims Conference is trying to do – namely, to respond by means of public relations and educational work, especially among young people. I personally speak with students in schools and tell them what happened in the war.”

Withdrawing the claim to the houses is not currently on the agenda, Haller adds.

The question of how the property came into the hands of the current residents’ parents and the fact that they paid for it are secondary issues: “During that period, Jewish property was generally given to people who were loyal to the party line and not just to anyone. That’s just how it is,” Haller says. Asked whether he thinks justice is being done in this case, he replies: “Justice is definitely at work when property that was confiscated from Jews returns to a Jewish organization and the money is earmarked to Holocaust survivors. That to me is justice, yes.”

“There is nothing to be said against the Claims Conference – they are demanding what they are allowed to demand,” Homer says, sitting in the living room of her home in Gross Gaglow. “This property was offered to them on a silver platter. Legally, it’s all above-board. What I don’t understand is our state. The enemy here is our state.”

The Federal Office for Unresolved Property Issues, which is in charge of processing claims and deciding the various cases, is responsible for the incomprehensible foot-dragging concerning Gross Gaglow, as well as in many other cases. Of the 200,000 Jewish assets for which restitution was claimed at the beginning of the 1990s – most of it real estate – 4,000 cases are still pending. The process appears to be nearing its end.

The weary old folk from Settlers Street who are sitting around the table in Renate Homer’s small house, have sent letters to the Interior Ministry, the Finance Ministry and the Chancellor’s Office. They even managed to attract the interest of the German president, who was on a visit to Cottbus. A member of the Bundestag offered to mediate between the residents and the Claims Conference. Homer accepted the offer, but according to the politician, the Claims Conference rejected all the mediation efforts. “That declaration on their part took me by surprise,” he wrote.

The candidates for eviction are entitled to demand compensation from the German government, but these are negligible sums that pale in comparison to the properties’ real value, and the process involved is strewn with tedious red-tape and the need to produce lost documents from the 1930s.

For its part, Germany’s Finance Ministry, when asked whether an attempt had been made to aid the group and to give monetary compensation to the Claims Conference in place of the property, as an act of mercy, told Haaretz: “The Claims Conference explicitly submitted a claim for the return of the land, and therefore it is not legally possible to award them monetary compensation only, in its place. The valid principle in the Property Law is ‘restitution precedes compensation,’ and compensation from the government fund is paid only when the return of the plot is not legally possible. The Finance Ministry and the office for Unresolved Property Issues informed the parties concerned about the possibility of reaching an amicable settlement with the Claims Conference and offered to mediate between the sides.”

As far as I can tell, none of the officials who investigated the case over 25 years, none of the Claims Conference personnel involved in the story, none of the Finance Ministry representatives responsible for overseeing the process, and none of the right-wing politicians who wanted to join the struggle – none of them has visited Gross Gaglow.

We leave Renate Homer’s house. The grayness of the February sky has intensified. The sun, wherever it may be, is apparently already nearing the horizon. Gemma Graf stops and looks at the green fields that stretch beyond the house and workshop in the yard. It’s a calm scene, suffused with the presence of a landscape that doesn’t change. Perhaps this is what the fields looked like 85 years ago, too. Maybe even when Gross Gaglow was founded, more than 600 years ago.

“For me this is the most beautiful place in the world,” she says quietly. “But for some reason, it is a cursed place. It didn’t bring luck to the residents back then, and not to us, either.”

Itay Mashiach (@itaymash) is an independent journalist and data journalist based in Berlin.

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