Posts tagged Winston Churchill

May 10th in History

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Some dates in history just seem to be more fraught with meaning than others. Take, for instance, May 10.

So many things happened on May 10 relating to World War II that it’s difficult to describe them all.  Here’s a brief rundown:

May 10, 1933: On the 101st day of Hitler’s new Nazi regime, Nazi-dominated university groups undertake an “Action Against the Un-German Spirit.” That is, they draw up a blacklist of all authors whose books are “anti-patriotic,” including prominent Jewish, liberal and leftist writers.  On the night of May 10, those books are consigned to bonfires.

The students were ecumenical in the targets of their rage.  Authors ranged from Erich Maria Remarque to Ernest Hemingway to Sigmund Freud to James Joyce to Leo Tolstoy to Albert Einstein to F. Scott Fitzgerald to Joseph Conrad to Herman Hesse to Victor Hugo to H.G. Wells to Jack London.  Even Helen Keller was deemed a threat to the Nazi regime.

One eyewitness, the French Ambassador to Germany, Andre Francois-Poncet, described the scene: “a fleet of trucks made for University Place, the student chauffeurs singing to band music as they crossed [Berlin]; 20,000 volumes were heaped upon the pyre, their titles proclaimed as fast as the books were tossed into the fire; firemen poured gasoline on the flames while Goebbels, presiding over the assembly, orated.”

Time magazine referred to a “Bibliocaust” and Newsweek termed the event a “Holocaust.”  According to historian Peter Fritzsche, this is believed to be the first use of the term “Holocaust” in the context of the Third Reich.  Perhaps unwittingly, the editors at Newsweek were on to something.  They may have been aware of 19th Century German poet Heinrich Heine, but may not have been aware of what he wrote back in 1820-21: “Dort, wo man Bücher verbrennt, verbrennt man am Ende auch Menschen.” [Where you burn books, you will end up burning people.”]

I leave the final word on this episode to President Franklin D. Roosevelt, who observed this about book burning:

“Books cannot be killed by fire.  People die, but books never die.  No man and no force can put thought in a concentration camp forever.  No man and no force can take from the world the books that embody man’s eternal fight against tyranny.  In this war, we know, books are weapons.”

Book Burning

May 10, 1940: Germany attacks Belgium, Netherlands, and France, the beginning of their offensive to subdue their western front as a prelude to attacking the Soviet Union. Simultaneously, British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain resigns and is replaced by Winston Churchill.  Churchill retains his portfolio as Minister of Defense as well. Three days later, in his first address to the House of Commons as Prime Minister, Churchill informs the beleaguered British people “I have nothing to offer you but blood, toil, tears and sweat.”

Winston Churchill

May 10, 1941: On the date Hitler had originally planned to invade Russia, Deputy Führer Rudolf Hess flies to Scotland and parachutes down near the home of the Duke of Hamilton in an attempt to negotiate a peace deal with Britain.  In retaliation, Hitler sends one of Hess’s assistants, who had supplied him with astrological predictions (which Hess was fond of), to Sachsenhausen (he was released in March 1943, months before Odd Nansen would arrive).

May 10, 1945: Two days after the official end of World War II, German forces in northern Norway court-martial and execute four German soldiers for mutiny.  When the war ended on May 8, members of the 4th Battery of the 118 Artillery Regiment of the 6th Mountain Division greeted the news with relief.  After all, they had survived a conflict which had killed millions of their compatriots.  The commanding officer of the 118th, however, ordered the soldiers to continue fighting.  The soldiers decided to mutiny instead and escape to Sweden, only 10 miles away.  In the course of the mutiny a rogue NCO shot and killed two officers.  The mutineers broke into two groups, of 48 and 11 men, respectively, and headed for the border.  The group of 11 was intercepted by other German troops, and immediately tried.  Five soldiers were given prison sentences, two acquitted, and four blindfolded, tied to stakes, and executed.   The commanding general, Ferdinand Jodl, personally ordered the execution of the offending soldiers.  Jodl’s older brother, Alfred Jodl, would later be convicted at Nuremburg of crimes against humanity, and executed in 1946.

May 10, 2012: Gunnar Sønsteby, Norway’s most highly decorated resistance fighter of the Second World War, dies at age 94.

Gunnar Sønsteby

Sønsteby, who would receive Norway’s highest military decoration for his resistance work (the War Cross with Three Swords), almost wasn’t accepted into the SOE (Special Operations Executive).  Even without any military training, he had played an important early role in the Norwegian resistance, but when he escaped to Britain to develop his skills further, he failed to excel and was nearly rejected as unsuitable.  It took the personal intervention of John S. Wilson, the head of the Scandinavian section of the SOE, to prevent him from being dropped.  Later, the SOE’s Norwegian section history would describe him as “the most intelligent, most efficient and most productive agent in all Norway.”  The group he headed, the “Oslo Gang,” which included Max Manus, was considered the best team of saboteurs in Europe.

On May 2, 1945, just days before the War ended, Sønsteby carried out the most important—and brazen—operation of all.  Eleven members of the Oslo Gang bluffed their way into the Ministry of Justice and the police headquarters and made off with two and a half tons of files, which would prove invaluable after the War in bringing Vidkun Quisling and his collaborators to justice.

For those of you watching Atlantic Crossing on PBS, you might be interested to know that Sønsteby led the cortege when Crown Prince Olav, the first member of the Royal Family to return from exile, arrived in Oslo on May 13, 1945.  A month later he served as the Crown Prince’s bodyguard when King Haakon VII and the remainder of the Royal Family returned to Oslo as well.

On a trip to Oslo in early 2012, just months prior to Sønsteby’s death, I visited Norway’s Resistance Museum (Norges Hjemmefrontmuseet) in Oslo.  While in their gift shop I saw a newly published biography of Sonsteby, in Norwegian, signed by him.  I was contemplating purchasing the book, even if unreadable to me, just for the signature alone, when the museum clerk asked if perhaps I would like to meet Mr. Sønsteby in person; he was visiting upstairs in the archives that very day.  [Serendipity again!].  My wife, son, and I had a delightful conversation with Sønsteby, very erect and perfectly attired in a suit and tie, together with his charming wife.

At one point toward the end of our conversation, Sønsteby asked me if I had read his own memoir, Report From # 24, which had long been available in an English translation.  I informed him that indeed I had.

In response, he leaned over, closer to me, and confided in a conspiratorial whisper: “I loved every minute of it.”

Memorial statue of Sønsteby in downtown Oslo. Unveiled by King Harald on 13 May 2007

Winston Churchill: A Life

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Fifty-six years ago today, Winston Churchill passed away, age 90.  I’ve written about him before (here, here and here).

Like many larger-than-life figures, especially one in the public eye for much of his life, Churchill has his share of supporters (most recently Erik Larson) as well as his detractors.  He certainly made his share of mistakes, and held views that have not always stood the test of time.

But for today I’ll focus on a contemporary account of Churchill which sheds some light on how he was viewed in his own time, and by a people who had never voted for him, nor even in most cases spoke his language.

For this I turn to my old friend William L. Shirer.  In his book, End of a Berlin Diary, he recounts visiting Paris on November 11, 1944, just months after it had been liberated, to attend the Armistice Day commemoration.  He reflected on how, previously, with “each year . . . less people turned out on the Champs-Élysées on Armistice Day.”  But on this first Armistice Day since liberation, “a crowd of a million Parisians . . . lined the Champs-Élysées from the Arc de Triomphe to the Place de la Concorde.”

I’ll let Shirer take it from here:

“At first, during the early morning when [the Parisians] were gathering on the avenue, they struck me as being in a subdued state of excitement.  They had to pinch themselves to believe that what they were doing and seeing this day, that they were—free again—was all true. . . .

Then suddenly something happened.  All the pent-up feelings of years exploded.  I don’t think I had ever seen this before.  It was just before the traditional hour of eleven a.m.  Down toward the Place de la Concorde we heard the cheers break out.  But it wasn’t ordinary cheering.  It was a mighty roar—even in the distance. Where I was, nobody knew why. . . .   De Gaulle would be in the first [car], standing stiffly, saluting.  He was popular because of what he had done.  But he was not the sort of man to set crowds afire.

And then we knew.  The cars approached.  De Gaulle was in the first one all right, standing stiffly and saluting.  It was what was at his side that set the sparks off.  Standing at his side was Winston Churchill. . . .  At this moment he became, for the moment, a great symbol to these people, the symbol of France’s liberators.  And because not a single one of the million people had expected to see him at this instant, the complete surprise and lightning-sure recognition of the man they knew as the one who, above all others, had saved them, touched off the explosive materials that had lain long and deep in all of them.  For security reasons . . . the public had not been told that Churchill was in Paris or even in France.

At the sight of him there was bedlam.  Now you could really see human beings mad with joy.  They shouted wildly, gripped by a wonderful hysteria. They shouted and stamped and gesticulated and crawled on one another so that their eyes would not lose sight of the man.  After he passed, there was a reaction.  Several around me were in tears. . . .  Gratitude is not very plentiful in this world; but today the French, who are not noted for it, had it.”

RIP, Winston Churchill.

November 1, 1943: Moscow Declaration Issued–and Ignored

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The Moscow Conference of Foreign Secretaries (10/19/43—11/1/43) was the first high level meeting of the three major allies during World War II, and formed the prelude to the first in-person meeting of Roosevelt, Churchill and Stalin in Teheran less than one month later.

The ministers dealt with a variety of issues: reaffirming the principle of unconditional surrender, and expressing a unified desire to establish an international organization for the preservation of the forthcoming peace.  Another topic was the treatment of German war criminals. By the fall of 1943 the genocidal aims of the Nazis were clear beyond a doubt.  Jan Karski, a member of the Polish resistance, had been smuggled into the Warsaw Ghetto and a subcamp of Belzec, and personally relayed his findings to British Foreign Secretary Anthony Eden, and, on July 28, 1943, to President Roosevelt.  Even Odd Nansen knew what was happening.  On December 6, 1942, he noted in his diary: “Himmler has decided that all Jews are to be wiped out.”

Moscow Conference

Prior to the start of the conference, Churchill drafted a proposed declaration on the subject of war crimes, and it was adopted at the Conference and publicly issued over the names of the three leaders on November 1, 1943.

The text of what became known as the Moscow Declaration on German Atrocities is worth quoting in full:

“The United Kingdom, the United States and the Soviet Union have received from many quarters evidence of atrocities, massacres and cold-blooded mass executions which are being perpetrated by the Hitlerite forces in the many countries they have overrun and from which they are now being expelled.  The brutalities of Hitlerite domination are no new thing and all the peoples or territories in their grip have suffered from the worst form of government by terror.  What is new is that many of these territories are now being redeemed by the advancing armies of the liberating Powers and that in their desperation, the recoiling Hitlerite Huns are redoubling their ruthless cruelties. This is now evidenced with particular clearness by monstrous crimes of the Hitlerites on the territory of the Soviet Union which is being liberated from the Hitlerites, and on French and Italian territory.

Accordingly, the aforesaid three allied Powers, speaking in the interests of the thirty-two United Nations, hereby solemnly declare and give full warning of their declaration as follows:

At the time of the granting of any armistice to any government which may be set up in Germany, those German officers and men and members of the Nazi party who have been responsible for, or have taken a consenting part in the above atrocities, massacres and executions, will be sent back to the countries in which their abominable deeds were done in order that they may be judged and punished according to the laws of those liberated countries and of the free governments which will be created therein.  Lists will be compiled in all possible detail from these countries having regard especially to the invaded parts of the Soviet Union, to Poland and Czechoslovakia, to Yugoslavia and Greece, including Crete and other islands, to Norway, Denmark, the Netherlands, Belgium, Luxemburg, France and Italy.

Thus, the Germans who take part in wholesale shootings of Italian officers or in the execution of French, Dutch, Belgium or Norwegian hostages or of Cretan peasants, or who have shared in the slaughters inflicted on the people of Poland or in the territories of the Soviet Union which are being swept clear of the enemy, will know that they will be brought back to the scene of their crimes and judged on the spot by the peoples whom they have outraged.  Let those who have hitherto not imbrued their hands with innocent blood beware lest they join the ranks of the guilty, for most assuredly the three allied Powers will pursue them to the uttermost ends of the earth and will deliver them in order that justice may be done.

The above declaration is without prejudice to the case of the major criminals, whose offenses have no particular geographical localisation (sic) and who will be punished by the joint decision of the Governments of the Allies.”  (my emphasis added)

Churchill was hopeful that such an unmistakable declaration would “make some of these villains shy of being mixed up in the butcheries now that they know they are going to be beat. . . .   Lots of Germans may develop moral scruples if they know they are going to be brought back and judged in the country, and perhaps the very place, where their cruel deeds we done.”

The Moscow Conference and its deliberations were no secret.  Even newly arrived Sachsenhausen prisoner no. 72060 (Odd Nansen), could record in his diary as soon as November 4, 1943: “The news is still brilliant.  The Moscow Conference is over, and according to report they’ve ‘decided’ that the war is to be finished this year.  Goodness—if only that could happen!”

So, did the Nazis develop moral scruples? Did they shy away from their butcheries when the writing was on the wall for all to see? Hardly.  In fact, the same developments that Churchill alluded to led the Nazis to exactly the opposite conclusion.

According to historian Martin Gilbert, “the spectre (sic) of defeat, and the reality of daily losses of territory in the east, led to an intensification of the murder of Jews, in order to ensure the completion of the ‘final solution.’” Around this time Heinrich Himmler ordered Aktion Erntefest (Operation Harvest Festival), targeting Jews in the Lublin, Poland district, many of them survivors of the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising.

Starting at 5:00AM on November 3, 1943, a mere 48 hours after the issuance of the Moscow Declaration, Jews in Majdanek Concentration Camp were led in groups of 100 to trenches (which they had previously dug), and ordered to strip and lie down, where they were shot.  Loudspeakers played music to drown out the gunfire and the cries of the victims.  By 5:00PM the shooting was over, and 18,400 Jews were dead—the largest single-day killing of the Holocaust.

Majdanek Concentration Camp–only Auschwitz was larger

But Operation Harvest Festival wasn’t over.  Also on November 3, over 6,000 Jews were shot at Trawniki, a nearby forced labor camp.  German SS and police units involved in the Majdanek killings moved on to nearby Poniatowa, another forced labor camp, and shot an additional 14,000 Jewish prisoners on November 4.

With at least 39,000, and possibly up to 43,000 victims murdered in two days, Harvest Festival was the largest single massacre of Jews by German forces during World War II.

So much for the development of moral scruples.

One of the ongoing controversies of World War II is whether the Allies could have and should have done more to prevent the full extent of the Holocaust.  Specifically, should the Allies have bombed the rail lines leading to camps such as Auschwitz.  The attitude of Roosevelt, and the U.S. Government in general, was that ending the war as quickly as possible offered the best hope for the Jews, and thus all decisions were based on that criteria alone.  Others have since argued that interdicting the rail lines might have saved lives otherwise lost, with negligible impact on the overall war effort.

If nothing else, Operation Harvest Festival underscores that so long as the Nazis had an adequate supply of bullets, they could and would remain murderously effective in single-mindedly carrying out their cruel butcheries.

If the Nazis failed to develop any moral scruples in response to the Moscow Declaration, did the Allies pursue their quarry to the uttermost ends of the earth in order that justice might be done?

>Heinrich Himmler committed suicide following his capture by British troops on May 21, 1945.

>SS Obergruppenführer Friedrich-Wilhelm Krüger, entrusted by Himmler with carrying out Harvest Festival, committed suicide on May 10, 1945.

>SS and Police Leader Jakob Sporrenberg, who directed Harvest Festival (and who observed the killings from a plane overhead) was captured in Norway, tried by a Polish court after the war, convicted and executed in 1952.

>Martin Gottfried Weiss, Commandant of Majdanek at the time of Harvest Festival, was tried and executed in 1946.

>The Commander of Poniatowa, Gottlieb Hering, died on October 9, 1945 under mysterious circumstances.

>The Commander of Trawniki, Karl Streiber, was tried in 1975 and acquitted.

According to legal scholars Michael Bazyler and Frank Turkheimer, “Over the past seventy years, tens of thousands of individuals who were part of the German regime and their local collaborators . . . have been prosecuted for crimes committed during the years of German rule . . . .  In somewhat sporadic and unorganized fashion, many of these trials dealt either directly or indirectly with the genocide of the Jews.”

Tens of thousands prosecuted (not convicted) for the deaths of millions of Jews and others, leaving millions more families destroyed.

Has justice truly been served? Can it ever be?

Remains of the mass graves/trenches at Majdanek (Source: Bronislaw Wesolowski)

A Churchillian Postscript

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Winston Churchill

 

I am always overjoyed when I receive feedback from my blog subscribers regarding a recent post—especially if they have some personal connection to the story as well (this was a good example).

Last month I published a blog discussing both Churchill and Fridtjof Nansen, and the importance of May 13 in their lives.  As part of my blog, I included a photo of Churchill.  Just about everybody who knows anything about Churchill has seen it.  It has graced the book jackets of more than one Churchill biography.  In fact, it has been called one of the most iconic photos ever taken; according to The Economist magazine, it is the “most reproduced portrait in the history of photography.”  To many it epitomizes all the characteristics we associate with the man who led the British through World War II: truculence; doggedness; pugnacity; defiance in the face of overwhelming odds.

Well, like all good stories, there is a backstory to this one as well, as I recently learned. The photo was taken by an Armenian-Canadian photographer named Yousuf Karsh.  Born Hovsep Karsh in 1908, he and his family escaped the Armenian genocide to Syria in 1922.  From there he was sent to Canada by his family, arriving in 1923.  He lived in Quebec for five years with an uncle who was a portrait photographer, and who taught him the trade, starting with a Box Brownie camera.  From 1929—1931 he apprenticed with another Armenian photographer in Boston, John Garo.

Returning to Canada in 1932, Karsh set up his own studio in Ottawa.  He managed to capture the attention of Mackenzie King, Canada’s Prime Minister, who helped arrange portraits of visiting dignitaries.

Yousuf Karsh

On December 30, 1941, one of those visiting dignitaries happened to be Winston Churchill, in town taking a break from the Arcadia Conference talks in DC.  Following an address to the Canadian Parliament, Karsh arranged to photograph Churchill.  The first shot was quite standard, showing a smiling, jovial Churchill. Prior to the second shot, Karsh snatched the trademark Churchill cigar from him.  Churchill was miffed, and showed it.  Thus is history made, and thus we remember England’s feisty wartime leader.

Now, how do I know all this?  Much of it is available on-line and in various history books.  But the person who brought it to my attention was Pamela B.  I met Pam while giving the Wallenberg Memorial Address to the Nordic Museum in Seattle last June (here). After my Churchill blog was posted last month, Pam wrote me about Karsh, and revealed that she knew the great Karsh: looking for a summer job following high school graduation in Ottawa, Pam was hired on as the cook and housekeeper.  She writes “it was an interesting experience to work for someone so famous with a home full of mementos from his decades of hanging out with luminaries across the US and Europe.”  Pam was even interviewed by Karsh’s biographer for any telling insights.  She had none to relay, probably because, as she informed me, she was fired within three weeks (whether for deficiencies in housekeeping or cooking is not known).

There is yet another connection.  Pam’s husband Gary is the “world’s leading expert in the artistic depiction of facial expression” and writes a blog about such matters, including one on Churchill’s famous scowl (here).

“Wait,” as they say on some TV commercials, “there’s more!”

Yousef had a younger brother Malak who was also a talented photographer. He developed in to a premier landscape photographer (so as not to compete directly with his brother).  The Canadian $1 dollar bill (no longer in use) once depicted Queen Elizabeth on one side (photo by Yousuf) and a logjam on the Ottawa River just below Parliament on the obverse (courtesy of Malak).  Not too surprising that Pam would know Malak’s story as well—she dated Malak’s son Laurence in high school!

Now, back to Yousuf.  By the time he died in 2002, age 93, he was regarded as one of the leading photographers of the Twentieth Century.  More than 20 of Yousuf’s photos graced the cover of Life magazine, including the Churchill shot.  The picture did not actually appear until May 21, 1945, almost four years after it was taken.  That was shortly after VE Day, a victory Churchill did almost as much as anyone to help accomplish.

Are there any other connections we can pack into this blog?  Well, my May 13 blog spoke about both Churchill and Fridtjof Nansen.  The Armenians (which Yousuf always thought of himself) still revere Fridtjof Nansen for all the work he did following World War I to assist them.  Every April 24, the date commemorating the start of the Armenian Genocide, they have a ceremony at Fridtjof’s gravesite in Lysaker, Norway.  In 2011 the Armenian Government flew Nansen’s granddaughter (and my dear friend) Marit (Nansen) Greve to Yerevan,  their capital city, so she could witness the unveiling of a new memorial to Fridtjof.

Flowers on Fridtjof Nansen’s grave, April 24, 2019. Courtesy Anne Greve.

It’s amazing what one little blog can unleash!  I hope some future subject causes you to reach out to me as well with your story!

May 13: Winston Churchill and Fridtjof Nansen

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I don’t know if Winston Churchill and Fridtjof Nansen (about whom I’ve written before here and here) ever knew each other or knew of each other.  I’ve never yet come across a reference to the other in either of their writings.  But then again, I’ve only scratched the surface of their respective output—both left prodigious written records.

Nevertheless, I find it hard to believe that they were not at least aware of each other, if not personally acquainted.  They both loomed so large over their respective stages in Europe that it’s almost impossible to think they hadn’t somehow crossed paths.

While Churchill may have missed the 1897 lecture Nansen (thirteen years his senior) gave to the Royal Geographical Society following his attempt at the North Pole (Winston was serving with the British Army in India at the time), they were both in London in 1906, when Fridtjof Nansen was appointed newly-independent Norway’s first ambassador to Great Britain and Churchill was re-elected to Parliament.   Both men were active during World War I; Nansen negotiating with the Wilson Administration for liberalized food trade; Churchill as First Lord of the Admiralty

After World War I ended, Fridtjof Nansen was one of the most prominent figures in the newly created League of Nations, an organization strongly supported by Churchill.  With the approach of World War II, Churchill participated in the Focus Group, a loosely-allied group of British politicians alive to the threat of fascist Germany. Philip Noel-Baker, an old League friend of Fridtjof’s, was part of this select group.

Whether or not the two were acquainted, personally or by reputation, May 13th was a critical anniversary in both their lives.

Fridtjof Nansen

On May 13, 1930, Fridtjof Nansen passed away, age 68.   As I have explained in an earlier post, while the medical report may have listed the cause of death as heart failure, in reality I believe it was simply a case of his having done more work than most ten men.  If there was one word that encapsulated his personality, it was forward (in Norwegian the word is fram which happened to be the name of the ship he built for his expedition to the North Pole).  As he once explained, there should be no thought or plan of retreat: “Then one loses no time in looking behind, when one should have quite enough to do in looking ahead—then there is no chance for you or your men but forward.  You have to do or die!”

Winston Churchill

Exactly 10 years later, on May 13, 1940, that same philosophy inspired Churchill’s famous “blood, toil, tears and sweat” speech to the House of Commons.  At the time of the speech, Churchill had been Prime Minister for all of three days, assuming the position “on the eve of the gravest crisis which any British Government ever faced,” in the words of one historian.  Austria had been annexed; Czechoslovakia occupied; Poland crushed; Denmark overrun; Holland would capitulate 2 days later; Belgium in 18 more; France was slightly more than a month away from surrendering; Norway was fighting gallantly against impossible odds.  Many in Great Britain advocated negotiating with Hitler.

Nevertheless, Churchill marked out his own position unmistakably.  After informing his countrymen that he had nothing to offer them but blood, toil, tears and sweat, Churchill continued:

“We have before us an ordeal of the most grievous kind.   We have before us many, many long months of struggle and suffering.  You ask, what is our policy?  I can say: It is to wage war, by sea, land and air, with all our might and with all the strength that God can give us; to wage war against a monstrous tyranny, never surpassed in the dark, lamentable catalogue of human crime.  That is our policy.  You ask, what is our aim?  I can answer in one word: It is victory, victory at all costs, victory in spite of all terror, victory, however long and hard the road may be; for without victory there is no survival.”

As one historian described Churchill’s spellbinding speech, and its effect on both his country and the worldwide audience that it was also intended for: “If this was Britain’s ‘finest hour,’ it was also Winston’s.”

No doubt if Fridtjof Nansen were still alive, he would have wholeheartedly agreed.

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