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Laima Vince is a novelist, poet, playwright and literary translator from Lithuanian into English. Her novel, This Is Not My Sky, has been translated into Lithuanian and published by Alma Littera, the largest commercial publishing house in the Baltic States. She has written five works of literary nonfiction and five plays. Laima Vince earned a MFA in Writing from Columbia University and a second MFA in Nonfiction from the University of New Hampshire. She is the recipient of two Fulbright grants and a National Endowment for the Arts award in Literature, as well as a PEN Translation Fund grant.

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reflections on belonging

a palmers chronicle right bw

Graphic Novels

Laima Vinceby
Laima Vincė

 

 

I was nervous about meeting my old school friend, Greta. I had not seen her since 1988, when I’d spent a few days with her at the Lithuanian Gymnasium in Germany before flying to Moscow, and then to Vilnius. In the late eighties and early nineties, diaspora Lithuanians had the chance to meet their Lithuanian families left behind the Iron Curtain, after having had almost no contact for over half a century. I was one of a handful of Americans who had been issued a rare USSR student visa to study for a year in the Soviet Socialist Republic of Lithuania.

I felt guilty for neglecting the friendship Greta and I shared as high school students. In 1982, when I came to study at the Lithuanian Gymnasium, I was 16 and she was 12. I must have been immature for my age because I tended to befriend younger girls rather than the more worldly ones, like Greta’s older sister, the sophisticated Claudia, who after graduating in 1983, enrolled in Vilnius University to study Medicine, disappearing for eight years behind the Iron Curtain. Until Facebook brought us back together, I had not had contact with Greta or Claudia. I had no good excuse. The undertow of my own life had pulled me under.

I followed the directions Waze sang out merrily driving to Greta’s home in Bavaria. I negotiated steep hills flanked with potato fields and vineyards. When Waze crooned, “You have reached your destination,” I parked along the edge of a leaf-covered country road. An enormous black dog bounded towards me, greeting me, licking my hands. In the distance stood Greta, tall, slender, blonde, blue-eyed, dressed in a smart black wool coat, knit magenta dress, tights, and shiny patent leather boots. A costume jewelry faux ruby necklace decorated her neck. She did not look fifty, but barely a few years older than when I last saw her when she was 18. I strode towards her and we embraced.

I gazed around at the pastoral setting—a plum tree languished on a gentle slope, its laden boughs leisurely releasing plums onto the grass. In the distance were vineyards, rolling hills, dense forests. Hens clucked in the chicken coop, rabbits took their ease in their hutch, a cat stretched lazily in the sun. Her black dog took up his guard post under an apple tree. It was also a good place to hide. Greta used a different surname on her Facebook page, rarely posted photos of her family, and listed her residence in a large German city in the north.

Greta led me towards her house, speaking in a hurried voice, “There is so much I need to talk to you about. No one else understands what I lived through, what my family went through… It’s like a spy movie… It was unreal…. They say the DDR was bad, but it was nothing compared to the Soviet Union…”

The urge to talk overpowered her and took precedence over sightseeing. Greta needed to complete the conversation we had started thirty-two years ago. Then, my life was about to change forever. Hers already had. In 1988, before I left, Greta pleaded with me to be careful of the KGB.

We entered the old stone farmhouse she and her husband had renovated. She made us both a cappuccino, talking over the sound of hissing steam, picking up the story from where it had broken off thirty-two years earlier. Greta spoke to me in German-accented Lithuanian. She admitted that she rarely spoke Lithuanian since she graduated high school. At times, words failed her, but she was determined to tell me her story in Lithuanian. That was the language she had lived the story in and that was the language the story needed to be told in.

In 1988, when her elder sister Claudia was studying Medicine in Lithuania, a charming classmate courted her, and she fell in love with his suave sweet talk, innocent good looks, and declarations of admiration. Aras was charming and seemed too good to be true. As it later turned out, he was. She trusted him too easily. In the diaspora, we had been raised to trust Lithuanians as members of our own unique persecuted tribe.

Claudia had known Aras for only a short time before they were married. They planned to spend the summer in Germany and return to Vilnius to complete their last year of medical school. The summer of 1988, after the wedding, Greta, Claudia, Aras, and his best man, Leonas, also a medical student, boarded a train out of the Soviet Union. The train stopped in Braunschweig, a stop away from the family’s home. Aras announced he was stepping out briefly to use the restroom in the station. He never returned.

When Greta and I met in August 1988, the groom was still missing, and only a month had passed since his disappearance. It is a testimony to the innocence of diaspora Lithuanians at the time that no one suspected him of running away and abandoning his bride so coldly. We all assumed the worst had happened—that he had been snatched up and kidnapped by the KGB.

In the middle of the chaos that summer, Leonas, the best friend of the run-away groom, began pressuring Greta to marry him so that he could stay in Germany. She was only 18. He play-acted the perfect gentleman to her parents while dragging her aside and threatening her that if she did not agree to marry him there would be dire consequences. She stood her ground and refused.

“Why didn’t your parents kick him out?” I asked.

“My parents were too kind and trusting,” Greta said. “I told them to make Leonas leave, but they said he was a good man and not responsible for what his friend had done. In the end, I had to leave my own home because I could not stand it that Leonas was there, living off my parents, sucking them dry for everything he could take by playing their sympathies.”

Leonas took his revenge.

“I was supposed to travel to Lithuania the following spring with the school trip,” Greta confided. “One evening I was called to the dorm phone to take a call from Lithuania. A man’s voice hissed into the receiver: ‘If you travel to Lithuania, you will never return to Germany again.’ That phone call scared me so much that I cancelled my trip. I have never traveled to Lithuania again in all these years. Lithuania has been independent thirty years and I’m still afraid to go there. I lost my Lithuanian identity because of Aras and Leonas. I had to give up half of who I was. I was so patriotic growing up. I was proud to be half Lithuanian. Now all that is gone. My sister should not have been so naïve.”

Outside, a gust of wind blew across the yard, scattering golden leaves. Apples fell to the ground. The black dog let out a bark.

“Honestly,” Greta sighed, “I suspect Aras and Leonas were a couple. It didn’t make sense that they would run away from the Soviet Union because we later learned that they came from privileged highly connected KGB families and had money and access to deficit goods. I suspect they were running to the West because gay men were persecuted in the Soviet Union back then.”

I reached for my phone and googled Leonas. I showed Greta what the search engine found, and she confirmed the photograph was him. He is now an Assistant Professor of Medicine at a reputable university in New Jersey.

“I have not told you everything,” Greta said, glancing out the window, surveying the yard. 

“There is a piece of this story missing. But it is confusing. Unbelievable really. What they did to our parents… And to Claudia… You would never have believed it… You must go and see Claudia. Let her tell you that part herself…”

“I will,” I promised. 

“The only good part about this story,” Greta continued, “was how my mother got her revenge. Many years later, Aras had the nerve to show up at the Lithuanian Summer Solstice picnic. Lithuania had been independent about ten years then. The Soviet Union was gone. My mother spotted him, marched right up to him, and with all the strength she had in her, slapped him hard across the face. Everybody saw it.”

There must have been satisfaction in that slap.

The door opened and Greta’s husband strode into the kitchen. We switched to German. He teased Greta that her necklace made her look like die Bürgermeisterin. I realized then that out of respect for me, she had dressed up for my visit. I too had worn a new dress and my purple boots.

Later, as we strolled down a winding path towards the city center, Greta explained: “I chose a safe husband, an older man, a good man who works in a caring profession. I think what I lived through as a teenager influenced me to limit my contact with people from Lithuania. I worry about what will happen when my daughters get a little older and become curious about their heritage. I’m not sure what I will tell them.”

Over lunch at an outdoor café, enjoying good Bavarian Schnitzel and noodles, Greta told me about her parents. Her mother, Ursula, was an ethnic German who grew up in the German-speaking Memel region of Lithuania before the War. Her family fled when the Red Army invaded Prussia, savagely murdering the local population, raping women, teenagers, even children. They managed to make it to Berlin. There one of the family members became ill with appendicitis and they could not continue onwards to the Allied territories. Russian soldiers confiscated their belongings and in Greta’s grandmother’s luggage found a photograph of their grandfather in a German uniform. The entire family was deported to Siberia for that photograph.  Ursula and her mother escaped from Siberia, walking all the way back to Lithuania. A few years later, Ursula married an ethnic Lithuanian, Greta’s father. Because of a Cold War agreement between the USSR and Germany, they were given permission to emigrate to Germany in 1959.  Claudia and Greta’s father became the head of the Lithuanian German émigré community and an outspoken activist for Lithuania’s independence.

“My mother was harsh, German about discipline when I was growing up,” Greta recalled. “My father was warm-hearted and kind. I thought all Lithuanians were like my father. That’s why I wanted to go to the Lithuanian Gymnasium to study. As a child, it was difficult for me to live with my mother. She was damaged by the War.”

That evening, I lingered in Greta’s home, chatting with her husband and daughters. Greta has stayed home with them since they were born, creating a nurturing homelife. There is harmony in their home that radiates outward into the world.

II

Another classmate, Karl, invited me out to dinner. He has made a successful career as a programmer. Karl insisted we speak Lithuanian. Like Greta, he hadn’t spoken the language in years, probably since the last time we’d met ten years ago when he came to visit Lithuania. I told him about my visit with Greta.

“Those two sisters are still telling that story?” Karl asked, slicing his lamb, picking out a tender morsel, placing it in his mouth.

“Well… yes…”

“That’s too much! It’s been years… Over thirty years… They make too much out of that story!”

“Claudia was manipulated, and lied to, and abandoned. How does one ever get over that?” 

Karl began to laugh.

“What is there to laugh about?”

I was surprised and a little indignant. He and Claudia had grown up together. We were all like brothers and sisters in those days.

“It’s such a cliché,” Karl continued, “a bride abandoned on a train. It’s like something out of a movie…”

“But it wasn’t a movie. It happened.”

“I remember how Claudia’s mother slapped that bastard across the face at the Summer Solstice picnic. I was standing right there when it happened. The guy must have been a real idiot to have the balls to show his face among Lithuanians after what he did. She marched right up to him—she is a tough lady you know—and without giving him any warning, slapped him hard across the face. He ran away. Fled the picnic. Such a coward. Pathetic.”

“I love that story. I think most people would have just played it cool and ignored his presence.”

“Greta and I are not talking to each other,” Karl said abruptly. “It’s been five years. Did she tell you that?”

“What happened?”

“My soccer club was playing in her town. We had dinner and were talking about the refugee situation, and she said refugees should not be allowed into Germany.”

“We talked about that too. She is concerned about terrorists mixing in with legitimate refugees.”

Karl set down his fork. There was pain in his eyes. And defeat. “Our parents were war refugees,” he said. “I told her I was shocked that she could have anything against refugees when the only reason we are here in Germany ourselves is because this country gave our parents asylum after the War.”

“You had a difference of opinion,” I said gently, “that is no reason to end a friendship you’ve had since childhood.”

“The Nazis brought my father to Germany as a forced laborer. He was only eighteen. He and his brother were shepherds in Western Lithuania. They were out in the fields when German soldiers showed up, looking for men to send to Germany to work in their factories. My father’s elder brother pointed at him and said, ‘Take him, not me.’ They took my father. He cursed his brother until the day he died, never forgave him for his betrayal, even though his brother died of starvation in Siberia. All his life my father missed Lithuania, but he would never go back.”

“I’m sorry…”

“He would drink for weeks. Then for weeks he would stop. He and my mother argued all the time. My mother was German, a kind good woman. They met after the War. My father was the reason why my mother sent me and my sisters away to the Gymnasium, so that we could find some peace.”

The waiter interrupted us, asked if we needed anything. He poured us both another glass of red wine. We needed it.

“The Gymnasium saved me,” Karl continued. “I remember Father Dėdinas loved technical gadgets. He was a real techy. His small apartment was full of gadgets and we kids were always welcome to come over and fiddle around with things.”

“Like his ham radio?”

“Yes, like his ham radio. He would show us how to talk to people around the world. Imagine that? How exciting. All those years before the internet. He would build model planes with us over summer holidays, teach us how to construct the engines, show us how to fly them. Now that I think of it, I remember it was Dėdinas who showed me my first motherboard back in the infancy of computers. He taught me the rudiments of programming. I owe the good life I’ve lived to Dėdinas. To him and to Herr Weigel, our German Literature teacher. Dėdinas and Weigel, they were the two forces who shaped me. They were the two poles in my existence.”

So much talk from such a quiet man. I remember when we were at school, Karl would follow me and my friends, Mary and Ada, around everywhere we went. He was a tall silent shadow. We would all play music together. I think he was in love with me then. But he never said a word to me. I just accepted his constant steady presence, a wordless sentinel.

“The Gymnasium saved us,” I said. “I too could no longer bear to live under the same roof with my father. He was so damaged by the War that he never stopped shouting, belittling us, picking fights with everyone. There was no peace around him. You could not reason with him. It was like there was no one there. No one at all. Just a blazing ball of anger and trauma…”

“There was peace and goodness at the Gymnasium. The director and his wife were good people. Yes, there were some weirdos hanging around the edges, but the good people, they saved our lives, they gave us a life, they pointed us in the right direction. Where would we be now without them?”

We grew quiet, reflecting on the people who saved us, we children of war refugees, some of us the children of the so-called “Wolf Children”—orphaned ethnic Germans who survived by roaming the countryside begging for food and work, exploited, traumatized, homeless. I did not realize it then—how could I at such a young age—but the real work of our school Director and his wife, and our teachers, was to create for us the peaceful life we could not have at home where World War II played out night after night without any truce in sight. They imbued us with the idealism to see beyond the destruction of war and stand up for freedom and democracy. They laid the groundwork for our future lives.

Our little table, the space of our world of memories between us, was separated on either side by a tall sheet of plexiglass meant to protect us from coronavirus. Through the plexiglass on one side two baseball cap clad American men sat hunched over, drinking large mugs of German beer and dining on pizza. On the other side, a middle-aged Russian couple picked at salads.

“I’m going to see Claudia,” I said, breaking the silence. “To hear the rest of her story.”

“I’d like to go too,” Karl said. “I haven’t seen her for years.”

“I think I’d rather see her alone,” I said. “Greta told me Claudia’s story is hers, and she alone needs to tell it.”

Later that evening, after we parted, Karl sent me a text, thanking me for the “language lesson.” I was stunned. He had reduced our moment of honesty to an exercise in Lithuanian conversation. Our hearts were better kept at a safe distance and behind a wall of plexiglass.

III

“I’m completely open about my story,” Claudia said as we sat down to talk at a cozy restaurant at an art museum in her town. “I see no reason to hide what happened. It’s better for me to tell people.”

“Did you have any sense that you could not trust Aras before you married him?”

“When I look back, there were all sorts of signs, but I chose not to see them. The night before our wedding, I dreamt that a large black cat leapt onto my back and dug its claws into my skin. But I shook off that dream.”

“Why did you get involved with him?”

“That year they took all the men from our medical school into the Soviet Army, but for some reason they did not take Aras. He was the only man left among all us girls and that made him popular. I should have been suspicious, now that I think of it, but I wasn’t.”

“I don’t understand?”

Claudia explained: “He was spared the hazing and brutality of the Soviet Army. That meant he came from a privileged family. Only, I didn’t know that then.”

“It was so hard for us to understand the dynamics of Soviet society.”

“Yes,” Claudia acknowledged, “and they gave us VIP treatment, and we fell for it.”

“I was embarrassed by the attention I received merely because I was an American in the Soviet Union.”

Claudia nodded in agreement.

“We dated for a while, but then broke up. Later, he chased after me in a taxi, jumped out onto the sidewalk where I was walking, and told me he made a terrible mistake. I suppose I was flattered. Soon afterwards, he pressured me to marry him. I was twenty-four. At that time in Lithuania, you were considered an old maid if you weren’t married by twenty-five.” Claudia began to laugh. “I was so stupid! I rushed to marry him before I turned twenty-five!”

“Most of the time those marriages didn’t last.”

“A KGB agent came to see us and invited me to the restaurant Neringa.”

“The legendary restaurant where the KGB met...”

“Yes, that’s the one,” Claudia lowered her eyes.

“My cousin took me there when I first arrived in Vilnius in 1988. The entire place was bugged. He ripped a cord out of a panel beside the table before he spoke to me. I think he was ‘looking after me.’”

“The agent seemed like a respectable older man,” Claudia continued. “He had silver hair, glasses, wore a good suit. He pushed a paper at me and said that if I signed and agreed to report what other Westerners in Vilnius were saying, then they would allow Aras an exit visa to leave the Soviet Union with me after we both graduated.”

“And if you didn’t sign?”

“Then Aras would not have been allowed out of the Soviet Union.”

I was silently grateful I had never had to make such a choice.

“I was never approached by the KGB—perhaps only because by that time the independence movement was holding massive peaceful rallies and their agents had better things to do. Although, there could have been informers among those I considered my friends…”

“I came from a patriotic family,” Claudia stressed, “our teachers warned me that if the KGB ever approached me that I should pack my bags and leave immediately. But I rationalized that I could meet with them and not tell them anything consequential. I was in love. I had this idea that I wanted to save Aras by bringing him to Germany.”

“Did you sign?”

“I signed, but I can tell you honestly that I signed out of love.”

Claudia hesitated, “I thought it was love.”

She gazed out the picture window, “I’ve analyzed myself and I think it was really more about my ego back then.”

“You were so young…”

Claudia caught my gaze and held it.

“Did you meet with the KGB agent after that?”

“Yes, I would meet with him in a hotel room. I told him things that I thought wouldn’t harm anyone. I thought I was so clever, that I had outsmarted them. As a reward, they gave Aras a visa to West Germany for the summer.”

“What happened after he left the train?”

“He headed for the men’s room, bleached his hair in the sink, changed his clothes, discarded the clothing he’d been wearing. He had all our documents with him, our marriage certificate, our visas, passports. He traveled straight to Bonn and asked for political asylum. He told the West German Intelligence Service that he was running away from his wife because she was a KGB agent spying on Germans and westerners in the USSR.”

A knot formed in my stomach. The obatzda I had been enjoying was suddenly unappetizing. I had not expected that level of deception. I assumed Aras tricked her into marriage to escape to the West. Not to destroy her.

“The German Intelligence Service and the police came to our house and arrested me. They searched our home. They went through every inch of our family’s possessions, took everything apart. They confiscated my passport and did not return it to me for two years. They confiscated my parents’ passports. They threatened my parents with deportation. My parents were terrified.”

“Then what?”

“I demanded they respect our rights as German citizens. That’s when the detective said, ‘You’re a spy working for the KGB. You have lost your rights.’ He told me Aras had told them everything about me—that I was only posing as a medical student, that I was meeting regularly with the KGB, informing on Westerners. Aras provided proof.”

This is what Greta had been trying to tell me. This wasn’t just a story about a run-away groom. This was about the cynical violation of trust. This was not a heroic story about a man’s desire for freedom. Nor was it a story with dignity. It was a story about two privileged Soviet Lithuanian men, wanting more and stopping at nothing to get it.

“But I had done it out of love for Aras,” Claudia insisted.  “I was naïve. Aras set me up. The most painful part was how it destroyed my parents’ lives. They were simple factory workers. They didn’t have any money or savings. Anything they earned beyond what they needed to pay for basic living expenses for our family, they donated to relatives and friends in Lithuania. Their lives were so fragile, and they were threatened with losing everything. My father and mother were completely discredited in the Lithuanian German diaspora community. Everybody could point fingers and say, ‘You thought you were so righteous fighting for Lithuania’s independence, but look, your daughter is a Soviet spy!’”

During the Cold War, the KGB infiltrated the Lithuanian diaspora to undermine its leaders. Often, the victims were unsuspecting women with open hearts, who had come of age in an idealistic diaspora that stressed marriage, family, community, and working together for the common goal of Lithuania’s independence.

“All his life my father missed Lithuania,” Claudia continued. “After a visit, our relatives would see him off at the train station. He would take off his winter coat and give it away. He would travel home in the bitter cold without a coat.”

“What happened after they confiscated your passports?”

“That night they held me at the police station. I told them everything. I was completely honest about every detail. They weighed the fact that they did not find a single document or any evidence indicating that I was a spy. They released me the next day, but they kept my passport.”

“What then?”

“Our family was under surveillance for two years. I could not return to Lithuania to complete my last year of my medical studies. I could only work menial jobs and try to save money. I learned how to drive. I tried to stay positive.”

“You’re a doctor now. How did you manage to complete your education?”

“In March 1990, Lithuania declared independence from the Soviet Union. But it took another year and a half before Lithuania’s independence was legally recognized by the international community. The Soviet Union began to fall apart. In March 1990, the German Intelligence returned my passport, and I traveled to Lithuania to complete my studies.

“Vytautas Landsbergis’s press secretary invited me to the newly elected democratic Lithuanian parliament to serve as a volunteer German language translator. I threw myself into working for the independence movement. For the next two years, I translated for the press, drafted official letters in German to the government, followed the press coverage from Germany, put together summaries in Lithuanian for Landsbergis. Eventually, they gave me my own office in the parliament. I was there when Soviet soldiers attacked us on January 13, 1991. I was not afraid. I joined the crowd to protect the television tower. Then, the next day, together with my best friend, who also was a doctor, we went to the hospital to help treat the wounded.”

“You were needed in Lithuania exactly when you were there.”

“Yes,” Claudia mused, “I suppose. Despite what happened with Aras, those years in Lithuania were the best years of my life. My friend and I rented an apartment together. Every weekend we threw parties. We had two rooms. In one room everyone would sit together and sing folk songs and in the other everyone would dance. The smokers would congregate on the balcony. Everyone was always singing back then. All the time we were singing. We were so idealistic. We were so joyous, so full of hope for the future.”

“I am nostalgic for those days too,” I said.

Claudia laughed, “I have never eaten so much boiled liver and shredded beet salad as I did in those years. But with the economic blockade and food shortages, we were lucky to even get boiled liver for lunch! We were young and full of hope, and details like food or heat or gasoline did not matter to us.”

“And the KGB was defunct…”

“You wouldn’t believe it, but after the Berlin Wall collapsed, German intelligence got in touch with me and asked if I wouldn’t mind working for them.”

“You mean, as a Doppelagent?” I asked, astonished.

“Of course, but this time I had the good sense to refuse.”

We both laughed, but soon grew serious again.

“How did you get over such a betrayal?”

“I’m a positive person. I see what happened as a life lesson. So many challenging things have happened in my life since then. I see what happened with Aras as just one episode.”

“Did you find true love after that?”

 “I met a Lithuanian-American who also came to the parliament as a volunteer. We loved each other deeply. We both dedicated every minute to working for the independence movement. We were idealists, for freedom, democracy, independence.”

“Did you marry him?”

“I wanted to. But he did not want to marry. Before he met me, he had been in a relationship with a Lithuanian woman he had fallen deeply in love with. She used him badly for material things and then discarded him. He never got over it. He could not heal from that first betrayal. He lost faith in marriage, in love. We ended our relationship in 1992. I went back to Germany to begin my career as a general practitioner. He had a successful career as a diplomat, but then committed suicide. His depression got the better of him.”

“But you healed,” I said gently.

“Yes, but it took a long time.”

I gazed at Claudia across the table.

“I missed Lithuania so much when I left. It was like a wound. I only started to feel happy again in Germany when I married and my children were born.”

“When we were in school, you remember your room was across the hall from mine?”

“Yes.”

“Back then, one night I dreamt you and I were running through a pine forest with a few other girls. A soldier with a gun was pursuing us. We were terrified and running for our lives. We found this trap door in the ground and yanked it up. There was an underground chamber below where we could hide. We jumped inside and crouched with our backs to the wall. Then the trap door over our heads opened. The soldier jumped down. He cocked his gun and shot every single girl, one by one. I watched him shoot you, Claudia. I was next. He pointed his gun in my face, took aim, fired, and everything went black.”

“You and I both chose to work for the independence movement,” Claudia mused.

“In my dream, we died together.”

As we drove back to Claudia’s home through the pastoral Bavarian countryside, Claudia glanced at me with a sly look and said, “You know, after all that, I’ve got to admit that the sex back then in the Soviet Union was not that great… Those boys were not comfortable with their bodies.”

I burst out laughing, and laughter became our catharsis. Once her story had been told and released, we could laugh, truly laugh.

In the eighties and nineties, as the Soviet Union opened to the West, the allure of connecting with our Lithuanian heritage for us children of World War II refugees was too strong to resist. That need for connection led us into a dark abyss that we were incapable of negotiating unscathed. We lived out the trauma of the war our parents had survived. World War II did not end for our generation. It still has not ended. For many of us, the wounds have not healed. We did not have the emotional tools then to protect ourselves. Do we even have them now?

 

 

 

 

 

 

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