Tag Archives: anti-Semitism

Best-selling novelist Andrew Gross is featured speaker at Greater Naples Jewish Book Festival

Review article by Phil Jason, co-chair of Jewish Book Festival and Florida Weekly book columnist

The Fifth Column: A Novel, by Andrew Gross. Minotaur Books. 336 pages. Hardcover $28.99.

This fast-paced historical thriller has all the ingredients of another best seller for its prolific and popular author. In the late 1930s, the concept of a fifth column, a seditious group forming in the United States in league with this country’s enemies or potential enemies, gained quite a bit of attention. Anti-war sentiment was high, and it raised the possibility of anti-government action. 

Many groups, especially after France fell, admired Hitler and fascism. They admired authoritarian leadership. U. S. security agencies recognized the threat, but agents’ hands were tied without solid proof of law-breaking.

Worst of all, the more sophisticated Fifth Column groups were adept at fitting in, keeping a low profile, and passing for loyalists while planning to undermine the country or its principles.

There were plenty of pro-Nazi rallies, anti-Semitic rants, and New York area neighborhoods in which children wore swastikas.

Andrew Gross describes such an atmosphere, and he finds the perfect premises and plot line to bring it to life in a most horrifying fashion.

We meet the central character and main narrator, Charles Mossman, in a New York bar continuing a pattern of drinking way too much while pondering the political stories of the day. His drinking had brought Charlie low, costing him his job as a history professor at Columbia University. A minimally observant Jew, Charlie is dismayed about the popularity of figures like Father Coughlin and Joseph McWilliams who stirred up trouble and spread hate. He is also grieving over the loss of his twin brother Ben, who died fighting the Fascists in the Spanish Civil War. Worse yet, Charlie had been unfaithful to his wife Liz, who has become the main breadwinner.

He hopes to regain her trust and to never lose it again. His worst nightmare is failing their six-year old daughter Emma.

This night, even more disaster for Charlie comes to pass. Drunk beyond sense or stability, he manages to get into a fight and accidentally murder a teenager.

Two years later, when a clean Charlie is released from jail, determined to claw his way back to respectability, just about all of Europe is at war. Charlie has a lot to prove to regain the faith of his wife, who has changed the last name on the door from Mossman to Rubin. When he hears his daughter’s voice calling “Daddy,” he knows more than ever how much he has missed.

It’s clear that Liz is a long way from trusting him. She is not willing to have him return to their home. Charlie understands; he is hoping – over time – to make amends and prove himself worthy.

Liz agrees to allow Charlie to visit with Emma twice a week after school, but he must leave before Liz returns home. Liz has Mrs. Shearer helping her out minding Emma, and Liz is working to support the tenuously balanced family. There are also elderly neighbors, the Bauers, who have befriended Liz and Emma.

The novel shifts into a new gear when Charlie begins to feel that something is not quite right about the behavior of Trudi and Willi Bauer, who long ago established themselves as Swiss citizens of German heritage enjoying their senior years in the United States. They seem somehow too close to Emma, and she to them.

Charlie is also perplexed by their furtive-seeming visitors, whom they call “customers,” whom the Bauers invite on a regular basis. While it is no surprise that Emma has been developing something of a German vocabulary from her interaction with the Bauers, Charlie is shocked to hear his daughter use the word lebensraum, the oft-repeated justification for Germany’s military aggression.

When Charlie asks Emma what the word means, she responds, “the future.” Now he is further worried. His concern deepens when he notices, in the Bauer home, a strip of partially burned paper containing numbers that might be a secret code. Charlie is also troubled that nearby German bars hold meetings of groups like the German American Bund at which speakers offer Nazi propaganda.

Without much to go on, Charlie – on his lawyer’s advice and without Liz’s consent – takes his concerns to the local police station. He receives a patronizing response and little satisfaction. Given his background, this down-and-out ex-con doesn’t have a chance of getting a fair listening from the police officer, who at least pays him some attention.

The narrative builds in various ways. Charlie continues to tell his story, including his discovery of more suspicious items, including a hidden radio transmitter, in the Bauer home. Gross sets Charlie’s personal story against the larger story of the German advances in Europe and the growing anti-war sentiment in the United States. Although Charlie thinks he has an FBI-connected ally who can put his findings to good use, progress is iffy.

He gets no support from Liz, who acts like a divorce is forthcoming. In her view, Charlie’s behavior is ruining their chances for a normal family life. Hating to be seen in this light, Charlie is nonetheless driven to find the truth for his daughter’s sake – and for his country’s sake.

Charlie’s desperation makes him an easy mark for those who can read it and maneuver him to their advantage.

Andrew Gross masterfully portrays the details of how Charlie’s quest plays out, including the setbacks along the way, Charlie’s emotional predicament, and the forces arrayed against him. I can’t tell you more without giving too much away!

Book lovers can hear Mr. Gross discuss this blazing thriller – which imagines a carefully planned, deadly threat against the U. S. – on Tuesday, November 11 beginning at 1:00 at the Naples Conference Center. The book will be available for sale and signing. Also speaking at that event will be Steve Israel, author of Big Guns. Find details about the complete Festival series of events, along with an order form, author bios, sponsor news, and contact information at http://www.jewishbookfestival.org. Need an answer fast? Send an email to fedstar18@gmail.com or call the Federation office at 239.263.4205.

This review article first appeared in the October 2019  edition of the Federation Star (Jewish Federation of Greater Naples).

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“HATE: The Rising Tide of Anti-Semitism in France (and What It Means for Us),” by Marc Weitzmann

Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. 320 pages. Hardcover $26.00.
This time­ly and high­ly sophis­ti­cat­ed study by a well-respect­ed French jour­nal­ist pro­vides new insight into the upsurge of anti­semitism in France. Some of the events dis­cussed will be famil­iar to read­ers because of their cov­er­age by the inter­na­tion­al media; many prob­a­bly will not. The var­i­ous roots of the cri­sis are explored and at once shown to be dis­tinc­tive and yet interwoven. 

Weitzmann’s vivid, prob­ing analy­sis rocks back and forth between the more obvi­ous strands and the cul­tur­al­ly com­plex. He explains why the explo­sion of anti­semitism in France should have been pre­dictable and why it nonethe­less, over decades, con­tin­ued to sur­prise. It has been a phe­nom­e­non under­stood in a vari­ety of ways accord­ing to one’s social, polit­i­cal, reli­gious, or cul­tur­al ori­en­ta­tion. He sug­gests that anti­semitism has been rip­ping this nation apart, and it is like­ly to be trans­plant­ed across Europe and beyond. The basic premise includes the dis­ap­pear­ance of the French colo­nial empire; the migra­tion of pop­u­la­tions from the for­mer empire’s colonies (Alge­ria in par­tic­u­lar) to France; and the con­di­tions of life for these immigrants.

Marc Weitzmann

The sto­ry of the Maghreb (North or North­west African) region of Mus­lim Arab pop­u­la­tions and their inter­ac­tion with west­ern cul­ture — and to some extent Soviet/​Russian cul­ture — fea­ture promi­nent­ly. As does the sto­ry of gov­ern­men­tal mis­takes; cyn­i­cal polit­i­cal manip­u­la­tion; scape­goat­ing; and the rapid-fire accel­er­a­tion of per­ceived insults into mur­der­ous revenge in which nobody wins for long and blame, quite improb­a­bly in most cas­es, finds its way to the Jews time and time again. . . .

To read the entire review, as it appears on the Jewish Book Council website, click here:  Hate: The Rising Tide of Anti-Semitism in France

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“To Catch a Traitor,” by D. B. Shuster

Crime Bytes Media. 308 Pages . Trade Paperback $16.99

Review by Philip K. Jason

In this prequel to her Sins of a Spy series, D. B. Shuster deftly portrays Soviet Jews’ collective state of mind during the 1980s. Soviet Jews continue to face anti-Semitism; they are confined to low-paying work and are used as convenient scapegoats for others’ disappointments. Laws don’t protect them. The KGB shadows them relentlessly, especially those who, for whatever reason, are felt to be a danger to the Soviet system. These conditions are magnified by the desire of many to emigrate either to Israel or the United States. Their goal of escape makes them traitors.

Shuster

The novel centers on the Reitman family—especially on clever, curvaceous Sofia, who has dedicated her life and her talents to achieving Jewish freedom from Soviet oppression. Though KGB agents are everywhere, she has found satisfaction in risk-taking and has become a spy, trained to photograph secret Soviet documents that can be used to shape world opinion and modify Soviet policy. Her handler, Paul, is a CIA agent.

When Sofia’s husband, Mendel, is released early from his five-year prison sentence for teaching Hebrew, he is a greatly altered version of the man Sofia married. It is not clear if his early release involved a deal with his jailers. Mendel won’t talk about it, and it seems that the former intimacy between them cannot be restored. He has learned to be suspicious, even of his wife. . . .

To read the entire review, as found on the Jewish Book Council web site, click here:  To Catch a Traitor

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“Suitcase Charlie” by John Guzlowski

Kasva Press. 328 Pages. Trade Paperback $14.99.

Review by Philip K. Jason

John Guzlowski beautifully conjures up the seamy side of the allegedly innocent 1950s with a thrilling serial murder mystery featuring two boozehound detectives. For Detective Hank  Purcell, memories of World War II, now ten years distant, invade with regularity. Both he and his Jewish partner, Marvin Bondarowicz, have been known to break the rules. Both men are survivors of the mean streets, appealing in their humorous repartee and in their willingness to seek justice, even if insubordination is part of their means to that end. 

Guzlowski

The case Hank and Marvin are on requires an answer to this question: Who cruelly dismembered a young boy and stuffed his body into a suitcase left on the sidewalk, no doubt meant to be discovered? What is the motive for such cruelty? Hank can’t help but remember the Nazi butchery he witnessed firsthand. Has it found its way to 1956 Chicago?

Soon after the detectives undertake their investigation, several parallel incidents occur; it’s unclear if this is a crime spree by one perpetrator, or if these are independent copycat murders. What will the effects of these horrendous crimes be in the neighborhoods where the suitcases turn up? Why these neighborhoods? Why are the soles of the victims’ feet sliced in an isosceles triangle pattern? To represent, when placed together, the Star of David?

Slowly but surely, the author builds credible references to anti-Semitism and its consequences. Leads appear that Hank would like to pursue, but Marvin, who now announces himself a defender of his people – in fact, makes it clear that their persecution had been his motive for becoming a cop – turns Hank away from pursuing the anti-Semitic possibility. After all, the victims in the suitcases are not Jews. . . .

To read the full review, as it appears on the Jewish Book Council site, click here: Suitcase Charlie

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(((Semitism))): Being Jewish in America in the Age of Trump, by Jonathan Weisman

St. Martin’s Press. 256 pages. Hardcover  $25.99.

Review by Philip K. Jason

The heat of Weisman’s outrage, tempered by the precision of his arguments, elevates this book to a must-read examination of the contemporary renaissance of anti-Semitism.

It is a call for action, part warning and part how-to manual, addressing individual American Jews, Jewish communities, and, especially, Jewish institutions. The ugly head of

anti-Semitism has returned to “the land of the free,” most notably in the messages and methods of the alt-right movement. According to Weisman, it is time to cut it off.Partly rooted in Timothy Snyder’s writings, Weisman’s study provides a compact history of the rise of the alt-right, its canny exploitation of social media, its odd success at resurrecting ancient European clichés about Jews, and the affinity that seems to exist between the group’s rise and that of Donald Trump.

Jonathan Weisman credit Gabrielle Demczuk

Weisman’s first chapter begins: “The Jew flourishes when borders come down, when boundaries blur, when walls are destroyed, not erected.” Weisman considers the Age of Trump to be an Age of Walls, at least in its aspirations. He identifies the success of the man he calls “the first Jewish citizen of the world,” Maimonides, as an outgrowth of the

tolerance of the twelfth-century Islamic Empire, a time and place of fewer boundaries. Weisman goes on to address other exceptional “international” Jews in the context of their times, including Moses Mendelssohn. . . .

To see the rest of this Jewish Book Council review, click here:  Semitism

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Hate mail challenges a complacent Jewish community

Strength to Stand, by Sheyna Galyan. Yotzeret Publishing. 306 pages. Trade paperback $14.95.

This is the second of Galyan’s Rabbi David Cohen suspense novels. Set in Minneapolis, it provides a Rabbi’s-eye view of life in a diverse North American Jewish community. Though Rabbi Cohen is central, the other major characters have truly major roles. Several of them are rabbis and spouses of rabbis.  StrengthtoStandfrontcoverHR

These characters face significant crises, at least one of which affects the entire community.

As much as Rabbi Cohen is fulfilled by his Beth Israel pulpit and community activities, he is paying a tremendous price in the accumulated stress of the demands made upon him and what he expects of himself. It is hard to put family first, though he tries. His wife, Sara, has a diminished sense of her own identity and importance as the rabbi’s attention is always compromised by his calling.

Their eight year old son, Ben, is plagued by being defined as “the rabbi’s son,” while the young twins are not yet ready to feel so burdened.

Sara’s solution, for herself and for the relationship, is to move beyond being the rabbi’s almost invisible wife. She is drawn to the idea of the quasi-official role of rebbetzin, an active “first lady” of her husband’s congregation – a spiritual counselor to and leader of the women. But she is not fully prepared for important aspects of the role, and husband David is far from enthusiastic. Her well-meant initiative is bringing more strife rather than bringing them more closely together.

While this issue creates an important plot line in the novel, the overriding one is the series of threats that have come to Rabbi Cohen’s good friend, Batya Zahav, the female Reform Rabbi of Temple Shalom. The verbal assaults, which come by letter, by phone message, and by email, are extremely frightening. As they become more and more intense, local law enforcement has a reason to investigate and protect Rabbi Zahav.

She is, as one might expect, a woman who needs to feel in control. It is not like her to request or accept protection. Yet more and more she is forced into that position. The danger is real, and she has the mixed blessing – in this situation – of being married to Israel-born police sergeant Arik Zahav.

Galyan

Galyan

Author Galyan skillfully balances attention to her different plot lines, along the way providing a detailed portrait of Rabbi Cohen’s daily work. A continuing issue threaded through this tapestry is an unmarried congregant’s request for some fairly significant changes to make single members more welcome and more engaged in congregational life. Like most congregations, the one led by Rabbi Cohen is family oriented, and singles almost always feel out of place.

Batya calls David about her hate mail even before she tells her husband. She is reluctant to tell Arik, or to make a “big deal” out of it, because she fears he will go overboard in attacking this problem. Soon, Batya’s problem is David’s, and he is drawn away from his routine to assist her in thinking matters through. More and more, the frightening messages paint her as someone evil who needs to be destroyed. Is it because she is a Jew? A Jewish woman? A Jewish woman rabbi? Is it simple anti-Semitism or something else?

Interfaith relations goals bring David to speak at a Lutheran church. He presents himself as a “religious Jew” surrounded, at this time of the year (Chanukah) with the gift-giving rituals of Christmas and the smiling “Merry Christmas” that he finds so upsetting. He explains, using the Chanukah story, why this is such an uneasy time for most Jews – a challenge to their identity and values. He describes the enormous pressure to distort Chanukah into a Christmas wannabe.

He makes a plea for continued dialogue so that the various neighboring religious communities can learn the “intentions, motivations, and aspirations” of the others. David’s talk goes fairly well, though he does receive some rude responses. The issue of majority insensitivity is reinforced when, as they do every year, Sara’s Christian paternal grandparents send Christmas cards.

Galyan leaves it for the reader to link (or not) David’s experience in the church and the hate mail that Batya has been receiving. Soon, she is “gifted” a dead mouse and then a doll that looks like Batya with a bullet hole in its head. Such harassment and intimidation brings more aggressive police action.

The author introduces a third rabbi. The Cohens’ friends, Rabbi Eli and his wife Bev, visit during Chanukah. Eli was David’s rabbinical school classmate and they have remained close ever since – though David’s pulpit is in Washington state. Eli joins the team effort to comfort and aid Rabbi Zahav and her husband. He also serves most usefully as confidant and exemplary counselor for David. Eli temporary fills the bill of the local “rabbi’s rabbi” that he insists David – and every rabbi – should seek.

Sara’s friend and confidant is Talia Friedman, the wife of a rabbi who teaches at several local universities. She tells Sara about the network of rebbetzins and how they help each other to develop the attitudes and skills to succeed.

Halfway through the novel, Chanukah begins. The following chapters intensify Galyan’s portrait of Jewish family and community life. We appreciate the Cohens’ hosting efforts, learn from their visitors how to be good guests and not pests, and savor the special character of a Shabbat meal. We see David interact with a potential convert, hear him give a sermon, and respect his adroit way of working with synagogue staff and occasionally troublesome lay leaders.

The police investigation of Batya’s fearful dilemma takes a surprising turn (involving yet another rabbi), and as it moves toward a resolution, so do the novel’s other concerns: Sara’s need to define herself, David’s need to find balance in his life, and the Jewish community’s needs to enhance its relationships with other religious groups.

Sheyna Galyan offers a sophisticated blend of insight and entertainment; suitably complex, flawed, and yet commendable characters; well-developed action and suspense; and an authoritative rendering of synagogue-centered Jewish life. This is a very fine book group selection and teaching text.

This review appears in the September 2015 issues of Federation Star (Jewish Federation of Collier County), L’Chayim (Jewish Federation of Lee and Charlotte Counties), and The Jewish News (Jewish Federation of Sarasota / Manatee). 

 

 

 

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“Goebbels: A Biography” by Peter Longerich

Translated by Alan Bance, Jeremy Noakes, and Lesley Sharpe. Random House. 992 pages. Hardcover $40.00.

A stunning, encyclopedic study of Hitler’s propaganda minister

Joseph Goebbels’ life was certainly history-making, but it’s a piece of history noted for its grotesque notions of nationalism, democracy, and leadership. For many years the Nazi regime’s Minister of Propaganda, Goebbels refined the art of mass psychological manipulation, over and over again rallying a despondent and pride-hungry people into becoming more and more the fervent worshippers of a mad genius and a mad vision of national and racial destiny.

Peter Longerich, who first published this book in Germany in 2010, conceives of three major phases in his subject’s life.

First, he portrays an insecure fellow whose compensatory delusions predict greatness of some sort. This young man needed large doses of positive feedback, beginning with mother love which eventually developed into an addiction to Führer love. His doctorate in German letters did not open doors for his aspirations as a literary and cultural shaper. Once Goebbels turned his attention to political action, he made the right moves to advance quickly through party ranks.  Goebbels cover

The second phase concerns his activities as pre-war propaganda minister, hammering an imaginary political and cultural consensus into place through skillful manipulation of news and entertainment media and through staged demonstrations. He was adept at building Hitler’s image as a demi-god (demagogue?) and in building a strong personal relationship with his mentor and hero.

Finally, he beat the drums for war, wartime sacrifices, and the ever-out-of-reach peace that would arrive with the continental dominance of a never-realized superstate.

For all this, Longerich insists that Goebbels was not a true insider but was often surprised by actions set in motion by Hitler during meetings to which Goebbels was not invited.

Of particular interest is Goebbels’ role in developing the political uses of anti-Semitism. Even as any remaining Jewish civil rights were demolished, even as mass executions began, even as Jews were fleeing or being relocated out of headquarters Berlin, Goebbels found ways of making the Jews responsible for all of Germany’s problems. It’s hard to say what he truly believed about Jews, so overwhelming was his commitment to using anti-Semitism as a political instrument.

Longerich’s primary source is his subject’s diaries. Indeed, they are important historical documents that give unparalleled coverage of hundreds of events. They also provide unintentional clues to Goebbels’ anxieties and nonstop posturing. Longerich points out instance after instance in which narcissistic Goebbels interprets an event’s outcome to his advantage. In the author’s capable hands, we discover how the diaries reveal just what Goebbels would not want them to reveal. . . .

To read the entire review, as it appears in the Washington Independent Review of Books, click here:  Goebbels: A Biography | Washington Independent Review of Books

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From Ambivalence to Betrayal: The Left, the Jews, and Israel

An astounding study by Robert S. Wistrich

University of Nebraska Press.  648 Pages.  $55.00.

WistrichThis is a colossal undertaking, both in scope and intellectual weight. No scholar is likely to sift through the primary and secondary materials that bear upon the relationship between leftist ideology and the Jewish people with the thoroughness, patience, and boldness that Professor Wistrich has displ ayed. Though I’m not sure that he makes the strongest case for ambivalence about the Jews at the dawn of European socialist thought, he certainly demolishes any lingering notion that socialism and socialist democracies have been especially hospitable political environments for European, Palestinian, and world Jewry .

To read the entire review as it appears on the Jewish Book Council website, click here: From Ambivalence to Betrayal: The Left, the Jews, and Israel

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The Finkler Question: a powerful portrait of contemporary Jewish London

This review appears in the June 2011 issues of Federation Star (Jewish Federation of Collier County, Florida) and L’Chayim (Jewish Federation of Lee and Charlotte Counties, Florida). It also appears in the July 2011 issue of The Jewish News (Jewish Federation of Sarasota-Manatee).

The Finkler Question, by Howard Jacobson. Bloomsbury USA. 320 pages. $25 hardback, $15 paperback.

Winner of the 2010 Man Booker Prize for fiction, the highest literary award for English publications in England, Ireland, and the Commonwealth of Nations.

This unusually controversial book has not only won a major literary prize, but it has also attracted a heap of scorn. Most of those who denigrate Jacobson’s achievement find it slow-moving and populated by unpleasant, unlikeable characters. It is possible, however, to say much the same thing about other English language masters; different as they are, Henry James and Philip Roth come to mind. 

This reader luxuriated in the pace. What’s the rush when an author is peeling the onion of personality with such precision, such insight, such humor, such honesty, and such an odd mixture of compassion and contempt?  Or is it three onions? Or four?

The Finkler Question is about many things. It is about coming to terms with old age and life’s limitations. It is about the mid-life crises of hypersensitive individuals. It is about the complex nature of male bonding. It is about the afterlife of failed relationships and the bottomless hope of new ones. As its title hints, it is about the early 21st century version of “The Jewish Question” as it exists in the Western World at large and in London in particular. A sprawling book, it does much of its journeying within the head of one or another of its major characters.

For Julian Treslove, his old school friend Sam Finkler represents everything Jewish: Jewish speech patterns, body language, manners, politics, taste, achievement, victimhood, and destiny. Jews seem to have power and vulnerability, bravado and guardedness.  A popular writer, media personality, and philosopher, Finkler seems to have it all. Whatever “it” is, Julian needs it.

Treslove’s other Jewish friend, Czech immigrant and former Hollywood commentator Libor Sevcik, became, after marriage to his beloved Malkie, the teacher of young Treslove and Finkler. He is now ninety, at least twice the age of his former students. The three men have kept in touch over the years and decades, and now they meet together in the wake of two losses: both Finkler’s wife and Sevcik’s have recently died. Treslove, who has never married but sired two sons whom he has failed as a father, joins his Jewish widower friends in a bout of mourning and remembering. Each is looking for the terms of understanding the past, accepting the present, and moving on with his life. 

As non-Jewish Treslove walks homeward from the engagement with his friends, he is assaulted by a woman who, as his shocked system understands it, has accused him of being a Jew. Is this a coronation or a damnation? A fulfillment or a challenge? The experience rocks Treslove to the core. His identity has been at once threatened and possibly reformulated. Is he a Finkler? Does he inhabit the Finkler question?

Howard Jacobson’s marvelous book is made up of supercharged and occasionally outrageous versions of familiar conversations: who and what defines Jewishness? What accounts for the tenacity of anti-Semitism? What is the proper relationship between the world Jewish community and the modern State of Israel? Is there an Israel that is separate from Zionism?

Through these issues, Jacobson engages readers with questions of longing and belonging, loneliness and relationship. He does so both within and outside of the confines of Jewish particularity. Slowly, haltingly, and with seeming inevitability, his characters transcend the fixed positions held when we meet them. They grow in complexity and self-knowledge. Do they finally emerge as likeable? Not really. Jacobson’s achievement is to make them utterly and magnificently human. At once angry and funny, piercing and perplexing, The Finkler Question is a towering achievement by a major talent.

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