Cemetery Ethics: The German POW Gravestones.

If you encountered that gravestone in a cemetery, would it move you to file a protest? Or to start an advocacy group dedicated to having the marker removed or taken down?

There are two such  gravestones marking the resting places of German prisoners of war in Fort Sam Houston National Cemetery in San Antonio, and another one is in Fort Douglas Post Cemetery in Salt Lake City. They are located among the graves of American veterans, some of whom fought against Germany in World War II. A retired colonel visiting his Jewish grandfather’s grave at the Texas cemetery saw one of the markers with the swastika symbol,  and his complaint moved  the Military Religious Freedom Foundation, which obviously does not have enough on its plate, to demand that the Veterans Administration “do something.”

Apparently in the throes of a strong attack of common sense and possessing functioning ethics alarms, the VA’s National Cemetery Administration has responded to the protest  by stating that it “will continue to preserve these headstones, like every past administration has. All of the headstones date back to the 1940s, when the Army approved the inscriptions in question.”

Mike Weinstein, the founder of the MRFF and a former Air Force officer, deeply feels the pain of having to allow buried soldiers have the emblems of the nations they fought for on their headstones, and is apoplectic about the decision.  “It’s intolerable,”  he said. “This should not require explaining why this is wrong.”

Baseball writer Bill James once wrote that when someone says that that their proposition shouldn’t require explaining, it usually means that they have no valid arguments.

“But..but…” Wienstein sputters, if you translate the German phrase on the the headstones, they read, “HE DIED FAR FROM HOME FOR FUHRER, PEOPLE AND FATHERLAND”! I know I always enjoy translating the foreign languages on headstones over the graves of strangers just in case I can find them offensive.

The VA said in its statement that “the National Historic Preservation Act of 1966 assigns stewardship responsibilities to federal agencies, including VA and the Army, to protect historic resources, including those that recognize divisive historical figures or events.” I believe the ethical principles at work here are respect, fairness, compassion, humility, responsibility, and the Golden Rule. Didn’t  Weinstein and the other outraged veterans see  the original version of “The Magnificent Seven”—you know, the good one? We are introduced to the gunfighter who eventually assembles his group to fight a Mexican bandit on behalf of poor farmers when he agrees to drive the hearse containing the body of “Old Sam” to be buried in a town’s Boot Hill.  The town’s resident white supremacists don’t think Sam, an Indian, belongs where “decent Americans” are buried, and they are prepared to shoot anyone who tries to pollute the hallowed ground with Sam.  “Chris,” played by Yul Brenner, and “Vin,” Steve McQueen, volunteer to drive the hearse because they believe that every man deserves a resting place. It’s pretty clear that the guys threatening to shoot  them are bigoted fools.

Rabbi Joel R. Schwartzman, a retired Air Force colonel and chaplain, tried to come up with a reason why the VA should take down the headstones, and the best he could come up with is that “they could become a rallying point for white supremacists.”  Right.  Three grave markers in two states are ticking time bombs. Do people like this listen to themselves?

The three Germans are not the only POWs buried in American veteran cemeteries. Actually, there are eleven national cemeteries containing graves of German POWs from World War II, but none of the other markers include swastikas.

I bet they haven’t all been translated, though!

“There are reasons why most rational southern states are taking down their Civil War monuments,” Schwartzman wrote. “They are symbols that preserve a past no decent person would wish to see repeated or replicated.”

DINGDINGDINGDINGDINGDING! There it is! The real reason for this protest is the desire for more historical airbrushing. Even by those warped  standards (which are not “rational” but the exact opposite, emotional and hysterical), this complaint is idiotic. These are grave markers, not public statues. They don’t “preserve a past,” they mark dead soldiers’ graves, and inform anyone who cares to pay attention to them who the human beings beneath them were. How do such gravestones threaten to “repeat or replicate” Nazi Germany?

They don’t. The grave markers aren’t harming anyone, nor are they advancing the causes the dead soldiers fought for. If the VA allowed this protest to succeed, the same people will be demanding that the Confederate flags on thousands of Civil War era graves be air-blasted away. I find it fascinating that German POWs are buried in some US cemeteries, but then I want to learn more about the past, not less.

Addendum: I was going to post this story early this morning, but got distracted. This allowed Ann Althouse, who is often drawn to the same stories I am, to get her post up first. Her angle was funnier, I have to admit: the Jerusalem Post headlined its story,Rep. Wasserman Schultz calls on VA: Replace headstones with swastikas.”

I’m glad I didn’t see that story first, because it would have biased my analysis. Anything Rep. Wasserman-Schultz advocates is preemptively stupid.

27 thoughts on “Cemetery Ethics: The German POW Gravestones.

  1. “Rep. Wasserman Schultz calls on VA: Replace headstones with swastikas.”

    Thanks for that, Debbie and the Jerusalem Post headline writers. Yes, as my son says, I’m a grammar NAZI. But misplaced modifiers are one of the great sources of mistakes and unintended hilariy in expository writing.

  2. We had a prisoner of war camp in Indiana during World War II. The Italians were there first. Most of them were Catholic and most of Indiana is not, so they were allowed to build a chapel in which to worship. The chapel went through a restoration process about 30 years ago. It’s still on the grounds of what is now a National Guard training camp and is a popular site for tourists.

    Some of former POWs stayed and made lives for themselves; in the past, veterans groups would visit from Italy and be surprised that their chapel was still here.

    I know of no legitimate argument over a chapel built by soldiers who were captured while fighting for a fascist regime. Why should there be? Shouldn’t these memorials be neutral with no political meaning behind them? Gravestones are the same. I get people are upset about the swastikas and, to be frank, German soldiers were not necessarily Nazis, but I hardly think a couple of random gravestones so far apart from each other is anything to fret about.

    I also doubt Neo-Nazis even knew about their existence to have made a shrine in the first place. Sometimes it’s best to leave well enough alone.

    Sorry, just finished HBO’s “Band of Brothers” today. I’ve got the trials and sufferings of soldiers on my mind.

  3. You are correct that the Military Religious Freedom Foundation doesn’t seem to have enough on its plate right now. Mikey Weinstein, its founder, chairman, CEO and legal counsel, who sits on the board that approves his salary, is a former USAF officer and 1977 Academy graduate who caught a lot of crap for being Jewish when he was at the Academy. His dad was an Annapolis graduate, not sure if he was a WW2 person, but the time is certainly right. Apparently Weinstein’s experiences left him with a chip on his shoulder, as he has described his group as actually having a target, specifically “a small subset of Fundamentalist Christianity that’s called premilliennial, dispensational, reconstructionist, dominionist, fundamentalist, or just Dominionist Christianity.” I dunno about you, but that sounds a bit hate-groupish to me. If I said my target was a small subset of Islam or Judaism you’d call me a hater.

    Some of what he’s done. like fighting harassment and homophobia is objectively good, but he also engages in a LOT of petty fights over displays, posters, consensual prayers, holidays, and squadron names (“Crusaders” oh, the horror). He is generally disliked and accused of waging a war on Christianity, which of course he denies. Often he comes off as a solution looking for a problem.

    Apparently he’s found one here. Like the statues that the terminally woke are squawking about now, these headstones have been in place for over 75 years. Apparently no one stepped forward from these men’s families after WW2 to ask the remains be brought back to Germany, so there they are, and there they are likely to remain. Ironically, although they were buried under the symbol they were serving under at the time, if they had been returned to Germany postwar they could not have been buried under it, since the display of the swastika is outlawed in Germany and punishable by prison time. Thankfully, here we have the First Amendment and you can’t outlaw symbols by governmental fiat, no matter how less than wonderful their history might be. Interestingly, he declines to reveal who this retired colonel who complained to him was. Either this retired officer was brave enough to complain to a grievance merchant, but not brave enough to put his name in a complaint, or there is no such person, and Weinstein went looking for trouble and ginned up a fake complainant. We used to tell people who said incredible things “pictures, or it didn’t happen,” in this case I say, “a name, or this didn’t happen.”

    This same garbage went on in Woonsocket, RI, when an anonymous “citizen” contacted the Freedom From Religion Foundation (which is is based in Wisconsin and should be called the Hatred Of Religion Foundation) to complain about a cross on a WW1 memorial that was now in the parking lot of a fire station (another case of the area changing around the monument as in Bladensburg). No complaint was ever filed, though, because the citizen who was brave enough to complain to an out-of-state lawyers’ club wasn’t brave enough to become a plaintiff in a complaint. So, after a couple of nice-town-you-got-here letters, the episode ended. Maybe there never was a concerned citizen or offended observer, and this was just another solution looking for a problem. I think we’ll see less of these situations, as an aside, since the Bladensburg Cross case pretty decisively said that “offended observer” is not the standard that the courts will apply.

    This is of course, not a religious freedom issue. It’s an issue of does an offended observer have the right to force an institution to change something that offends him. Essentially, its a free speech issue. I submit that if the courts decided they were not going to preemptively prevent neo-Nazis marching in the primarily Jewish enclave of Skokie, IL, they are unlikely to order scrubbing of symbols from a static tombstone, the viewing of which is voluntary. Further, if the Supreme Court previously ruled (Terminiello v. City of Chicago) that ordinances that bar speech likely to create a breach of the peace are unconstitutional, it is not likely to rule that the US Constitution gives those offended by an inscription or representation (that does not otherwise run afoul of it) the special right to demand that inscription or representation be hidden or removed.

    Weinstein knows all of this, and he knows it damn well. That’s why he’s spluttering that he shouldn’t have to explain why this should change. He can’t give an explanation that will stand up, so he instead resorts to anger, same as a triggered child. Children get all angry and splutter and shout when they don’t get their way. Tough luck, Whine-stein, but we’re not setting a precedent where anyone can claim offense and get their way. I don’t give a damn how much you splutter like Cosmo G. Spacely. I don’t give a damn how many lawsuits you threaten. I don’t give a damn how much you trot out the Holocaust. The fallen have rested peacefully for three quarters of a century now. It is not for you, someone who wasn’t even alive when they were buried, to disturb that rest in the name of wokeness.

  4. The dead should be allowed to rest in peace; period, end of story.

    We condemned the German SS for its digusting treatment of Holocaust victims and others buried in mass graves.

    If we are to claim the mantle of virtue we cannot stoop to that level nor can we not allow those enemy combatants who died in our custody to have the same military honors as our own soldiers.

    We bestow those honors on our fallen because the answered the call of their nation, not because their actions were righteous.

  5. Probably the soldier who died was in the Hier and not in an SS unit so the swastika was just a patch on his uniform. Incidentally, the Finns who fought with the Germans in the Continuation War had swastikas on their aircraft which were historically an Aryan symbol.

    • Yes, blue swastikas on white. They weren’t so much into the whole Nazi ideology as they were into getting revenge on the Soviets for bullying them over the past decade. Of course after they lost the Soviets came back to demand a second round of concessions, resulting in the embarrassing term “Finlandization.” They rationalized it as “bowing to the east without mooning the west” but it amounts to national castration. Of course now those concessions are no longer in force and the Finnish air force flies the US-built F/A-18 Hornet, with a standard blue and white roundel.

  6. Having heard this anecdote a year or so ago, I’ve taken a liking to it – especially in situations like the one described in this EA post:

    When the Spanish soldiers stood at Luther’s grave in the Castle Church, they demanded that Luther’s body be exhumed and his bones burned as befits a heretic.

    But Emperor Charles V stopped them. He is said to have declared: “I do not make war on dead men!”


    • This.

      The Left, however, and others in the racial grievance industry have made a living declaring war on dead men, particularly of the old Confederacy.

      Maybe Stonewall Jackson et. al. are happy to have more modern company.

  7. Yeah. is that gravestone the one they’re objecting to? That’s a maltese cross on the gravestone, NOT a swastika. Context is important too, Native American and Hindus use the same symbol or mirror, and they are not Nazis and get harassed for ancient symbols that predate the steam engine let alone Hitler.

  8. A buck’s worth of epoxy mixed with stone dust, the mix used in repairing chipped headstones, would effectively erase the symbol without harming the original headstone.

    The German government reissued Eisenkreuz decorations earned in this period with the swastika removed. Some veterans preferred to wear their originals, with the swastika filed off. I have one of those, bought for a few DM in a flohmarkt just after the wall came down.

    So there is precedent here.

    I also have a bronze medalion from the 1933 Olympics. Same deal, swastika scratched off, though rather crudely, alas.

  9. The Jerusalem Post headline is hilarious, even if it took me a while to figure it out.

    However, look at the headstone again. This kid was 19 years old when he died. Sheesh.

    And yes he was far, far from home and family.

    Heaven knows Nazi Germany was an evil regime, and no one mourns its demise. But picking on a kid like this is just not right, nor righteous.

  10. In addition to the excellent points others have already made here, if we start saying that anyone who served under an evil dictatorial regime automatically forfeits the right to have their graved marked with the symbol of the nation they died for, where do we draw the line? Is it a safe harbor if the regime has not been found guilty of crimes against humanity? If the United States, decades in the future, declares war on the rest of the world, then will American veterans of WWII have their graves effaced?

    As someone who keeps a catalog of the causes of human folly, I don’t really care for the practice of demonstrating maximum contempt for those considered simply “evil.” It’s self-deception to distance oneself from behavior that society has rightly or wrongly rejected, while embracing the same us-or-them thinking that caused such behavior in the first place. It’s also pointless to engage in virtue-signalling by decrying others to look and feel superior, without cultivating any positive virtues of one’s own. This goes double if the people one is decrying are dead.

    Christians have a saying I’m actually rather fond of: “there, but for the grace of God, go I.” I usually see it describing people who have developed unethical and unhealthy habits that destroy their lives and the lives of others. I like the saying because it reminds us to be humble about our ethical virtues, and to consider that we should not be trying to make life more difficult for people who are already broken, even as we oppose what they do.

    People’s faults aren’t their fault. Nobody chooses to have flaws. There is no pride to be taken in being born with a decent nature, in living in a country that hasn’t brainwashed one for evil purposes. At the foundation, there’s no pride to be had at all. There’s only the ethical obligation to always keep learning to be better, to do better.

    Graves, like funerals, are for the benefit of the living, not that of the dead. I’m not sure who had the bright idea to put enemy POWs in the same cemetery as American veterans, but we can decide to create a separate cemetery for them if we want. It is a disservice to ourselves, however, to hide from the fact that most of those who fight on the wrong sides of history do so not because they’re unusually evil, nor because humanity in general is irredeemable. The vast majority of people fail to become wise and powerful enough to forge a better path than the ones given to them. People who rally under flags of destruction are usually unlucky in the paths they are shown, and in the information they’re handed to judge them with.

    Showing contempt for such people, without understanding just where and why they went wrong, does nothing to prevent future atrocities. That’s why my current project is to help people understand each other and respectfully communicate about the problems we see. Only through helping people learn to say, “I understand why you believe this, but I still have this problem with it,” can we hopefully stop filling graveyards with agents of animus.

  11. I would assume, looking at that headstone, that this is what the young soldier wanted (or likely would have wanted) to have printed there.

    I already know that Nazi soldiers believed that they were fighting for “Fuhrer, people, and fatherland,” so there’s nothing surprising or offensive about it. I can’t imagine any reaction other than, “yes, correct. That is what they believed.”

    What to make of the people feigning outrage? The headstone is not presenting any false history.

    (If they want a public display to legitimately be offended about, here in San Diego’s Balboa Park there’s an exhibit about Iran that features a bogus translation of the Cyrus Cylinder, claiming that Cyrus was an anti-slavery, pro-democratic reformer, which is entirely false. And it’s supposed to be an educational park. Democrat congresspersons are welcome to complain about this at any time.)

    If anything seeing a legitimate Nazi grave, with actual Nazi sentiments, makes WW2 more “real” to the American observer, something that’s sorely needed at a time when Nazis are presented in such an unrealistic, cartoonish way in so many screenplays, comic books, and television shows written by people with neither knowledge nor experience regarding the war.

    Why does a dead Nazi, having said what a Nazi would certainly say, offend, shock, or surprise? There are only so many possibilities:

    1. The offended parties are stupid and think that the headstone of a dead soldier from a losing army can somehow corrupt, deceive, or defile anyone, living or dead. Maybe they are worried about zombies.

    2. The offended parties are encouraging historical ignorance, and don’t think anyone should know what the Nazi’s perspective or ideology was, which, of course, makes it impossible to explain why or how they were wrong, but also makes it easy for progressives to compare anyone and everyone they don’t like to Hitler. In other words, they prefer the world to be dumber than it is. Because that makes things easier for them.

    3. The offended parties are opportunistic, and embark on random crusades like this for clout, money, and career advancement.
    Did I miss anything?

  12. The headstones should be left alone. The soldiers shared a common fate and can be reasonably interred among each other in a common ground, however hallowed. Those who extend hatred towards people from long ago, that they never knew, have undesirable personal issues of their own.
    I have known several holocoust survivors, and nothing out of their mouths ever expressed hatred toward their captors. Thankfulness for their delivery was prominent, and bewilderment about the unchecked defective human processes which could lead to such cruelty. They told their stories repeatedly without expressing hatred. Forgiveness was implied, I thought as they spoke, but not expressed. Around them shown a glow of inner peace, and a determination to never allow such a thing to happen again.
    Your article brings to mind the quote, often mistakenly attributed to Plato, ….”Only the dead have seen the end of war.” George Santayana

    • This talk reminds me of a response I wrote in 2018 to a screed on Splinter (the less scholarly sister site to Jezebel) about a WW2 reenactment in 2017 that included a Holocaust survivor among its luminaries. The writer said it was Trump-lovers dressing up like Nazis. I’m sure the mentality is the same among the people groaning about these three tombstones. I’m going to post it here, then I may have a few words to add at the end:

      I’ve been going to the Mid-Atlantic Air Museum’s World War II weekend on and off since 2002, kept away only by a wedding, terrible weather, or car trouble (once). The local media cover it in fairly matter-of-fact manner, and the airshow media focus, as one might expect, on the flying aspect of it. I won’t say it’s uniformly positive, but negative coverage of the event is something I’ve never seen until last year, when a “journalist” in the same sense that a puddle is water posted a snarky article called “A Weekend of Nazi Dress-Up in the Heart of Trump Country” on a website called Splinter News, that’s not yet a year old as of this writing. Ms. Beery spends 2683 words, the equivalent of six pages single-spaced, expressing not very well-formed opinions about the event, about half of it focusing on the presence of German/Nazi reenactors and vendors, an additional quarter focusing on the right wing (and of course wrong headed) politics of reenactors and attendees alike, and the last quarter divided evenly between indignance, pearl-clutching, and the Holocaust. She stops short of linking the presence of reenactors portraying Germans/Nazis to current politics and the rise of President Trump, but only just short of it. It’s clear that she came in with an agenda, to discredit all things not liberal, and with the millennial liberal’s overweening, insufferable attitude that they alone are empowered to tell others what and who to honor and also when, where, and how to honor them. To read this article, which goes on about one third longer than it should, the only parts of World War II history that are worth talking about or honoring are those that focus on the victimization – the brutal Japanese treatment of the Chinese, America’s poor treatment of its own Japanese citizens, and of course the Holocaust.

      The article mentions one skirmish won by the Japanese among the reenactments, but nothing of the village skirmish usually won by the Americans, the reenactment of the victory at Iwo Jima, or the main battle during the airshow, though those had to have taken place during the author’s time at the show. The article mentions almost nothing about the airshow itself, just a throwaway reference to planes flying overhead and an announcer describing their maneuvers.

      I’m no journalist, although I have been mistaken for one about six times due to my heavy use of my long-lensed camera. That said, I believe this event deserves better in-depth reporting on than slap-dashery from a young woman with a chip on her shoulder and a know-it-all attitude. The event was established in 1990, partly as a way to show off the museum’s vintage plane collection, some of which are still flyable, partly to provide an immersive reenactor experience, and partly to provide a forum for the World War 2 veterans to tell their stories. This last is the key, I believe.

      It’s one thing to read an account of a battle or a mission or anything in a book. It’s a very different thing to see the equipment that was actually used moving, flying, or shooting. It’s a completely different thing to hear about it from the man who actually experienced it. It’s especially different when that something that was experienced was, arguably, the existential event for freedom of the 20th century. It’s likewise a completely different thing to hear the stark facts from the men on the ground, at sea, and in the air, as opposed to the agendas of writers who might have something in mind other than telling the facts.

      A writer two generations removed can say with relative ease that the Soviets weren’t so bad. However, when you hear Bill Fili, who actually flew on the Ploesti oil raid and spent time in the hands of the enemy, say that his rescuers knew letting the Soviets into Eastern Europe was a bad idea, you might not give that later writer as much credence. A millennial can say that we didn’t need to drop the bomb and it was a terrible crime. However, if you were fortunate, as I was, to hear Dutch van Kirk and Paul Tibbets tell of the careful analysis of intelligence and estimates of what would happen otherwise that went into the decision for them to finally execute their mission, and the unfaltering and professional manner in which they finally executed the only atomic attack to date, you’d know that mission isn’t quite so simple as a five-second snap judgment. Someone born decades later who’s never been in battle can look at the iconic picture of the Marines raising the flag on Mt. Suribachi and just shrug, but if you heard “Woody” Williams tell the reality on the ground, where he took out a whole like of Japanese pillboxes with a flamethrower and almost no support, well, maybe you see it in a different light. Someone whose only knowledge of the Blitz and what followed comes from the classroom can say it was not that big of a deal and that the British were dead wrong to return fivefold what had been visited upon them. Richard Boyd, who flew 30 missions in the Lancaster after seeing firsthand what the Blitz did, would tell you differently.

      Ms. Beery names not one veteran in her article, and appears to have spent very little time, if any, talking to them, although there were plenty who would have been happy to share their stories with her, and plenty of regularly scheduled presentations by them (which also escape mention). She does note that there were plenty of attendees lined up to meet and talk to the combat veterans, but no line to speak to Holocaust survivor David Tuck. She seems almost disappointed that Tuck told her he felt anger, but not hatred toward his former captors, and was not particularly bothered by seeing reenactors in their uniforms. Perhaps she was hoping for an unhinged rant a la Jim Wright of stonekettle station, who said that the only things anyone he pronounced a Nazi deserved were “a kick in their yellow teeth and a punch in the throat.” It is too bad she did not get it, but she was looking in the wrong place for it.

      It’s wrong to tell a complete lie, of course, but a complete fiction is easily seen for what it is. It’s arguably worse to tell just enough of the truth to serve your agenda, while leaving important details or even large parts of the truth that don’t serve your agenda out. This article is the equivalent of journalistic Swiss cheese, where so much of the truth is missing as to create a completely false impression. Whether those gaps are the result of deliberate omission or only doing enough research to prove your point without getting the full story are immaterial. That article is either deceptive or just sloppy, and the writer should be ashamed to have published it. I’d say she should return, to actually experience the key part of the weekend – the veterans. However, I think all concerned are best served if she, and those like her, stay away and keep their ill-informed opinions among themselves over Starbucks between yoga classes.

      OK, here I am back for a few more points – the key things here are 1. The left, particularly the younger left, has a belief that they should have a monopoly on honor; 2. The younger generation, product of what the educational system has become, have forgotten about heroes and instead focus on villains and victims; 3. The left, particularly the young left, has appointed itself the grievance surrogate for those who came before maybe who even experienced some genuine wrong, but aren’t woke enough to still be angry about it. The author was surprised and even disappointed that a genuine Holocaust survivor, complete with tattooed numbers, who spent time in Auschwitz, the worst of all the camps, doesn’t loathe those who put him there and hate those who play their part in a reenactment so much that didn’t say, in suitably extremely foul language (because your point is that much stronger if you drop f-bombs, and the more the stronger), that if he was physically up to it he would go kick their butts personally. To her, everything she things is wrong needs to disappear to where decent people (you know, those who think like her) won’t ever see it and have their sensitivities offended. She’s the same kind of person who’d be disappointed if she couldn’t get a black person who had slavery in his background to say that he was still furious about what had happened in the past and wanted to pull down every Confederate memorial and re-sculpt it into toilet bowls so that every day people would evacuate their bowels onto it. She’s the same kind of person who’d be unhappy if she couldn’t get an American Indian to rail against Christopher Columbus and say he thought every Italian-American who marched in his name should be taught better with thorn twigs. These folks just want to be angry at something, and if they can’t find enough in their own lives to be angry about, they look for it someplace else, regarding issues that never touched them. Here, show me on this doll where the dead man hurt you…

  13. “All of the headstones date back to the 1940s, when the Army approved the inscriptions in question.”

    This struck me as extremely significant. The post-war U.S. Army approved the burial sites AND the inscriptions.

    Listen . . . if you think YOU hate Nazis, you ain’t got nothin’ on the soldiers of the U.S. Army who’d just finished spending a few years actively trying to literally kill as many of them as they could–and losing thousands of lives in the process.

    Yet THEY still had the humility, grace, and mercy to give an enemy an honorable burial.
    That speaks volumes.


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