Friday, May 25, 2012

Books and Polish-Americans


Before posting this I went back and forth in my head one hundred times wondering whether I should post or not.

You are reading this now because I finally decided to post.

What I'm going to say, below, is difficult. I'm working on incomplete data. I may be wrong, and I'm willing to be told I'm wrong – that's what the comments section is for.


Poles and Polish-Americans regularly send me emails asking for free or low cost versions of my publications.

Given that we live in the age of Google, I can Google the senders of these emails, and find out something about them. In this most recent case, the sender has a web record as a white-collar professional. This is not, say, a homeless person in a cardboard box who would have to give up a week's worth of food to buy a book.

In another case, the person asking for a low cost or free copy of my publications was a facebook friend. In his other posts he was bold and confident, posting images of and updates on his expensive purchases and enviable vacations. In his message to me, he was meek and sad, presenting himself as a helpless pauper. I'm not saying this to be mean. I'm saying that when it came to buying a book, this otherwise financially comfortable man took on poverty consciousness. That is psychologically significant.

This is not an isolated incident.

Why do these people think of themselves as poor when it comes time to buy a book, and not when it comes time to purchase a speedboat, or a bikini wax, or a horse?

Here's the thing – I never get these emails from people of any other ethnicity. I do get emails from people of other ethnicities.

When "Bieganski" first came out, I received many congratulatory emails from Jewish friends, colleagues and acquaintances, who announced, unprompted by me, that they had just purchased my book. There was no anxiety in these announcements. No, "I just bought your book and therefore I will subsist on bread and water for the next six months." None of the drama about spending money on a book.

I've concluded, after years of this, that there is a culturally significant tendency among a critical mass of Polish-Americans to feel some alienation from the written word. Is this an accurate impression? I don't know. What am I missing? Tell me.


I did not grow up in a household that does not value books. My mother, a Slovak immigrant, was unable to finish school. Her father contracted emphysema in the coal mines and had to stop work. My mother, a young teen, took on the support of an entire family. She cleaned houses.

My Polish paternal grandfather was assaulted. My father didn't finish school. He mined coal as a child, and did blue collar labor as an adult.

In my own childhood, there were meals of government-issue surplus food and summers without shoes.

Books? We ALWAYS had books. Everywhere, in every room in the house, every nook and cranny, books of every kind. There was money for books in our house. There was respect for books.

Why is it that my mother, who knew poverty, and hard labor, could afford books, but a twenty-first century, Polish-American, white-collar professional, separated from his peasant ancestors by several well-fed generations in America, breaks into a cold sweat at the thought of spending money on a book, and writes an email to a complete stranger asking for a free copy?

No, I am not trying to be cruel. I am asking a real question.

Other questions.

I see very valuable books on Polish topics go unread, and go out of print. What books?

Just a few: Wladyslaw Bartoszewski's "Samaritans: Heroes of the Holocaust"

Jan Slomka's "From Serfdom to Self-Government: Memoirs of a Polish Village Mayor, 1842-1927"

"A Man for Others: Maximilian Kolbe: Saint of Auschwitz, in the Words of those Who Knew Him."

"And My Children Did Not Know Me: A History of the Polish-Americans" by John Bukowczyk.

"The Poems of Anton Piotrowski." Poems by a Polish-American coal miner.

These are not books that deserve obscurity. They are key, central books for us. They are either unavailable, or difficult to acquire.

I could make a much longer list.

Why aren't we buying and reading these books?

When I meet Polish-American young people, I mention to them key texts in their own history: "And My Children Did Not Know Me," or key authors like John Guzlowski. And they've never heard of this book; they have no idea that it even exists. They say, "Gee, I wish someone would write about the Polish experience under Nazism," and they've never heard of Guzlowski.

They DO know about markers of Polish culture: Polka, pierogies, and maybe Dyngus. They know how to say "dupa," or "ass," in Polish.

In short, they know about elements of popular culture: food, dance, curse words, and a peasant holiday.

I'm not just talking about any Polish American young people. Last year I went to Poland and met university students, even graduate students, interested in Polish culture. And they are unaware of the key books of their own culture.

More than once, I've met Polish people who share last names with famous Polish cultural figures. I ask them, "Are you related?" and they have had no idea that their last name was associated with a famous cultural figure. It's like meeting an American whose last name is "Hemingway" and the person has no idea who Ernest Hemingway was.

I associate with other Polish-American writers, editors and publishers. They moan to me about how hard it is to market their work.

A friend put two decades into getting his book on Polish topics published. Publishers told him again and again, "Polish-Americans do not buy books."

I know a Polish American writer through facebook. I feel a huge amount of admiration for this woman's work. I think that just by getting up in the morning, just by breathing, she is doing everyone a favor. I am honored to have contact with her.

From what I can see, Polonia ignores her and her work. She is shown no special deference or gratitude – by Polish-Americans. She does have readers from other ethnic groups, and I see them defer to her and thank her on facebook. Where are the Polish-Americans? Why can't they see in her work what others do?

When I see her interact with other Polish-Americans, there's no, "Oh, I read your work about that anti-Polish riot – work that covers material that no one else is covering! Thank you. I respect you. I'm sorry that you've been excluded from opportunities because you took a heroic stand. Your work means so much to me. Polonia owes you."

She's a Polish American writer, for God's sake. She is telling our story in publications. She has fought for her publications and she's paid the price. She has experienced bigotry and exclusion because she has taken public stands against the Bieganski stereotype.

I often visit an internet discussion group devoted to battling stereotypes of Poles and Polish Americans. Newcomers regularly post first messages in the group. Their introductory messages are often very similarly worded to hundreds of other introductory messages. They generally say:

"Hello, I am new to this group.

I am an American of Polish descent. (Or, I am a Pole living in Poland or France or England or Germany.)

I never noticed this stereotype of Poles and Polish Americans until I visited a museum … read a newspaper article … saw a movie … was mocked by my boss … had a bad experience at school.

This stereotype upsets me a lot.

I would like to combat it.

I don't understand this stereotype.

Where did this negative stereotype of Poles come from?

Why do people invest in, deploy, and believe this stereotype?

How can I defuse this stereotype?"

I've seen posts like that hundreds of times over the years.

Here's the thing – I've never, not once, seen someone say, "Hey, you've come to the right place. There is a book that attempts to answer all those questions. The Polish American Historical Association awarded this book a prize as the best book on a Polish American topic in 2010. The book is 'Bieganski.' Buy it. Read it. Study it. It will help you combat the stereotype."

Recently, in one of these internet groups where people talk about stereotypes of Poles, a poster mentioned a book she'd been reading to help her understand negative stereotypes. Her book? "The Protocols of the Elders of Zion."

This broke my heart. "The Protocols of the Elders of Zion" is one of the most evil books ever published.

A very well-meaning group member, a genuinely good guy, responds to stereotypes of Poles, not by advancing intellectual arguments, but by calling those who stereotype Poles derogatory names like "assholes" and "idiots."

This is not the best we can do.

Dupa. Polka. Pierogi. If that's all we have for our grandchildren, we all may as well pack up and go home.

In his book, "The Jews in Polish Culture," Aleksander Hertz talks about a division of labor in the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth. Polish Catholic nobles and peasants understood Jews as the intellectuals, the readers, the people associated with books. Poles didn't see themselves that way. The world of books and reading was alien. Is that feeling, to any extent, still alive today?

I don't know.

If what I suspect is true, can we do anything about it?

How about a Polish-American ad-hoc organization devoted to creating a new holiday, two days after Easter? Easter, Dyngus, and then a holiday entitled, "Polonia Reads"? On that day, Polish Americans will celebrate by purchasing a difficult-to-acquire or out-of-print book on Polish topics, read it, post a review on Amazon, and engage in effective action to get the book onto the syllabi at local schools.



  1. Danusha,

    A tough question with no simple answer. I don't think it's just Americans of POlish decent. Not many buy books any more. If it's a Polish subject I usually buy them.


  2. Danusha, (I agree The Protocols of Zion may be about the most evil book that's ever been published.) There were books in my working class Detroit household. My father walked me 3 miles to the library then above a Triple AAA office to get my first library card. He told me as we walked that books were the way out. I believed him with all my heart and soul. My mother read me books, too, before this time, and so I learned to read before I went to first grade, which wasn't a good thing at all back then in any school, apparently. I caught up on that mis-step with a vengeance and my scores soared into the college level early in elemetary school. There were always books in our house, too, even though neither of my parents graduated from high school. My father had sought out books in Poland, too, when he visited a local Jewish lumber baron's personal library by invitation often. If I told my father the money I was asking for was to be used for books, he never hesitated to hand me what I needed, though money was always tight. (He would always give me money for hot fudge sundaes at Warrendale Drugstore those summer nights I craved one.)

    Books were available to him at Jackson State Prison when as a young man unable to get work in Detroit during the Depression he made some bad choices and stole some things that did not belong to him and he paid his debt. But he read everything in that prison library, and it was well-stocked with the canon of Western literature, so he had the equivalent of an eighth grade education he always insisted.

    Your blog post is so timely. About a month or so ago now a Missouri Genweb list centered on the Missouri county my father was born in seemed to have an odd nothing to do with genealogy post or two which were offensive and the web master it turned out was busy doing taxes, so no one was monitoring. I spoke up politely - I wasn't the only member to do so - and then was jumped on by the man and woman who had posted junk though both were also very active in ways I am not in preserving history in this Missouri county that also hosted the Leadbelt Riot of 1917. I won't go into all the details but one woman's final post was about the people involved in the riot against them by the locals were the "dregs of Europe." She said this about a month ago, April 2012. I have the post saved. This is that Henry C. Thompson cant about the dangerous Hunkies and he was the pre-eminent state historian, including history of lead mining, in the Show-Me state for a very long time. I am not sure how long the Polish Bohunk evil hunky stereotype will exist. I am all for Polonia Reads, though. Will Polonia fund it? How about the NEA? Stay tuned. Thank you my friend for everything you write. As my mother would say of my own work about difficult family matters: It is the truth, my dear, every word of it. Christina Pacosz

  3. I recall looking at houses a few years ago. Very few had books or bookcases. And these were average American houses.
    I am Polish American, descended from peasant stock who worked in coal mines and steel plants when they came to America. But they pushed education. All but one of my mother's sibs, who were the first generation in America, got at least master's degrees. I grew up in a home jammed with books, as is my current one. I am switching largely to ebooks for anything other than reference since they don't take space. My cousin has been very involved in the International Reading Association.
    Unfortunately all of America is not reading. We are falling behind in the world as a result. But this is not because of Polish Americans. It is a general American attitude, fostered by the political right who doesn't want people to read.

  4. Anonymous, wish you used a real name. Wish everyone posting on the internet did. If nothing else, it would make it easier to address you.

    Anonymous -- your post is not a response to this blog. This blog is not about "average Americans."

    Rather, this post draws a sharp contrast between, as the blog post mentions, my non-Polish readers who don't send me requests for free or low cost publications, even while announcing themselves as well-to-do via their facebook posts, for example, and Polish American readers who do send me such requests.

    Had you addressed that point, we would have something to talk about, but you didn't.

    More: what should be the canonical works of the Polish American bookshelf are out of print. Why? That's not the case for many other ethnic groups. From "Roots" to "A Tree Grows in Brooklyn" to "Bread Givers" to "Mules and Men," comparable books from other ethnic groups are kept in print and sell. Why not ours?

    More: why did none of my Jewish friends demand free copies of "Bieganski," but Polish-American friends did, often friends close enough to me to know that writing this book impoverished me? There's a sharp contrast. What explains it?

    More: Why don't Polish-Americans show the same care for their authors that members of other groups do? Why, as mentioned in the blog post, and in further comments, does Christina Pacosz get thanked and appreciated by non-Polish Americans on facebook, and not by Polish-Americans?

    More: I *do* see Polish Americans on facebook putting aside their squabbles to show respect for dead military heroes.

    That's a good thing. Dead military heroes deserve our respect.

    I mention this because Polish Americans can and do show obvious affection, respect, and gratitude to *some* Polonians. It's noticeable.

    When it comes to cultural heroes, people like Pacosz or Orzeszkowa or John Bukowczyk, who wrote a great book that is tragically now out of print, that respect is just not there. Why?

    More: the authors, publishers, and editors on Polish matters, cited above who can't get their works published or sold.

    Ethnic works by other ethnic groups sell very well in this country. An Indian girl was paid an astronomical sum for a book she didn't even write -- simply because slapping an Indian name and face on the book would guarantee sales.

    More: I was invited to speak about "Bieganski." The locals chipped in money for my appearance. A few different Jewish and historical societies chipped in considerable sums. The local Polish society chipped in considerably less than the amount of money I have in my wallet right now. Why?

    I could go on and on and on and on.

    From what I see, and what I see is limited and anecdotal, Polonia could improve on this score. Heaven knows Polonians devote hours a day to whining about how they are misrepresented in books. Whom does Polonia blame? All too often, Polonia blames "the Jews." Or just "they." "They" are responsible.

    Not true. We have power. We are responsible for our own fate.

    What can we do? We could start with Polonia Reads as a holiday.

  5. I just had a discussion about this when discussing the refurbishment of the local Pol. Am Club. My vision was to adorn the walls w Polish Heroes and Nobles giving equal time to Royalty, intellectuals, artsists, sports figures, miltary heroes and saints. My idea is to 'reframe' Polish-American indentity.

    The girl who is the contact person for a local benefactor of the arts and who was born in Poland said to me, "but we are such humble people" Oy vey! Also, i wonder have much of the not willing to spend money has to do w living under a communnist dicatorship for so long?

    1. Anonymous, good luck with your plans. And post under a name!

  6. I too, have been reading books in quantity since I was a young child. At that time, my poverty-stricken mother would take me to the library to borrow books on various topics that interested me. "Readers are leaders" she told me, and it paid off. I have loved reading ever since.

    1. Jan Peczkis, I truly admire your diligence in your Amazon reviews. and you know what? Polonia should recognize you in some formal way. No, I don't agree with everything you say, but I do admire your diligence. I would like to see a thank you from Polonia to you.

    2. Thanks for the kind words. Those who have incessantly been trying to drive a wedge between the two of us, because of our disagreements, have failed miserably.

  7. The "Polonia Reads" Holiday is a good idea. The lack of reading and specific cultural/historical education leaves Bohunks particularly vulnerable to the typical attacks and stereotypes launched against them. A bit of education would go a long way in combatting the attacks. Of course turning off the TV would help too.

    On a similar note from yesterday's UK press, an article on the 2012 Euro Football matches in Poland and Ukraine that is entirely an attack on the two countries and on "Bohunks" in general. The comments to the article are telling as well. Football hooliganism gets ugly all over Europe, from Germany to Italy and of course the UK itself, so the attack here is pure venom. (below)


    27 May Daily Mail
    HEADLINE: "Nazi mob lies in wait for England fans: Riot police march into battle against thugs on Euro 2012 terraces - but turn a blind eye to racist chants and violence"


    1. MB, nice to read you again. Hope all is well in South Korea.

    2. Hello MB - yes yes yes to turning off the TV. You need to be very selective in your watching nowadays.

      The Daily Mail seems to be an equal opportunity vilifier, in that it can be venomous towards everyone - especially any woman in public life - so us Poles/Polonians must expect to get our share of venom too.

      The problem with the American media is that it goes out of its way to vilify Poles, while being very careful about how it treats other minorities. Its as if it has an "uber" and "unter" chart - with Poles definitely on the "unter" side, and most other minorities on the "uber".

      Dr.G's Hollywood chapter in "Bieganski" demonstrates it well. And there is the book "Maus". However, as I must always acknowledge, it is a great help to me in staying "no part" of the world. America seemed such a golden country in the faraway days of my convent childhood (Noah's Ark still drying out on its mountain top). And much as I like Americans, I needed to lose that view of America.

      Re books and reading, do many people anywhere, buy and read scholarly books? So I don't think America Polonia is so different.

      Do I want them all to buy and read "Bieganski"? Yes, and no. Yes, for the valuable information it contains. It explains the political reasons for the attack on Poles/Polonia - and to support Dr.Goska.

      But no if they are not well versed in the Inspired Scriptures, both Hebrew and Christian Greek. Otherwise the information it contains could cause them to go against the perfect advice in Psalm 37.

  8. Thank you Danusha. I have been busy and quiet but still read the blog regularly! I have to work through some more articles today though too.

    I'd like to mention a recent US Polonia action here on the blog. The Polish American Congress national directors have come out with a statement supporting the Polish opposition findings--led by Antoni Macierewicz--on the 2010 plane crash that killed the Polish President and many other high ranking Polish Govt, Military (NATO) and international Polonia figures.

    The Soviets (I'll use the word here) have benefitted from a superficial similarity of the Smolensk opposition to concepts of "9/11 Truth" or "Birthers": It seems that US and global media and public opinion have largely given up on the non-Russian side of Smolensk Crash facts despite an ever growing mountain of evidence and international expert backing the opposition view. The opposition are often written off as screwballs, I suppose to the delight the Russian creators of the "official story" and their Polish government allies, recent conversions from official US Govt elements and the P.A.C. notwithstanding.

    I don't know how many readers of the Bieganski blog are following the Smolensk story but I hope these links help any that are seeking fresh English language articles on the subject. Many of these articles lead to original Polish for those who want to follow up on the sources.

    Here is a link to the English language article about the Polish American Congress:

    Also a Polish scholar studying in the US has made a good contribution to better understanding the complexities of the plane crash and the studies, with a good overview article. The article sums up the past two years of studies and findings by Polish opposition figures and international experts.

    Here is that link:

    Both of these articles and events are fresh, from just a few days ago. It was also just a few days ago that the Polish Govt of Donald Tusk flatly refused the assistance of the United States in further study of the Smolensk Crash. The US offer, coming after so long, helps show the seriousness of the evidence collected over the past two years.
    Michael Bobkowski

  9. Sue, I do think that there are some other ethnic groups who are mistreated under Political Correctness.

    For example, it is very okay to disparage Poor White Southerners.

    I wonder if you have seen the film "Talladega Nights"? The entire film is an extended joke on the white trash image. Go to youtube to watch the "Baby Jesus" scene and you'll see what I mean.

    And it is very okay, standard, to make fun of gay men. It's constant. And this in media that is very much NOT Christian or religious in any way. Those who think that the Judeo-Christian tradition is the source of homophobia need to watch Bill Maher or any other cable comedy show. They couldn't go ten minutes without making a joke about gay men.

  10. These are the comments Michael is referring to, above. Obviously they are extreme, but they received the highest number of votes:

    Nothing more hilarious than people of the Slavic race pretending to be Caucasian and saluting the man who absolutely despised people of the Slavic race. It's actually pretty sad, I think they must have some sort of inferiority complex. Can someone also inform them that the Celtic cross represents the CELTIC/Anglo-Saxon race, which the Slavic race is completely separate from. These poor people, so uneducated that they don't know any better. Can the EU increase their funding to public education?

    Read more:

    Okay, they may be "racist" - but why are they chanting about Hitler and calling themselves Nazis? Seriously. It's not FACTUALLY possible. Hitler and the Nazi political group only believed in the superiority of Aryans/Caucasians. Hitler absolutely hated the East Europeans - because these people (Polish, Ukrainian, Russian, etc) are considered of the Slavic race, not of the Caucasian race (something that scientists agree with in terms of racial categorization). Historians agree that Hitler hated Slavic people only second to Jewish people. If he had hypothetically won, he would have wiped out Eastern Europe altogether. And that is FACT. As for the football, why are civilized countries like UK, France, Germany, etc playing in these backward third-world countries in East Europe? At least, football is just a game... but you folks made a huge dangerous mistake by letting these countries into the EU!

    Read more:

  11. Peter RechniewskiMay 28, 2012 at 9:11 PM

    Why is anyone bothering with what is published in the Daily Mail? It's The Sun for the lower middle classes in the UK and its hysterical tone and racist subtext in so many stories is well known.

  12. Anyone studying stereotypes will study influential and representational data from all levels of a culture: rich and poor, elite and popular. That would appear to be self-evident.

  13. Can't agree more with Danusha. I don't know the exact circulation of the UK DM but it is surely huge with frequent linkage from US sites like Drudge. As Sue has said too the double standard is there. Of course in Europe now increased job competition with Poles especially is stirring up more animosities with those very working class people who read the DM.

    It is odd how Bohunks continue to be in the PC fair game class, along with Southern US people and just a few others. It is a rarified group. It may be because we are big, tough, smart and successful enough to laugh it off, at least in 21st century USA and the PC crowd really, really want at least a few comfy pigeon holes (a la NPR below and in many other cases as well).

    I must ask too, given the silence: has Smolensk been much if a topic in Polonia?

  14. Peter RechniewskiMay 29, 2012 at 2:01 AM

    Then you'd have to identify the source, discuss its outlook, biases etc., first. So far none of these have been outlined here. What conclusions, do readers here think, can be drawn from these responses and their approval rating?

    I am fascinated by the appearance of the conspiracy theorists here, in relation to the Smolensk crash.
    Have to go as the cat is determined to walk on the keyboard.

  15. I think the main point is simply the ease with which anti-Bohunk slanders are disseminated. (see Pres Obama's new gaffe below too) It all, combined, becomes part of the general mindset.

    The available material on Smolensk is vast and varied and is now more often available in English, after the Brussels, Canada and USA meetings and testimonies. Some material, as is normal in the internet age, is better than others. What looked like an open and shut case is at least looking like a hugely mis-handled whitewash. Sometimes too a conspiracy is really a conspiracy as in many past cases from the assassination attempt on Hitler to the fake shooting of the Taiwan President in recent times. The total incompetence of the initial investigation of Smolensk has at least justified further investigation. Here the same society that has covered up shoot downs of civilian airliners and Katyn is somehow assumed to be the innocent victim of a false conspiracy theory. If the Obama Admin, not exactly East Europe friendly, is even willing to volunteer investigation assistance it seems to indicates the degree of the stink. I suggest anyone interested in Polonia or even just more detailed Polish domestic scene information check out the recent international Smolensk findings.

    P.S. Pres Obama referred to a "Polish Death Camp" at yesterday's medal ceremony for Jan Karski. Here's the AP story below.

    White House: Obama misspoke on 'Polish death camp'
    By NANCY BENAC, Associated Press Writer – 14 minutes ago
    WASHINGTON (AP) — The White House said President Barack Obama misspoke on Tuesday when he referred to a "Polish death camp" while honoring a Polish war hero.

    The president's remark had drawn immediate complaints from Poles who said Obama should have called it a "German death camp in Nazi-occupied Poland," to distinguish the perpetrators from the location. Polish Foreign Minister Radek Sikorski called it a matter of "ignorance and incompetence."

    Obama made the comment while awarding the Medal of Freedom to Jan Karski, a resistance fighter against the Nazi occupation of Poland during World War II. Karski died in 2000.

    During an East Room ceremony honoring 13 Medal of Freedom recipients, Obama said that Karski "served as a courier for the Polish resistance during the darkest days of World War II. Before one trip across enemy lines, resistance fighters told him that Jews were being murdered on a massive scale and smuggled him into the Warsaw Ghetto and a Polish death camp to see for himself. Jan took that information to President Franklin Roosevelt, giving one of the first accounts of the Holocaust and imploring to the world to take action."

  16. The Daily Mail is not the paper of the English working class who reads The Sun (mostly pro-Tory), The Mirror (mostly pro-Labour) and The Daily Star (who knows, as political news, in fact any real news, is minimal). The Daily Star is not to be confused with The Morning Star.

    Patriotism, an anti-European outlook, an unpleasant brand of right wing politics in general as well as house prices, are the main interests of The Daily Mail.

  17. You had mentioned the book, AND MY CHILDREN DID NOT KNOW ME, by John Bukowczyk. I have just reviewed this work on Amazon. To see my review, please click on my name specifically in this posting.

  18. I have now also reviewed Dr. John Bukowczyk's more recent book on Polish Americans. To see this review, please click on my name specifically in this posting.

  19. "the (reputed) end of Communist rule in Poland in 1989"


  20. I have ordered "Bieganski" yesterday. I can't belive you can't find a Polish publisher for it. I'm sure you have tried numerous times, but maybe now there's a better "climate" for it.

    I got interested in the "Bieganski" topic after Obama gaffe and eventually found your blog. Now I'm slowly reading through the post.

    Keep up the good and much needed work and I can't wait for my book to arrive.

    Bartek Michalski
    Tuszyn, Poland

  21. Bartek Michalski, thank you so much for posting. If you have any ideas about publishers I should approach, please alert me. I've been in contact with so many over the years. They all were eager at first and then fizzled out. I've had two signed contracts. I and my supporters have invested money in sending copies of the book over, copies we have to purchase just as everyone else has to. And ... nothing. If you have any suggestions, please make them.


Bieganski the Blog exists to further explore the themes of the book Bieganski the Brute Polak Stereotype, Its Role in Polish-Jewish Relations and American Popular Culture.
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