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Sobibor Extermination Camp: Jewish Prisoner Uprisings

Part 5

Note: The materials in this section were transcribed by Mr. Kenneth McVay of Vancouver, Canada. Mr. McVay's award-winning Nizkor Project is one of the largest collections of Holocaust-related materials in the world.—Ben Austin

 CAMPS - 4                          THE NAZI CONCENTRATION CAMPS       Structure and Aims * The Image of the Prisoner The Jews in the Camps     PROCEEDINGS OF THE FOURTH YAD VASHEM INTERNATIONAL HISTORICAL CONFERENCE                           Jerusalem, January 1980                                  YAD VASHEM                                JERUSALEM 1984                                 SEVENTH SESSION                             Chairman: Bela Vago    JEWISH PRISONER UPRISINGS IN THE TREBLINKA AND SOBIBOR EXTERMINATION CAMPS    YITZHAK ARAD    Liquidation of the Camp (CONT)     Underground Organization and Preparations for Revolt         From the second half of July until the middle of August 1943, an  underground group was formed in the camp under the leadership of Leon Feldhendler, who had been the chairman of the Judenrat in Zolkiew.  The group was made up mostly of the heads of workshop work groups.  In light of the method of collective punishment that the Germans instituted and the presence of a minefield around the camp, the underground group reached the conclusion that it was necessary to plan a large, organized escape during the course of which most of the camp's prisoners would flee.  According to one of the early plans, the boys who worked as servants in the SS living quarters were to kill the SS while they slept, take their weapons and hand them over to the members of the underground.  According to this plan, after the killing, of the Germans the Ukrainian guards were supposed to join  the insurgents and escape with them to the forest and the partisans. This plan, however, was quickly shelved because it was feared that the boys, aged 14-16, would not be up to the task, and because the plan would have to be carried out in the early morning hours and that would give the Germans a full day for pursuit.  (Testimony of Feldhendler's wife, YVA, 0-16/464; Rutkowski, op.cit., p.16; testimony of Blat. op.cit., p. 77; Matz, op.cit., p. 213)         Another plan proposed in August spoke of setting the camp on fire  in the afternoon hours (or, according to another version, in the middle  of the night), and, in the ensuing commotion, when the SS and Ukrainians would be called to extinguish the fire, the prisoners would burst through the gates and flee.  But when word of this plan was conveyed to other groups of prisoners, they rejected it. (Testimony of Feldhendleis wife, op.  cit., p.  13; Rutkowski, op. cit., p. 15; Matz, op.cit., p. 213; testimony of Dov Freiberg, The Attorney-General of the Government of Israel v.  Adolf Eichmann, Minutes of Session No. 64, Jerusalem, 1961 [hereafter, Eichmann's Trial])         Another plan proposed digging a tunnel, but nothing came of it.  One  of the major shortcomings of the underground group was the absence of  someone with leadership ability and military training who would be able to work out a complex escape plan.  Finally Feldhendler found a suitable person: a Dutch Jew named Joseph Jacobs, a former naval officer, who had been brought to Sobibor on May 21, 1943.  (The exact name of the Dutch Jew is not certain, and there is no proof that his name was, in fact, Jacobs.  According to another version, he was a journalist and fought in the International Brigade in Spain: Louis de Jong, 'Het Koninkrijk der Nederlanden--In de Tweede wereldoortog', Vol.  VIII--'Gevangenen en Gedeporteerden', The Hague, 1918, p. 818.)         Jacobs took it upon himself to organize the uprising together with his  Dutch friends, in conjunction with the underground group.  According to the new plan that was formulated, the insurgents, assisted by several Ukrainian guards who had agreed to collaborate, would steal into the arms shed in the afternoon, when the SS people were in the dining hall.  The insurgents would arm themselves, burst through the main gate and escape to the forests.  However, one of the Ukrainians informed, and the escape plan became known.  Jacobs was seized and Interrogated about his partners in the plot.  In spite of continued blows and torture Jacobs did not break and adhered to his claim that he alone planned to escape.  Still, in reprisal for the escape attempt, seventy-two Dutch Jews were murdered along with him. (Testimony of Feldhendler's wife, op.cit., pp. 11-12; Rutkowski,  op.cit., p. 22 (according to Rutkowski, it is possible that the escape took place in July and not in August.); testimony of Freiberg, Eichmann's Trial, op.cit.)         Another escape was planned in the first half of September 1943 by six  Capos, headed by the Oberkapo Moshe Sturm.  But one of the prisoners,  called Berliner, informed, and the six were caught and shot in full view of all the prisoners.  As a reward the Germans appointed Berliner Oberkapo, but shortly afterward the prisoners also "rewarded" him, and Berliner was poisoned.  (In the camp, Moshe Sturm was called "Moshe the Governor." On this, see Blat, op.cit., pp. 71-72; Rutkowski, op.cit., p. 21; testimony of Izak Rotenberg, YVA, 0-3/4141, p. 3.  According to Bahir, op.cit., p. 12, a Capo by the name of Positzka was involved in Berliner's poisoning.)        Another escape attempt was made in mid-September.  Prisoners kept in  the extermination area (Camp 3) dug a tunnel that began in their barracks and was supposed to reach beyond the fences and the minefield.  The work of burrowing the tunnel was almost finished when it was discovered by the camp guards.  The prisoners of Camp 3, who then numbered between 100 and 150 men, were shot as punishment.  When the Camp 3 prisoners were being taken to be executed, the prisoners in the other part of the camp were kept in roll-call formation under heavy guard as a preventive measure.  Afterward, a new group of men was transferred to Camp 3.  (Testimony of Blat, op.  cit., p.76. Testimony of Jacob Biskowitz, Eichmann's Trial; Matz, op.  cit., p. 213; Rutkowski, op.cit., p.16.)         In spite of the repeated failures in organizing an escape and in  spite of the heavy collective punishments--the killing of hundreds of  prisoners in the camp, which caused terrible damage to the self-confidence of the organizers--the underground group headed by Feldhendler continued its tireless search for a new person able to lead the revolt and escape.  This leader was now found in the person of a Jewish officer, a former lieutenant in the Soviet army, named Alexander Pechorsky.  Pechorsky arrived at the camp with a group of 100 Jewish war prisoners who had served in the Red Army and had been kept at the SS labor camp in Minsk.  When the Minsk ghetto was liquidated, this group.  together with a large transport of 2,000 Jews, was brought to Sobibor.  Most of the Minsk Jews were sent  directly to the gas chambers, save for a group of eighty men--most of them skilled workers or prisoners of war--who were kept in the camp in order to work on the construction of Camp 4 in place of the group of Dutch Jews who had been murdered and the prisoners of Camp 1 who had been transferred to the extermination area.         The arrival of the prisoners of war, a cohesive group with battle  experience and bearing the glory of the Soviet army, lifted the morale of the Sobibor prisoners.  The outstanding leader of this group was Lieutenant Pechorsky.  Contact between him and Feldhendler was established by Shlomo Litman, a Polish Jew and carpenter by trade who had been in the SS camp at Minsk together with the Soviet prisoners and had arrived with them at Sobibor.  Feldhendler was impressed by Pechorsky's personality, and at their first meeting, which took place on the evening of October 29, already suggested to him that he organize a mass escape from the camp.  In subsequent talks conducted between the two, a group was established; Pechorsky at its head and Feldhendler as his deputy.  The other members of the group were four people from Feldendler's group and three from the Minsk group.  (The members of the Feldhendler group were the heads of the various groups of artisans: Janek headed the carpenters; Josef, the tailors; Jacob, the cobblers, and Munik, the youth group. Members of the Minsk group were Lipman, Tziebulski and Shubayev.  See Pechorsky, op.  cit., pp.  26-27, 41.) The cooperation between the two groups, with Feldhendler's group contributing their experience in the camp and familiarity with its conditions and Pechorsky's people contributing military know-how and experience, led to the formulation of two plans that were supposed to make possible the escape of all 600 prisoners from the camp, including the 150 women in Camp 1.  (In the Sobibor Camp there were also Jewish women prisoners.  The first group was brought to the camp as soon as it was established to work in the kitchen for the SS personnel.  Later, when it was decided to keep a permanent group of prisoners in the camp, women were included among them.  They were working in the kitchen, laundry and in other services and were lodged next to the blocks of the Jewish male  prisoners.)         The prisoners in the extermination area, who at that time numbered a few dozen, were not informed of the plans, because of the inability to establish contact with them.  In light of the lessons of the past and in order to prevent treason it was decided this time not to bring the Ukrainians in on the plan.  The first plan worked out by the new leadership was based on digging a tunnel 35 meters long from the carpentry shed, which was located near the camp fence, to a point beyond the fences and the minefield.  According to the plan all the prisoners in the camp were to escape, at night, through the tunnel.  Pechorsky was well aware that digging a tunnel was a complicated matter that would take two or three weeks, and even if the work were completed, the attempt to get 600 people out on one night might well fail.  He also was told of the discovery of the tunnel in Camp 3, and therefore an alternate plan was also worked out.  It involved killing the SS people, seizing their arms, and escaping in an organized flight.  And so along with the work of burrowing the tunnel, which began on October 5 (Valentin Tomin and A.  Sinelnikov, Vozvrash.henie me..helatelno, Moscow, 1964.) and was carried out only at night, preparations were begun for the alternative plan.         Two of the Capos--Positzka and Czepik--who sensed that secret work  was going on, realized that there was an underground organization and that plans for an escape were being made.  They asked Pechorsky to allow them to join the underground.  Their request was granted, for it was clear how much the Capos could help in the preparations for the revolt.  And, indeed, on October 8, with Positzka's assistance, two of the leaders of the underground, Pechorsky and Litman, were transferred to work in the carpentry shop, whose location enabled them to supervise the preparations for the revolt.  (Pechorsky, op.cit., pp.31-32; Rutkowski, op cit., p.31.)         On October 8 and 9 heavy rains fell on the camp.  The streaming  water penetrated the tunnel and utterly wrecked it.  It was clear that the tunnel escape plan had to be abandoned.  At this stage eight of the  prisoners of war decided to escape from the camp.  Pechorsky learned of their plan and managed to talk them out of it by stressing the heavy punishment that would be meted out to the other prisoners in reprisal for their escape.  (Pechorsky, op.cit., pp.32-34.) Now the only remaining plan was the alternate plan; it was very complicated and required precise planning, and the prisoners had very little time left.  October 13 was set as a possible date for the outbreak of the revolt, for according to the information that the prisoners had, a group of SS men, among them two of the most dangerous-- Wagner and Gomerski--would then be on homeland leave in Germany.  On October 10, the eve of Yom Kippur, the camp authorities allowed the prisoners to assemble in the women's barracks.  The underground leadership used this opportunity to confer, and it was decided to begin the armed uprising very soon.  (Tomin-Sinelnikov, op.cit.,pp.153-155; Ruckerl, op.cit.,pp.195.)         On October 12, at 21:00 hours, the leadership of the underground met  in the carpentry shed.  Ten people took part in this meeting.  (The ten included Capo Positzka.  On that day, eighteen sick prisoners were taken to Camp 3 (death camp), and this seriously affected the morale of the other prisoners.  Pechorsky, op.cit., p.43; testimony of Blat, op.cit.,p.78.) Pechorsky presented the plan of the revolt that was to take place the following day.  The plan was divided into three stages.    Stage A: Between 15:30 and 16:45         The quiet liquidation of some of the SS men who would be asked to  come, each separately, to the workshops for clothing or shoe measurements, for inspecting carpentry work, etc.  Feldhendler was put in charge of asking the SS men to the workshops.  At the same time, the rest of the SS people would be killed inside the buildings at the various places of work.  These activities would be carried out in utmost secrecy in order that they not be discovered by the other prisoners or the Ukrainian guards.  This operation was assigned to special groups of two or three men each, comprised of prisoners of war and long-time prisoners.         Each group had its own special task.  Two other men were assigned to  cut the telephone line that ran from the camp's headquarters, across  Camp 2, to the security forces in Wlodawa, and to cut off the electricity in the camp.  Another group was to sabotage the camp vehicles.  The boys and young girls who worked in the SS living quarters were given the job of removing the ammunition and grenades they found there and delivering them to the insurgents.  It was also decided to try to break in secretly to the Ukrainians' guard room and remove rifles from there.  Positzka was supposed to take a group from Camp 1 to Camp 2 (the central part of Sobibor was called Camp 2), where the housing of some of the SS people was located, to help eliminate the four SS men who were there.         The time for the outbreak of the revolt was fixed on the assumption  that the separate elimination of the SS people could only take place  during work hours.  Also, the hour had to be close to nightfall, in  order to facilitate escape.    Stage B: 16:45         The Capos Positzka and Czepik would get the prisoners into roll-call formation in the center of Camp 1, as was done every day.  The prisoners of war and the underground people were to occupy the front rows and then the Capos would lead the men toward the exit gate.  On the way to the gate the insurgents would seize the arms shed.  When the Ukrainian guards would become aware of what was happening and open fire, the insurgents would return fire, and the quiet operation would turn into an armed revolt.  The insurgents would break open the gate and break through the southern fence, near the SS quarters, on the assumption that mines were not laid in that area.    Stage C    Escape to the forests and joining up with the partisans.  This stage was not worked out in any detail, and each of the escapees would have to find his own way to refuge.  (Pechorsky, op.cit., p.43; Rutkowski, op.cit., pp.31-32.) About forty prisoners and POWs were privy to the secret of the revolt.         October 13, the day set for the uprising, arrived.  But on that day an unexpected German inspection committee arrived at the camp, and the heads of the underground therefore decided to postpone the revolt.  That evening another meeting was held at which it was decided to carry out the plan the following day.  The implements that would serve as weapons--knives, axes, specially sharpened shovels and other tools--were distributed to the members of the underground. (Testimony of Blat op.cit., p.78; Rutkowski, op.cit., pp. 30-31; Abraham Margolis, "Mi-Varsha le-Sobibor," 'Sobibor--Mahane ha-Avadon ve-ha- Mered, Tel Aviv, 1979, p.72 )    The Revolt - October 14, 1943         Up until the hour that had been set for the outbreak of the revolt,  life in the camp continued as usual.  Except for the underground members, the vast majority of the prisoners in the camp did not know what was about to happen.  The first stage of the revolt was also carried out as planned: between 16:00 and 16:30 hours, eleven SS men who had been called to the workshops were killed, among them the commander of the camp, Untersturmfu"hrer Niemann.  These were all the SS people in the camp that day, save for one--Frantzel--who was called to the workshops but did not come.  The operation in Camp 1 was run by Pechorsky, while Feldhendler commanded the operation in Camp 2.  The telephone and electric lines were cut, and the motor vehicles immobilized.  The blacksmiths' group removed six rifles from the Ukrainian guard room, and these were handed over to the underground.  (Pechowsky, op.cit., p.54; testimony of Blat, op.cit., p.81; Rutkowski, p.35; Stanislaw Shmeizner, "Me-Opole le-Sobibor," Sobibor, op.cit., p.65.) All of these activities were carried out without the Ukrainians at their posts or in the guard towers being aware of what was happening.         At 16:45 Positzka and Czepik began assembling all the prisoners into roll-call formation.  At that point the rest of the prisoners sensed that something was afoot, but they still did not know what. According to the plan, the prisoners of war and the members of the underground, some of them armed, took up position in the front rows. The operation plan was now disrupted.  A truck that had arrived from outside the camp appeared in Camp 2 and came to a halt near the building of the camp headquarters.  The driver, Oberscharfu"hrer Bauer, spotted a dead SS man lying there and then saw a prisoner running from the building.  He immediately opened fire on him. (Testimony of Biskowitz, Eichmann's Trial.) At the same time the commander of the Ukrainian guard, a Volksdeutsche from the Volga area, appeared at the roll-call square.  The insurgents attacked him and killed him with ax blows.  The rest of the prisoners became panic-stricken.  The Ukrainian guards, who now realized what was happening, opened fire.  At that point Pechorsky decided not to wait until all the prisoners were assembled, as planned, and instead began stage two of the revolt.  With cries of Come on!  Hurrah!  the insurgents broke toward the gate and the fences, and from that moment on there was no control over what happened.  Some of the insurgents broke open the main gate and escaped from there southwest toward the woods.  Another group broke through the fences north of the gate. The first of this group triggered the mines, were wounded and killed, but the others who crossed the area where the mines had already  exploded, managed to flee, as they stepped over the bodies of their  comrades.         The planned takeover of the arms store was not carried out, but the insurgents did succeed in killing the guard and taking his rifle. Those who were armed with rifles opened fire on the Ukrainians and killed four of them.  The only SS men remaining in the camp, Bauer and Frantzel, and the other Ukrainian guards returned fire.  Another group of insurgents, headed by Pechorsky, broke through the fences near the SS living quarters, where, as they had correctly assumed, mines had not been laid.  Other prisoners who were still in the area of Camp 2 now fled toward Camp 4.  (Ibid.; Pechorsky, op.cit., p. 56; Jacob Biskowitz, 'Mi-Hrubieszow le-Sobibor," Sobibor, op.cit., p.110; testimony of Goldfarb, op.cit., p.26.)         Of the 600 prisoners who were in the camp on the day of the uprising, 300 managed to escape.  About 150 were killed by the guards' gunfire or by the mine explosions.  Approximately 150 sick prisoners and those from Western Europe and Germany, who had not been let in on the preparations for the revolt, and those who did not manage to escape, remained in the camp area.  Some of them got hold of weapons and continued to fight until they were killed.  Some of those who were caught on camp grounds were shot that very same day.  The others, including the prisoners in Camp 3 (the area of the gas chambers) who had taken no part in the uprising, were shot on the  following day when the chief of staff of Operation Reinhard, Hermann  Hofle, arrived in the camp from Lublin.  (Rutkowski, op.cit., pp. 42-43; Ruckerl, op.cit., pp.196 197.)   The Escape to the Forests and the Pursuit         Word of the revolt of the Jewish prisoners in Sobibor, which reached  Chelmno and Lublin after some delay because of the cut telephone lines, caused a good deal of panic at German headquarters.  According to the report a revolt had broken out in Sobibor during which the Jewish prisoners had killed almost all of the SS, had seized the arms store, and, as a result, all of the security people still in the camp were in danger.  The report also stated that 300 prisoners had fled in the direction of the Bug River, and there was the danger that they might link up with the partisans.  The few SS remaining in the camp were in shock, and some of the Ukrainian guards had exploited the commotion to flee from the camp.  (Testimony of Liskowitz, Eichmann's Trial.)         Following the alarm that same night a large pursuit force was sent to  the camp.  The force consisted of a company of mounted police, a company of Wehrmacht soldiers, police and SS forces from Wlodawa and Lublin and about 120 Ukrainians from Sobibor.  It numbered some 400 men.  The search itself began only at dawn.  In addition, two or three surveillance planes were employed to follow the escapees in the fields and forests.  The uprising on the grounds of the camp itself was quickly put down.  But the search in the surrounding area under the command of Hauptsturmfu"hrer Wilbrandt, which was to prevent the escapees from joining the partisans on the other side of the Bug and to prevent them from spreading the word about the mass exterminations in Sobibor, lasted for more than a week.  After that time only the company of mounted police continued to comb the area.         The escapees had split into a number of groups. (One of them, headed by Pechorsky and numbering a few dozen fugitives, assembled in the forest.  They had four pistols and a rifle.  At night they met up with another group and together numbered about seventy-five men. (Pechorsky, op.  cit., pp.59-60; testimony of Blat, op.cit., pp. 82-83.) On October 15, the day after the escape, the men in the group hid in a small wood near the railroad track.  The German surveillance planes that circled overhead did not notice anything.  In the evening the group continued north, but on the way encountered two other escapees who reported that the Bug River crossings were heavily guarded by the Germans.  Under these circumstances Pechorsky decided that a group that large had no chance of eluding the pursuit force. He argued that they must break up into smaller groups, each of which would try to get past the Germans on its own.  He himself chose  another eight men from among the prisoners of war and set out.  This  created some opposition on the part of the other fugitives, who feared being left without leadership, but, as they had no choice in the matter, they, too, broke up into small groups that tried to get through the danger area.  (A particularly striking accusation raised against Pechorsky is that of Blat who claims that Pechorsky chose all the men equipped with arms, and that only one of them, Shlomo Shmeizner, remained with the others.  Blat also claims that Pechorsky told the men that he was going to investigate the area and would then return, and it was only after it became clear that he was not coming back that the rest of the escapees decided to split up into small groups and try to find their way alone.  Testimony of Blat, op.cit., pp.83-86.  It must be emphasized, however, that Pechorsky's basic  concept was justified and that partisans always used this method when facing large enemy forces.  See description of events in the forest in Pechorsky, op.cit., p.62.)         Pechorsky and his men managed to get across the Bug on the night of  October 19.  Three days later they met Soviet partisans from the Brest region and joined up with them.  (ibid, p.69.) Other groups of escaped prisoners also managed to link up with Soviet partisan units.         Feldhendler, together with another dozen or so escaped prisoners,  hid in the forest for a number of weeks.  He himself found shelter for  two months at a Polish friend's in his town of Zolkiew.  Later he.  too, joined the partisans.  (Testimony of Feldhendler's wife, op.cit., pp.21-22.)         Other groups of escapees who roamed in the Parczew forest northwest of Sobibor encountered, after several weeks of searching.  Polish partisans of the Armia Ludowa (People's Army) and a group of Ychiel Grynspan's Jewish partisan unit.  An instance is also known in which six fugitives from Sobibor were murdered by a local gang that posed as a partisan unit.  (Testimony of Goldfarb, op.cit., pp.30-31; testimony of Biskowitz, Eichmann's Trial; Rutkowski, op.cit., pp. 45,46.)         In the week following the escape, 100 of the 300 escapees were captured or shot to death.  (Rutkowski, op.ail., p.43.) It was a great achievement on the part of the insurgents that 200 of them did manage to get away.  several factors contributed to their success. The searches, which began only in the morning hours, allowed enough time for many of the prisoners to slip away from the camp area.  The many woods in the region also hampered the searches, even from the planes.  Furthermore, the Germans were mistaken in supposing that most of the escaped prisoners would head east to the Bug and therefore in stationing most of their forces at the Bug crossing points.  In fact, most of the fugitives, especially the Polish Jews, headed north to the Parczew forest.         The attitude of the local population to the escapees was not uniform. Some have told of the assistance they received from the local population, whereas others stress a hostile attitude and instances of farmers trying to rob or kill the fugitives.  There were also instances in which they succeeded.  (Testimony of Blat, op.cit.,pp.94, 97-98, 107-108)         However, despite the relative success, the vast majority of the escaped prisoners did not live to witness the day of liberation. Some were caught and killed at later stages of the escape, and others died as fighters in the ranks of the partisans.  It is estimated that from all the escapees from Sobibor, only about fifty survived until the day of liberation.  Some of them, however, including Feldhendler, were killed _after the liberation_, on April 2, by right-wing Poles. (On Feldhendler's death, see Nathan Eck, "Sho'at ha-Am ha-Yehudi be-Eropa," Tel Aviv, Jerusalem, 1976, p.255.  We have in our possession thirty-seven recorded testimonies of which thirty appear in "Sobibor," op.cit.  Another six survivors, apart from Pechorsky, now live in the Soviet Union, and there are reports of additional prisoners who survived (two at present live in Holland).  It may therefore be assumed that the number of survivors was as least fifty.)         Three days after the outbreak of the revolt, on October 20, 1943, the  last Jews of Treblinka were brought to the camp for extermination.  Afterward the camp was liquidated, its buildings dismantled, and on  its ploughed-up soil trees were planted.         The Sobibor revolt and the fear of similar revolts apparently  influenced Himmler in his decision to order Friedrich Kru"ger, the supreme commander of the SS and police in the General-Government, to hasten the elimination of all the Jews still remaining in camps in the Lublin district.  In an operation the Germans called 'Erntefest' ("harvest holiday"), at the beginning of November 1943, 42,000 Jews in the Majdanek, Trawniki and Poniatowa camps were killed. (According to various reports in our possession, 15,000 Jews were murdered in Poniatowa, 10,000 in Trawniki, and the rest in Majdanek. See Nachmann Blumental and Joseph Kermish, eds., 'Ha-Meri ve-ha-Mered be-Getto Varsha - Sefer Mismachim,' Jerusalem, 1965, pp.451-453.)         Although the uprisings in Treblinka and Sobibor did not take place  according to plan, in the end they were successful.  Many scores of  prisoners did escape, and some of them did survive.  By their act of  revolt, they not only wrote an important page in the history of Jewish fighting during World War II, but also succeeded in bringing to the world, during the days of the war itself, the terrifying truth of what had been done in the extermination camps.  They have also furnished detailed _first-hand_ accounts of these two camps and have thus contributed to the history of the Holocaust period.   YITZHAK ARAD

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