Frank Stiffel – Super Survivor or Simple Fraud?

Published: 2008-02-05

Frank Stiffel is not a very well-known "Holocaust survivor". His testimony is rarely referred to by orthodox Holocaust historians, if at all. Still, his memoirs are of interest to those researching the alleged mass extermination of Jews during World War II. First, because Mr. Stiffel claims to have survived Treblinka as well as Auschwitz. Second, because his description of life in Auschwitz gives insight into the rumor mongering prevalent in the camps. Third, because Stiffel is a prime example of a camp survivor awkwardly trying to retrofit his memories to the orthodox Holocaust narrative.

Frank Stiffel is a Polish Jew born in 1915. After the war, Stiffel together with his wife emigrated to the United States, where he settled in Flushing, New York. In 1984, his memoirs, entitled The Tale of the Ring: A Kaddish, was published by Pushcart Press. A paperback edition of the book was made available in 1994. According to its preface, as well an article which appeared in the New York Times in November 1994, Stiffel began writing about his Holocaust experience already at Treblinka in 1942. In the same article article, we are told that Stiffel "wrote on remnants of soap, on pieces of clothing that had been stripped from prisoners destined to be gassed and on the occasional scrap of paper that he bartered from the black market in the camp."[1]

In 1983, the manuscript of The Tale of the Ring was selected for the second annual Editors’ Book Award.

Stiffel’s sojourn to Treblinka

Stiffel claims to have spent six days in the "death camp" Treblinka – from September 4 to September 9, 1942 – before managing to escape accompanied by his brother Martin.[2] The brothers were deported to Treblinka together with their parents, as well as Martin’s wife. At arrival, Frank saw his parents and his brother’s wife led away, supposedly to the camp’s alleged homicidal gas chambers. In the following passage, he describes what he observed from the closed-in yard were newly arrived deportees were gathered:

This yard, with the three barracks and the four towers, was just a molecule. The real Treblinka must be lying behind the jealous fence of mummified firs. A continuous grinding sound was coming from there, something like a dentist's drill magnified to the millionth power. This sound was the real Treblinka. And the smell. The nauseating sweetish smell, similar to the one emitted by burning pork sausages. This smell, too, was the real Treblinka. And the shots. And the little explosions that sounded like grenades. They erupted sporadically there, at the other side of the firs. They, also, were the real Treblinka.[3]

A bit later, he writes that the water in Treblinka had

the strong smell of burnt skin, but so did all of Treblinka[4]

One might perhaps argue that some kind "nauseating sweetish smell" might emanate from decomposing corpses, but obviously Stiffel is talking about the smell of burning corpses here – thus the "smell of burnt skin" sticking to everything in the camp. However, orthodox historiography has it that the first cremations in Treblinka – conducted outdoors on huge pyres, since no crematory ovens were ever installed at the site – took place in late March or early April 1943 – more than half a year after Stiffel’s escape.[5] Only one witness, Richard Glazar, talks of cremations in 1942, and he claims that they begun in November that year, a whole two months after Stiffel left the camp.[6]

The fantastical nature of Stiffel’s Treblinka account is further demonstrated by the following baroque and slightly lewd passage:

I picked up my bundle and trudged forward, toward the main camp, and then made a sharp L-turn toward the place where I thought my barrack was. A moment later, I reached the end of the firs, and my heart stopped beating for an instant. There was a huge ditch. It was long, and wide, and filled with milky smoke, and with burning bodies. Groups of guards stood at its edge, here and there, some throwing in a grenade, some shooting from a tommy gun. And then I saw a scene. A scene of horror and pagan beauty.

Along the scarp, a nude girl was gently stepping down. Heavy black hair was falling down her neck. Around her, from the steaming Valhalla, half-burnt arms, hundred of arms, thousands of arms, opened up in a hospitable gesture of welcome. Or were they raised to God, in a mute prayer for justice?

Among them, the fair girl was descending as the milky haze was lovingly creeping up her slim ankles, caressing her shapely calves, and lustfully clinging to her soft thighs.

She turned around and seemed to be softly swaying from the graceful lines of her hips. Her breast rose toward two guards upon the scarp, as if in a last protest. It seemed to be saying, "I have not known love. I have not lived yet. I am ripe with passion."

One of the guards slowly pointed his rifle at her.

And the fair girl dissolved in the light-blue oblivion of the milky haze.[7]

Cremation of humans bodies supposedly took place at two separate locations within the perimeters of Treblinka II camp. First, there were allegedly the pyres inside the camp’s enclosed "extermination area" or "upper camp". At those pyres, consisting of railway gauge placed in parallel on top of concrete fundaments, the victims of the alleged gas chambers were incinerated, their ashes later being put back in the opened mass graves. But as has already been mentioned, the cremations inside the "extermination area" supposedly began several months after Stiffel’s escape from Treblinka. There is no mention of the grill-like pyres in Stiffel’s account and there is also no reason why the Germans would have shot people in the proximity of those (alleged) pyres.

The other site where cremations were supposedly carried out was the so-called Lazarett (German for hospital). At the Lazarett, those arrivals who were too old or sick to walk to the gas chambers were shot into a pit where an "eternal flame" consumed their bodies. This sounds more like the scenario described by Stiffel, but there are two grave problems with his account. First, there is no reason why a young girl able to walk would not be sent to the gas chambers instead. Second, the scenery and location described by Stiffel is inconsistent with those given by other witnesses. According to Israeli Holocaust historian Yitzhak Arad, the Lazarett was disguised as a primitive field hospital, red cross flag and all. The victims had to sit down in a small hut, awaiting their turn to be "called in by the doctor", which meant that they were taken to the edge of the burning pit, forced to sit down at its edge and shot in the back of the head.[8] The inside of the fake Lazarett was hidden on three sides by a tall fence and on the fourth by a huge rampart of soil and sand resulting from the digging of mass graves in the adjacent extermination area. In the words of Richard Glazar:

This execution site wasn’t covered, just an open place with no roof, but screened by a fence so no one could see in.[9]

There were no trees in the proximity of the Lazarett, no less a row of firs. What’s even more compromising to Stiffel – the Lazarett was not built until October 1942, according to orthodox historiography. Before that date, there only existed a few mass graves in the area. No pyres or burning pits.[10] Stiffel’s story about burning ditches is therefore either fantasy, or a repetition of rumors told in first person. Stiffel also mentions rumors as such:

[…] and there was even, they were saying, a chemical detail where it was attempted, on a laboratory scale, to salvage human fat to make soap out of it.[11]

Interestingly, it was claimed by "Nazi-hunter" Simon Wiesenthal in 1946 that Belzec, another of the three Reinhardt camps, contained a "soap factory".[12]

In the end, Stiffel and his brother supposedly managed to escape from Treblinka by hiding on a train, helped in this risky endeavor by the voice of a girl depicted on a mysterious ring which Frank found while sorting rags in a Treblinka barrack. I don’t wish to spoil the rest of this sentimental yarn for the presumptive reader. It will suffice to say that the Tale of the Ring is no Lord of the Rings when it comes to plot, description or language. Maybe in all fairness this should be blamed not on the author, but rather on the poor war time quality of the soap on which the first draft was written?

Stiffel in Auschwitz Stammlager

After escaping from Treblinka, Stiffel tries to evade the German occupiers but is soon caught again and sent to Auschwitz Stammlager. Stiffel does not provide any date for the transport, but from the narrative we gather that it occurred sometime during the autumn of 1942. After spending about a month in Stammlager, Stiffel is transferred to a small subcamp called Kobier. Here he works for about approximately 8-9 months as a lumberjack and later as a medic, before being returned to Auschwitz Stammlager, where he comes to work as a medic (Pleger) in Krankenbau Block 28. On one occasion, we are told, Stiffel makes an errand to the former old crematorium (Krema I):

[…] a group of Pflegers, accompanied by a Posten, went to the railroad platform to unload to unload two boxcars barrels containing chlorine powder. It was a change of routine for us, and we didn't treat it as much of a job. At the end of the uploading, all covered with white, flourlike powder, we started pushing the chlorine barrels into what the Posten called the warehouse.

It was the first time I had been in this warehouse, and I curiously examined this low structure, consisting of heavy brick walls without windows and small round chimneys with fans, which I assumed were used for ventilation instead of windows. We rolled the barrels through a heavy sliding door that separated a kind of an antechamber from the large, low-ceilinged room in which the barrels were stocked. I noticed in one of the walls of the antechamber a recess, something like a niche or a built-in cupboard. It was filled with a pyramid of metal cans similar to the ones used for preserved meat, only somewhat wider and taller. I took a closer look and noticed that there was a cross and a name engraved on each can.

I could only assume what it was, but after we had returned to our block and were taking a shower, I learned the details. Herman of the Leichenkommando, who was a real old timer in Auschwitz, said that the warehouse had been the first gas chamber and crematory of Auschwitz; he called it a "showcase theater." He remembered when the first group of Russian prisoners of war had been poisoned there with the Cyclon B gas. After that, it had been used on several occasions to poison the first Polish prisoners at Auschwitz. At that time, the Lager administration still cared about appearances, and so the families of the victims were sent notices saying that their dead ones were dead and that, for a fee, an urn containing the ashes of the deceased would be sent to the bereaved family. The death notice also said that the prisoner had died of heart attack or pneumonia, but it failed to say that the ashes were the residue of a cremation of some five or six bodies at a time and that, consequently, each urn was actually a mass grave. Eventually, the administration stopped advising the families and transferred the operation of gassing to a real death factory in Birkenau, some three kilometers away. The urns in the warehouse were a reminder of the old times, or they might have been destined by the administration to become museum pieces or collector's items.[13]

To begin with, the old crematorium is nowhere near the railroad platform. There never existed a platform inside the perimeter of Stammlager. Instead, new arrivals to the camp deboarded their trains at a provisory platform beside a railway spur running in SSE direction past the southwest corner of Stammlager. The crematorium, on the other hand, is located in the north corner of the camp, some dozen meters outside the fenced-in area. It simply makes no sense that Stiffel and the other men would roll the chlorine barrels from one end of the camp to another, a distance of approximately 400 meters. It is of note here that "Herman of the Leichenkommando" calls the building a "show case theater", a name which makes no sense applied to a former crematorium. However, the actual Auschwitz theater building is located just south of the camp fence, and not far from the railway spur.

To assess the description of the inside of the old crematorium we have to establish the date of Stiffel’s alleged visit to the building. On page 238 we are told that it is the "noon of Rosh Hashana 1943". This holiday falls in either September or October. In 1943 it fell on September 30 and October 1. From page 238 to page 248, where the visit is described, approximately two days passes, which means that we are still in the beginning of October 1943. Crematorium I functioned as a crematorium installation up till July 17, 1943.[14] On November 16, 1943, the commandant of Auschwitz Stammlager, SS-Obersturmbannführer Arthur Liebehenschel, issued an order regarding "Air-raid measures at garrison Auschwitz", and on July 16 the following year SS-Obergruppenführer Pohl approved the installation of an air-raid shelter ("Luftschutzbunker") in the former crematorium. The conversion of the morgue, washing room and surgery/laying-out room of Krema I into an air-raid shelter commenced in mid-October and was finished in the second half of November 1944.[15] It is not well known how the old crematorium building was utilized – if at all – between July 1943 and October 1944.[16] That it may have been temporarily used for storage purposes is not unthinkable. Anyway, it is certain that the interior structure of Krema I at the time Stiffel allegedly visited it was identical to that found on the final blueprints to the building from 1940.

Stiffel describes how he entered the building "through a heavy sliding door that separated a kind of an antechamber from the large, low-ceilinged room in which the barrels were stocked". There indeed exists an antechamber leading into the "reconstructed" "gas chamber" of today’s Krema I, however, this antechamber or vestibule is not original to the building, but was constructed at the same time as the conversion of the morgue and adjacent rooms into an air-raid shelter, to serve as an air lock.[17] Up until October 1944, the morgue (=the alleged gas chamber) could only be reached from the furnace room or the washing room.[18] The possible objection that Stiffel may have been mistaken about dates, and that he actually visited the building after November 1944 is not valid, since after stepping through the tiny vestibule he would have found himself not in a "large, low-ceilinged room" but in a small room measuring roughly 10 square meters, in turn leading into another small room.[19]

When the Poles "reconstructed" the air-raid shelter into the alleged "gas chamber" that is to be seen at the site today, they retained the air lock and passed it off as a vestibule to the "gas chamber". However, if one reads the testimony of alleged former "Sonderkommando" member Alter Feinsilberg (alias Stanislaw Jankowski), who claims to have witnessed gassings in the morgue, the number of doors leading into the room is given as two, "one in the side wall [i.e. the door leading to the furnace room], the other in the end wall [opening to the washing room]".[20] If the small vestibule had existed, there would have been three doors. According to the account of former Auschwitz commandant Rudolf Höss, the victims of the Krema I gas chamber undressed in "the vestibule", which could only signify the vestibule of the main entrance, measuring approximately 30 square meters.[21] The notion of several hundreds of victims taking turns undressing in an antechamber measuring 2x2 meters is simply not plausible. Thus the notion of a small vestibule existing prior to October 1944 lacks a basis even in eyewitness testimony.

Stiffel’s description of the crematory urns is incorrect (not to mention that there was no vestibule and no niche in which to place them). The urns used at the old crematorium were made of metal, but they were not shaped as metal cans for preserved meat. At the bottom they tapered off, so that the urns’ shape was somewhat reminiscent of a short pistol bullet balanced on its (flattened) head. This peculiar shape would make it difficult to arrange a number of such urns in a pyramid, as described by the witness. Furthermore, a Crematorium I urn did not carry any cross (or similar symbol), but instead a small white label on its lower half, stating a certificate number, the full name of the deceased, the date of birth, the date of death and the date of cremation.[22]

The urns at Krema I were stored in a small separate room, located between the morgue and the coke storage and enterable from the furnace room.[23] It is thus unlikely that Stiffel would encounter remaining cremation urns anywhere else in the building.

It is possible that the story about the chlorine barrel errand was not made up of thin air after all. Josef Odi, a former prisoner and member of a delousing commando reports how he brought used Zyklon B cans to the theatre building to be sent back to the manufacturer, as well as picked up unused cans there for use in the delousing installation.[24] One would assume that where one article used for delousing/disinfection was stored, others of the same kind might also be stored. This would indicate the possibility that Stiffel indeed unloaded chlorine barrels and placed them in a store, but that this store was located in the nearby theater building and not in the old crematorium. The pyramid of urns may even have been inspired by a sight of Zyklon B cans (perhaps used ones without labels), which are far more similar in shape to preserved food cans than the real urns, and fully possible to arrange in pyramids. The memory of that sighting might later have been transformed under the influence of hearsay.

The Rumours of Auschwitz

In his description of camp life in Auschwitz, Stiffel recounts many astounding tidbits. The following quote will suffice to illustrate their reliability:

The Lagerkommandant himself confirmed the importance of organizing [obtaining food through barter and other means]: once, in a speech directed at the Haftlinge population of Auschwitz, he said, "The diet in this Lager has been calculated scientifically so that its consumer should stay alive not less and not more than three months. Therefore whoever has been here longer than that and is still alive and functioning is, by definition, a thief." Yet, not having caught such culprits redhanded, he could not mete out to them the punishment called for by his insulted calculations.[25]

Stiffel does not specify whether he heard those alleged words of the commandant himself, or as recounted by other prisoners. However, it does not require much intelligence to realize that no camp authority, however arrogant – and given that the claim about the prison diet was in fact true – would never address prisoners in such a way, or he would potentially have triggered an uprising. Besides, with a diet "scientifically calculated" to induce mass starvation in the camp, why even bother with installing homicidal gas chambers? After all, several millions of captured soldiers from both sides of the conflict died due to malnutrition, epidemics and general mistreatment in POW camps during and after the war. This killing method would have been both simpler and considerably cheaper than the gas chambers championed by orthodox historians.

The most bizarre camp rumor dished up by Mr. Stiffel must surely be the following one:

One afternoon, a group of unusual-looking Haftlinge arrived [to the Krankenbau]. Their bodies were swollen from beating, their eyes looked glassy and empty of emotion, and they spoke and walked like zombies. The last time I had seen people like this was in Treblinka. And sure enough, these were the workers of the crematory in Birkenau. It was a weak point with all of us, the people of Auschwitz: we despised those who worked in the gas chambers and the crematories, and we never gave a thought to the possibility that any one of us could be chosen by the SS to become one of the despised ones. Now, curiosity being stronger than aversion, we asked them some basic questions. They were Jews from Athens who had worked in the crematory for a couple of months. Today they had been put on a transport. In Block 28 we all knew where the transport would finish, but nobody had the heart to tell them.

That same evening, the crematory workers were taken to Canada. There they were gassed in the chamber where clothing was normally disinfected. Their bodies were burned that same night by the SS themselves, so that the news wouldn't reach the remaining members of the Crematory Kommando. But in one way or another, all of Auschwitz came to know it the very next day.[26]

How human beings could be gassed to death in disinfection gas chamber that lacked any possibility of introducing Zyklon B into them except for placing the carrier material on the floor, as done during disinfection of clothes and other materials, remains an impenetrable question.[27] It seems likewise implausible that "Sonderkommando" veterans would allow themselves to be put inside a gas chamber without offering any resistance.

"Sonderkommando eyewitness Henryk Tauber recounts the same story about "Sonderkommando" members killed in delousing chambers in his deposition dating from May 24, 1945.[28] Since the Tauber testimony was not widely available until published by Pressac in 1989, five years after the publication of Stiffel’s memoirs, this indicates that we are looking at an original Auschwitz rumor.[29] Pressac himself considers the story "dubious", "unlikely", and unproven.[30]

Stiffel and the Amazing Disappearing Kula Column

The perhaps most interesting part of Stiffel’s Auschwitz account appears at the very end. After staying in Stammlager until the liberation by the Red Army on January 27, 1945, Stiffel together with "Gordon" (identifiable as Jackov Gordon, a Lithuanian-Jewish doctor in the camp who is mentioned in the Soviet Auschwitz Report) gave Soviet officers and reporters a guided tour to the (alleged) former murder sites at Auschwitz Stammlager and Auschwitz-Birkenau:

Almost as soon as the first Russian soldiers left Auschwitz in pursuit of the Germans, the influx of Russian high-echelon officers and newsmen started. They sat with us in the administration room all night long, smoking, drinking, asking questions, taking notes, and making comments of disbelief.

Gordon [a doctor from the Krankenbau] had become the official spokesman of the camp of Auschwitz. In a dull, monotonous voice he was telling the Lager story over and over again. "There have been two levels of authority: the SS and the Haftlinge.

There would come that inevitable, painful question, "So how come there are still Jews left in Auschwitz?"

"It's a miracle," Gordon would say, after which he explained the history of the last ten days of our lives.[31]

The following passage is also worth quoting in extensio:

Various commissions of the military and civilians were in and out each day, visiting the bunker [Block 11], listening to the tale of the Black Wall, touching the wooden pay-off goat, and taking pictures of the bodies that had been lying in the morgue since the beginning of the evacuation, but that had not yet decayed because of the below-zero temperature.

One day, a military commission took Gordon, Wolman, and me to Birkenau, to view the gas chambers. It was a sad, snowy afternoon, and the camp looked like an old, abandoned cemetary. We left the jeeps among the dark barracks of Birkenau and went by foot toward the crematories. Gordon had spent some time in Birkenau, before having become a Pfleger in Auschwitz One. Now he served as a guide.

"There were five gas chambers with their crematories on this very spot," he explained. "In October, the Germans started disassembling them, to erase the traces of their crimes. here, where you can see just a flat space covered with snow, and where possibly next spring flowers will bloom, millions of people lost their lives. Just one gas chamber remained until the end, but even this one, it seems, has been destroyed."

We entered the demolished gas chamber. The heavy posts made of iron and cement that had supported the roof were half-collapsed. We could still see the vents up in the roof, and a pillar made of iron mesh was still intact.

"Here's how the Germans injected the lethal gas into the chambers," explained Gordon. "In the first place, the chamber was filled so full of people that they would literally choke from the lack of oxygen. Children and the sick were often thrown on the heads of standing people. The temperature in the chamber rose considerably, which was a necessary condition for the gas to become volatile. It just wouldn't work under 27 degrees centigrade. Once the people were in, the chambers were sealed, and the air was sucked out through the vents in the ceiling. As soon as that was done, the last part of the operation was performed: a crematory Scharfuhrer threw the open gas cans into this iron mesh pillar. As you can see, these were underground chambers, and these pillars ended above the roof, as little chimneys above the ground. The gas cans were thrown into these chimneys, and then each chimney was sealed with a hermetic lid. Once inside the pillar, the gas emanated into the chamber through the iron mesh, and there was no way that anyone could reach through the mesh, to cover the can and stop the gas from working."

Gordon knew this part of the story from a young Hungarian Jew who had come to Auschwitz with the last of the new arrivals, and who had survived a gassing in the chamber.

"Strange," said one of the Russians, "that nobody ever rebelled."

"People sometimes did, but it was a lost cause. The Germans seemed to enjoy a little resistance. They would shoot into the crowd and set their dogs on the people on such occasions. They also liked to throw sick people into the flames alive and to throw infants up in the air and shoot at them."

We left the gas chamber.

No need here to consider Dr. Gordon’s miraculously detailed knowledge of the supposed gassing process (complete with the bizarre notion of the air in the gas chamber being sucked out through vents – something which, if possible, would have rendered the use of poison gas meaningless in the first place)[32] – the report of a complete remaining "Kula column" in the ruins of Krema II (or possibly III) is no less than sensational! How come this remarkable find was never documented by the Soviet or Polish investigating committees? And why was it not preserved? What reason could the liberators of the camp have had to destroy crucial material evidence relating to the barbarous Hitlerite mass gassings of millions of innocent Jewish martyrs at Auschwitz?

No more needs to be said concerning the reliability of Mr. Stiffel’s writings.


Notes

[1]
"The Tale of the Ring: A Kaddish", New York Times, November 20, 1994, Section 13LI, p. 10.
[2]
Cf. Stiffel, p.86, about the ring he supposedly found in the camp: "Some day, I'm going to have it engraved with 'Treblinka – September 4 through 9'".
[3]
Stiffel, p.75-76.
[4]
Stiffel, p.77.
[5]
Cf Yitzhak Arad, Belzec, Sobibor, Treblinka. The Operation Reinhard Death Camps, Indiana University Press 1987, p. 177.
[6]
R. Glazar, Trap with a green fence, Northwestern University Press, Evanston, IL, 1995, p.29.
[7]
Stiffel, p.81.
[8]
Arad, p. 122.
[9]
Claude Lanzmann, Shoah. The Complete Text of the Acclaimed Holocaust Film, Da Capo Press, New York 1995, p.111.
[10]
Arad, p.121-122.
[11]
Stiffel, p.77.
[12]
S. Wiesenthal, "Seifenfabrik Belsetz", Der Neue Weg, No. 19/20, Vienna 1946, p. 14.
[13]
Stiffel, p.248-9.
[14]
Carlo Mattogno, Auschwitz: Crematorium I and the Alleged Homicidal Gassings, Theses & Dissertations Press, Chicago 2005, p. 22.
[15]
Ibid, p. 22-23.
[16]
According to former prisoner Hermann Langbein the former furnace room was utilized as a medical storage during the time period of the air-raid shelter. Cf. Jean-Claude Pressac, Auschwitz: Technique and Operation of the Gas Chambers, The Beate Klarsfeld Foundation, New York 1989, p. 133.
[17]
Mattogno, Auschwitz: Crematorium I, p. 89.
[18]
Ibid, p. 103.
[19]
Ibid, p. 106.
[20]
Pressac, p. 124.
[21]
Cf. Mattogno, p. 52..
[22]
Pressac, p. 133.
[23]
Germar Rudolf, The Rudolf Report. Expert Report on Chemical and Technical Aspects of the 'Gas Chambers' of Auschwitz, Theses & Dissertations Press, Chicago 2003, p. 80.
[24]
Pressac, p. 41.
[25]
Stiffel, p.184.
[26]
Stiffel, p.275-6.
[27]
For a description of how the delousing operations utilizing Zyklon B were carried out at "Kanada", see Pressac, p.41.
[28]
Ibid, p. 498.
[29]
My words "widely available" here are of course debatable, considering the highly limited printing and sales of Pressac’s volume.
[30]
Ibid, p. 498.
[31]
Stiffel, p.309.
[32]
Not to mention that Gordon gives the number of Birkenau gas chambers as five and places them on the same spot.

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Author(s) Thomas Kues
Title Frank Stiffel – Super Survivor or Simple Fraud?
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Dates published: 2008-02-05, first posted on CODOH: Feb. 3, 2008, 6 p.m., last revision: n/a
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