The United Press work room at the Nuremberg Trials. Source: The National Archives 
and Records Administration via the Courtroom 600 project

Editor’s Note: At the end of this story is an audio recording of the author discussing how, among other things, her father helped inspire this story as he’d served as a sound technician at the Nuremberg Trials.

Trussed with twine, the Christmas fir hadn’t looked so massive on the slopes of the Bavarian Alps. But as it’s hoisted upright on the parquet dance floor of Schloss Stein, it’s a slippery green whale, upended and wobbly. “Hold it up, damn it.” “Heads up, you stooges!” Laughter splutters forth from the gathered members of the international press corps, who are bunking in this confiscated manor outside of Nuremberg for the duration of the Nazi war crimes trials. A few of the lollygaggers crush out their cigarettes and join the efforts to prop up the beast. Once it’s secure, they drape its limbs not only with the usual adornments but also with empty booze bottles, used-up notepads, and pens and pencils manufactured by the German family that built this compound. An Underwood typewriter droops from a lower branch. A Bloody Mary in her hand and Tolya’s arm around her shoulders, Ursula can’t stand it another minute. So much gaiety and hearty assurance. She’s itching to flee into the winter storm, skitter on the crusts of ice, and feel the sting of windswept snow pellets on her chapped face as she did when she chased stories during the final months of the war in Europe. She wants to feel tossed about again, windblown, out of reach.

Even the thought of tonight’s Christmas Eve soirée at the Grand Hotel in central Nuremberg annoys the hell out of her. All the dolling up. Rolling her hair, applying rouge and lipstick, pulling on a girdle and stockings, slipping into her burgundy tea dress. She never missed this sort of fussy preparation, not once when she was racing from skirmish to skirmish in a press jeep, her curls whipping from the back of her helmet. In those fleeting moments, she soared like a winged messenger, her lungs full to bursting, blood rising in her cheeks, heart pounding. Tonight, she’ll need to rein it in, be ladylike, listen for tidbits, oblique hints, anything vaguely newsy. She’ll tilt her head, train her gaze, and maintain a knowing smile as a prosecutor, lieutenant, or public affairs officer jostles her across the crowded dance floor of the hotel’s faux-marble ballroom, his breath warm with whiskey, roasted onions, and peppermint chewing gum. Occasionally her lithe grace will pay off with an exclusive story, like the one she’s lined up for later tonight. A scoop, she’s told her editors. Christmas Eve in Nuremberg Prison, where the one-time successor to Hitler, Hermann Goering, will be kneeling before a crucifix, praying for forgiveness or, more likely, for his own life. That would be rich. But even that satisfying story won’t be enough to secure her position covering the trials. Nothing will be enough, not for her balding, deskbound editor in Milwaukee. She’ll always be the gal reporter, going for the “human interest stories,” just filling in until the men return.

For now, she aches to lie down, sleep off the three drinks she’s knocked back since noon, maybe write a letter home. It’s been an age. As her rowdy peers set up ladders to hang strands of tinsel from the crystal chandeliers, she leans closer to Tolya and toys with a button on his Soviet press corps tunic.

“Darling, I’m bushed. Walk me back?”

“Feeling sick?” He raises a palm to her forehead, and she flicks it away.

“No, not at all. Why would you ask?”

Tolya shrugs, his hands held up in surrender. He sets her empty tumbler atop the carved mantelpiece and guides her down the winding marble staircase, to the first-floor hunter’s lounge with its diamantine carpets, tapered hearths, and leaded glass lampshades hanging from wrought-iron stands like so many stray helmets.

“Come,” he says. “Over here.” They settle into the cushions of a sofa facing the empty hearth, the two of them alone in the drafty hall. The upholstery smells of dog hair, stale cologne, and cherry pipe smoke.

“I’m leaving, Tolya,” she says, her voice flat. “They’re calling me home.”

He picks at his cuticle, bites off a hangnail. “Just like that? You go along?” A dot of blood rises up, and he wipes it on the serge of his pressed trousers.

“The boys deserve their jobs back. Right?” She smooths her woolen skirt over her knees, crosses her legs. “And besides, sometimes I’ve had it, you know? The whole scripted nature of this assignment, as if we’re watching a stage play. We just sit there, calmly taking in the prosecution films.” She pictures the oily crust of the Buchenwald ovens, the human skin handbags, the stacks of broken corpses bulldozed into open pits. A few visitors weep in the gallery; a stenographer passes out; and a robed justice dashes to the toilet. And in the defendants’ dock, lit up for the cameras, there’s Goering, leaning back, stretching his neck, and yawning. The doped-up blimp who launched the camps and the tortures, safely ensconced.

“It’s all so packaged, sanitized,” she tells Tolya, then checks her coat pocket for her Old Golds and matches but finds only a crushed pack, with one broken cigarette.

“So, what’s your point, exactly? That the wheels of justice turn slowly?” Tolya rises, wraps his wine-colored muffler around his neck. “Goering’s a dead man. Let him perform, clown for the cameras. That’s what he does. Just stand up to your bosses. They’ll back down. You know they will.”

“And you, Tolya? When have you ever said ‘no’ to Moscow?” As if he could. As if that were an option.

She hustles across the lounge, trying to catch up to him as he exits this rustic castle. She wants the Tolya of their early days, the courtly scholar, not this huffy giant with a rigid jerk to his step. She wants the Tolya she met last spring near the banks of the Elbe River where American and Soviet troops converged, slicing Germany in half. All the celebrations that bubbled up near Torgau—tables spread with creamed sardines, charred veal, and raw eggs, which Tolya and the other Russians sucked from their shells, as if they were oysters on the half-shell. The raised glasses of cognac and vodka and schnapps, toast after toast; the Russian soldier, just a kid, who hoisted his accordion and belted out Katyusha, his yearning echoing in her chest though she couldn’t understand a word. She was in a reverie when Tolya strolled over for the first time, stooping to retrieve the pencil that had slipped through her fingers. Feeling caught-out, she’d offered a curt smile, but he wasn’t deterred. Later they’d danced, her pad and pencil in one hand atop his shoulder, his hand at her waist, narrowed by months in the field. Her cheek to his, she rose and fell in the scent of mushrooms, wet wool, and woodsmoke.

An icy gale slaps Ursula in the face as she pulls back the manor’s oaken door. Eyes watering, she trips down the stone steps and slides along the flagstone path toward Tolya. Taking his arm, she steers him toward a more modest Victorian villa, once home to the estate’s matriarch and now housing the very few women journalists assigned to the trials. Out of breath, they arrive at the pillared entrance.

Ursula reaches up to brush snow from Tolya’s wiry eyebrows. He brushes her hand away.

He edges backward into the storm, one hand raised to his fur hat to keep it from blowing away. “What is it you want, Urs? A pat on the head from your editor? Kudos for being a good sport?”

She watches him trudge away, the man she’d thought so different, with his European degrees, his mastery of four languages, his talk of an egalitarian society, and his penchant for reciting Pushkin: “If I were left alone and free, oh, how fast I then would flee, to wildness, thick and dim . . .” And yet, his haughtiness, his high station within the Soviet press apparatus, his presumption that she’d be content to dabble in freelance reporting while riding his coattails through the capitals of Europe. Even as Russia becomes America’s next worst enemy. How hunched and stodgy he looks as he shrinks into the distance, a smaller and smaller lump beneath the snow-blinded sky.

After slipping into the john, she holds her breath against the plume of bodily odors rising from the elaborate pipework. She lifts a bar of soap from its dish and breathes its powdery scent, then rustles in her purse for a clean menstrual pad and her aspirin. To hell with Tolya, always prodding. Mr. Know-It-All. Hands trembling, she digs around in the swirl of compacts and crumpled notes, sticks of gum and her tattered coin purse, only to pierce her thumb on a pencil point. Damn him to hell. Finally, she finds the small packet from the PX, pops two pills into her mouth, and stoops low to the sink, her mouth open beneath the faucet, its stream smelling of moldering eggshells. She allows herself a glance at the mirror, only to be reminded of the ashy pools beneath her dark eyes, the parched crust of her lower lip, the start of crow’s feet. Only twenty-nine, for Christ’s sake, and throwing in the towel.

She’d never flinched, not once, in the final months of the war in Europe. One of the few women journalists finally allowed to the front, she’d perch at her typewriter in dank press tents most afternoons—her uniform mud-caked and ripe with mildew, her fingers cadaverous in their soggy gloves—and bash out descriptive dispatches. The splayed bodies of GIs along the road to Bastogne last Christmas, entrails spilled or a leg blown away, holly and mistletoe adorning their toppled helmets. The stockyard smell of congealed blood and dried shit in the operating rooms of Hitler’s forced-abortion camp, liberated in April, too late for the enslaved women and their premature babies, most of whom died atop the pine-plank operating tables. The freed American POWs, thin as rails, piled two or three to a cot in a field hospital as spring arrived, blank, silent, unable to hold down a sip of powdered milk mixed with well water.

Each afternoon, Ursula would type and type, spewing out column inch after column inch, keyed up and dry-eyed. “Nice job, Urs. You write like a man.” She’d laughed at those blinkered compliments from her editor sent by telegraph. Like a man. But not enough like a man. Turning away from the mirror in the villa’s bathroom, Ursula pulls off a few squares of toilet paper from the roll in the wall and dabs at the corners of her eyes, at the gray rivulets trickling from her mascaraed lashes. Her whole body leaking, dripping, melting.

Ursula shuffles back to the women’s billet and makes a beeline for her bed, one of several lined up against the walls of the makeshift dorm room. With exquisite relief, she unbuckles the cinch belt of her woolen press jacket, peels off her skirt and nylons, and steps into her loose flannel nightgown, leaving her clothes in a heap on the floor. After pulling a package from beneath her bed’s wobbly wooden frame, she throws back her bedsheets and climbs in.

Strewn with laundry bags and overflowing ashtrays, the room is quiet but for the hiss of the ceramic wood-burning stove and the tick of ice nibs against the windowpanes. With the tribunal on recess until after the New Year, most of the gals headed out. Some to friends or family in Paris, London, or Prague. Others to the Bavarian Alps and resorts, maybe Garmisch-Partenkirchen, or Berchtesgaden, its spas nestled beneath Hitler’s mountaintop “Eagle’s Nest.”

Ursula curls up on her side, cradling the package from home. She imagines she’s at her sister Petra’s place in Milwaukee, a flaking frame duplex within walking distance of the Pabst brewery. She’s soaking in a hot bath, pine-scented froth coating the surface. In the front room, the phonograph plays. Bing Crosby singing of a white Christmas. It’s more like a soot-crusted Christmas in Milwaukee, but so what? A turkey’s roasting in the oven, red cabbage is simmering on the stovetop, and she can just barely hear her father reading aloud to Petra’s little girl in the front room, his voice wheezy, weakened by the mustard gas attacks of the first world war. At church that evening, they’ll settle into their usual pew toward the back, and she’ll feel blessedly small as the swelling hymns and carols wash over the sanctuary’s ivory walls and rise to the vaulted ceiling.

But those visions are driven out by flickering footage of prisoner uniforms draped from hooks outside the Auschwitz gas chambers, of skeletal slave laborers tossed to the bottom of a quarry, of Jews burned alive in a locked barn. The Nazis’ own films, flipped into evidence and underscored by their own careful recordkeeping of brutalities, read into the record by composed prosecuting attorneys at a polished lectern. In her half-sleep, the modulated reports loop and loop. The “medical” experiments carried out on Dachau prisoners at the behest of Luftwaffe chief Goering, whose shot-down bomber pilots were dying in wintry seas. How to save them? Toward that end, the inmates, outfitted in flying uniforms, were submerged in icy water for prolonged periods. Thermometers were shoved up their rectums to determine if they were gravely chilled. Then attempts were made to rewarm the men by plunging them into hot water or placing their unconscious bodies atop naked female inmates selected for their “loose morals.” Most often, the prosecutor reports, the iced men died.

In the defendants’ dock, Goering is not listening. His headset rests on his lap, atop his faded uniform, stripped of all insignia. He whispers to a neighbor. Fidgets. Picks his teeth with a pinky finger. The man who launched the Gestapo, ordered the first concentration camp for political opponents, and unleashed the mass murder of Europe’s Jews. The man whose industrial conglomerate made a fortune all the while. He closes his eyes for a catnap. At his side, a white-helmeted guard stands at attention, clasping a truncheon behind his back, his expression blank.

In her half-sleep, Ursula feels her vocal cords strain and clutch. She cannot produce a single scream. At last, she manages to lift her eyelids to take in her surroundings—the baroque crown moldings, the pendulous hanging lamps and egg-shaped frescoes of floating cherubs. The women’s dorm, once a dowager’s dining room where the wives of Third Reich officers came for tea. Pushing back her blanket, Ursula inches up against the wall, pillow at her back, and wipes her mouth with a corner of the bedsheet. What a mistake to lie down, to let go. She picks at the tape that binds the wrapped package she’s been hoarding for days and lifts out a fruitcake sent by Petra. Lifting it to her nose, she smells the orange peel, the rum, the candied cherries. Her fingers are tacky with the glaze. Nothing to do but lick them. The sugar sours on her tongue. Enough. Time to get up.

The night air is brittle, stinging her nostrils as she hikes past the M24 tanks posted outside the Nuremberg Prison gates. Those poor grunts perched atop the 75 mm guns. Crummy duty, dismally dull, frostbite hovering. But they’re alive, aren’t they? Alive and upright.

She digs in a coat pocket for a handkerchief, dabs at the tip of her nose, and thanks her lucky stars that she was able to duck out of the Christmas Eve party at the Grand Hotel with little notice, and in time for her midnight prison assignment. Good riddance to all those damp palms and weak drinks, the over-stoked swing band and feigned laughter. Never once did Tolya glance in her direction, nor did she acknowledge him as he held court at a corner table, ordering rounds of drinks and regaling potential news sources. But she’d noticed him from the corner of her eye, how his broad shoulders strained against the weave of his tunic, how his silver-flecked hair rippled back from a pronounced widow’s peak. Those Slavic cheekbones. She will ache for him back in Milwaukee. Of that, she is sure.

As she approaches the sentry’s hut, she fishes out her credentials. The guard points her to Wing Four. She passes through checkpoint after checkpoint, gates slamming shut behind her, as she’s guided to the prison commander, a familiar and pleasant dance partner, light on his feet and ever polite. Tonight, though, he stands erect at the foot of the flagstone corridor running through the cell block, nods almost imperceptibly, his eyes opaque behind his wire-rimmed glasses. The shadowy upper tiers, whose cells contain lower-profile defendants, are fenced off with chicken wire to prevent inmates from hurling themselves to the ground floor pavers. All is silent but for the click of Ursula’s heels and the scuff of the jailer’s boots as they make their way toward the prisoners’ chapel.

“No funny stuff, Ursula,” the commander says, gripping her elbow. “Observation only. Silence. Got it?”

“Yep. Understood.” She mimes turning a key to lock her lips, but he does not smile or wink. So, the ground rules really are the ground rules. No fudging. No conversations, no questions, no delving into the prisoners’ inner feelings, their remorse or self-loathing or fear for their families, on this holiest of nights. If such sentiments even exist within their hollow chests. Observation only.

Would a male reporter have agreed to these rules? Hell and damnation. What if all she finds are rows of blank faces, guarded and still, the same as in the courtroom each day? How will she dress that up for her editor? Her toes feel like frozen BBs packed into the pointed tips of her pumps as she and the officer hustle through the cell block. She must have been out of her mind to hike over here in nylons and heels. Even within the prison corridors, she can see her own breath.

The makeshift chapel, fashioned from two cells, smells of old men—unwashed hair, damp gabardine, vinegar, and raw onion. The tiny altar, covered in a white cloth and set with two candlesticks and a silver cross, does nothing to sanctify the cramped chamber filled with these now-familiar faces, among them Ribbentrop and Keitel, Fritzsche and Frick, their haunches lining two wooden benches, their breath raspy and stale, overpowering the scent of a tiny candlelit Christmas fir tucked in the corner. And there he sits, top surviving Nazi Hermann Goering, front row, center.

Positioning herself along a side wall, she pulls her notebook from her handbag and scribbles a few notes about Goering’s dwindling girth, the flakes of dandruff at his threadbare military collar, the deep creases at the back of his neck. His head swivels, like a horned owl surveying his domain. He straightens up at the sight of her reporter’s notebook and flicks his fingers at the prisoners in the row behind him. In an instant, they squeeze closer to their neighbors, clearing a space on the bench. He winks at Ursula, nods toward the space on the pew, extends a hand toward the seat. She returns his gaze but stands fast. He nods again, places his palms together in front of his face, a bald entreaty, a bit of theater enjoyed by every prisoner. Each gray, implacable face turns in her direction.

Oh, hell. Why not?

She edges her way down the aisle. She’ll get into the thick of it, take a rear view of Der Dick, the fat one. Not so fat anymore, is he? No more gluttonous feasts at his hunting estate in Schorfheide Forest. No more precious lion cubs tussling atop his hand-knotted oriental rugs. No more private train, its rolling salons clad in cherry wood, its chefs serving up Italian lobster and fresh strawberries as corpses are shoveled into furnaces at Buchenwald. And yet—here he is, still breathing, still directing, still given this chance at repentance on Christmas Eve, likely his last. 

An organist, known to be a former colonel in the SS Polizei, bends over a tiny keyboard set up alongside the altar. His fingers dance over the keys, spiderlike, filling the chamber with the soothing chords of “O Tannenbaum.” Ursula squeezes into the space on the bench, trying to avoid any contact between her own hips and those of the former Hitler Youth chief Baldur von Shirach, to her left, and the war minister Albert Speer, to her right. The guards retreat to the hallway as the prisoners begin to hum along with the organ music, their shoulders loosening as one carol unfurls into the next. The lyrics are in German, but the tunes are recognizable: “O Come, All Ye Faithful,” “Good Christian Men, Rejoice,” “O You Joyful, O You Blessed.”

The walls, covered in green Army blankets, swaddle the proceedings, softly cloaking the kit organ’s chords, the rustle of hymnal pages, the coughs and sniffling and spilling of tears. The American chaplain rises and takes his place behind the makeshift altar, clearing his throat. Ursula is grateful for her high school German as the pastor ambles through the Gospel of Luke.

“. . . the shepherds said to one another, ‘Let us now go to Bethlehem . . .’ ”

Ursula lays her pen on her pad, closes her eyes, and runs an index finger over her sprig-of-holly brooch, a birthday gift from Tolya. Its enameled metal surface is cool to the touch, sharp at the edges.

“And they came in haste, and found Mary, and Joseph, and the babe lying in the manger.”

Opening her eyes, she catches a glint of candlelight off the silver crucifix, and she wonders at the timbre of the men’s singing, at the gentle register, the ragged shredding of end notes. Newfound piety, remorse, fear of the gallows? How to know?

The chaplain remains behind the altar as the organist begins to play, “Stille nacht . . .  heilige nacht . . .” Ursula listens to the prisoners sing along tenderly, an almost lullaby quality to the sound. In the corner, the candles set into the fir boughs burn lower, the melted wax dribbling down the tapers’ slender forms. 

Goering shifts his weight. His back, shrouded in the folds of his faded Luftwaffe uniform, straightens as he takes a deep breath and adds his commanding voice to the mix. The effect is percussive, as if he were projecting through a loudspeaker at Reichsparteitagsgelände, the former Nazi rally grounds just a few kilometers away. Without missing a note, he slips one arm behind his back, extends it stiffly, raises and lowers it with precision, up and down, an inverted Heil Hitler salute. The men in Ursula’s row do not lift their eyes from their hymnals; they choose to see nothing, to hear nothing. And she knows—this is not the end of it. The verdicts will not be the end of it. The last rites will not be the end of it. The gallows will not be the end of it. The world is packed with followers, those willing to go along, heads down, voices low, like children in playground cliques, their utterances barely audible as their eyes track the outcasts. 

Unfastening her brooch, she holds its straight pin tightly between her thumb and index finger, tests the tip, feels its ability to pierce. How she’d like to jab the needle into Goering’s ass and give it a good twist, then stick it into his spine, his neck, the side of his face, his inner ear, his dilating pupils. Her fingers twitch at the thought, ridiculous as it is. She needs a switchblade, a bayonet, or better yet, a machine gun. Mow down the lot of them.

She throws her brooch into her handbag, gathers her things, and rises, edging her way past the prisoners’ jutting knees. No one shifts sideways to ease her passage. Coated in flop sweat, she resumes her observer’s post against the wall. Why had she stepped away from her post in the first place, into the pack of molting wolves? Like some awkward cub reporter coaxed to abandon her position against her better judgment. What had she hoped to glean by sliding into the cesspool anyway? Whispered pleas for mercy? Choked-off sobs? She knew better; she’d always known better. From the outside, looking in—that’s where she lives. A witness, clear-eyed, at a distance. And yet this plunge, with its toxic underground river, will make a damn good story. Maybe it’s “human interest,” not hard news. What of it?

The dawn’s glancing sunlight nearly blinds Ursula as she tramps through the ice-glazed grounds toward the estate greenhouses. The door is unlocked, as always, and steam heat rises from the piping, protecting the rows of seed flats from a killing freeze on this Christmas morning. Normally, Tolya would be here by now with his flask of tea. He’d always been prompt for their daily hour of alone time. The heating pipes often clanged and groaned as they curled together beneath one of the potting tables, wrapped in a stash of moth-eaten Army blankets. It wasn’t as cozy as the Hotel Scribe in Paris, where they’d holed up after liberation, but the chill of the greenhouse air, the scent of potting soil and the scratchiness of the woolen blankets suited her fine, as did the easy conversation afterward as she lay against him, her head on his shoulder, one leg draped across his hips. She loved all their agonizing over clumsy sentences, missed stories, thick-headed editors. And their thinly disguised gloating, too, about scoops they’d snagged, stories that made the front pages, headlines that crackled. Stories that carried to the coffee shops and the halls of power, that made a difference and decimated their rivals. All the shoptalk. She would miss the shoptalk. But not only that.

Perched on a stool next to the nursery’s heating pipes, she rubs the mineral-splotched glasswork with her hankie, clearing a peephole. The rising sun scours the estate grounds, bleaches them bone-white. Behind her, the greenhouse door whines as it’s opened, then slaps against its frame as it flaps shut behind Tolya, his mustache soggy with half-melted frost.

“So, what’s the deal, Urs?” he calls out, trying for nonchalant bluster. “Are you in or on your way out?”

“Of what?”

“You know what. You damn well know. I know where you went last night, what you pulled off, leaving the rest of us looking like dopes.” He removes his fur hat, runs his fingers through his matted hair. “I thought you were halfway out the door.”

“Where do you come off?” Through the rubbed-off patch on the window, she can see the crusts of ice melt along their edges, exposing scraps of matted turf. “Where the hell do you come off? You and all the other men.”

“All the other men? Ursula, honest to God.”

“I could have slit the prisoners’ throats last night. Cut out their tongues, lopped off their testicles.” She turns her face away from him, strains to keep her voice even. “I ached for it. On Christmas Eve, I ached for it.” She leans her forehead against the frozen pane and feels her skin tighten and sting. “Is this a life, Tolya?”

He comes up behind her, inches his hand between her forehead and the glass, kisses the reddened blotch at her hairline. “Surely, you’ve felt this anger before many times. Maybe every day. We all have. We all do.” He rests his hands on her shoulders. “But Milwaukee? A desk job? I’ve made reservations for us, at Berchtesgaden. There’s fresh snow on the slopes.”

“Is that your answer? Fresh snow?” She hears the scrabble of tiny feet, of mice skittering between the flats, searching for spilled seeds, stray crumbs, dead insects.

“You tell me,” Tolya says. His hands tremble atop her shoulders; she feels that through the layers of her woolens. Her rattled Soviet bear.

“Oh, hell,” she says, slipping off her stool. “Why the hell not?”

Ursula pulls a pale stub from her jacket pocket. A burned-down candle snatched from the prison chapel’s Christmas tree, its wick blackened, its short stem pimpled with hardened droplets. Squat and waxy as a lump of pork fat, held tight in her fist. She drops the nubbin to the floor, and stomps it with the heel of her boot, crushing it, swiveling her foot until the wax is flattened smooth, pale and pocked as a winter moon.

“What was that?”

“Nothing. A bit of trash.” She reaches for the top button of his overcoat.

He lets her loosen it, murmurs in her ear. “So?”

His breath warms her face. She slips her hands into his coat pockets, holds him by the hips. Judgment day will come to Nuremberg. It will come, and she will be here. One way, or another.

“So,” she whispers back to him. “So, so, so.”

Author’s father, Hal Bergen, a US Signal Corps audio technician at the Nuremberg Trials.
Source: US Signal Corps

Kathy Bergen
Kathy Bergen comes to fiction writing after a career in journalism, most recently as an urban affairs reporter for the Chicago Tribune. Her short stories have been published in such journals as The Briar Cliff Review and The McNeese Review.
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