Father Karl Gereon Goldmann, SS, OFM

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It is fascinating to contemplate the edifying life of Karl Gereon Goldmann, and to see so clearly the hand of God operating throughout it. Born in 1916, Karl was the third of seven sons of a devoutly Catholic German couple, Karl and Margareth. The older Karl was a country veterinarian, travelling with his brood of boys throughout the farm country of Fulda to tend to his clients’ livestock. Margareth was a loving and understanding mother who allowed her seven boys to bring all sorts of animals into their home, directing them to care for and house them properly. She willingly tolerated their stone collections as well. They were a vibrant, loving and happily Catholic family, living the life of the Church year round. Too soon did Margareth leave them, dying when her oldest was twelve and the baby only one year old. The older Karl was devastated over her death. Four years later, however, he married Margareth’s younger sister, soon adding two more boys, and — at last — two girls to the family.

Rambunctious is a good word to describe young Karl. He was always in trouble with his elders, often sporting a bloody nose from altercations with his brothers and schoolmates. He was a good student, however, and, when he was only eight, began to serve Mass as an altar boy for an English order of nuns in their neighborhood, arriving at the church before five in the morning. When his mother died, the dear sister who trained the altar boys, Sister Solana May, promised Karl that she would take his mother’s place. Her faithfulness to her prayers for him continued for more than twenty years. We will soon learn the result of those prayers.

Franciscan Fathers served the sisters’ church; so young Karl began to spend much time with the priests, whom he grew to love. They sweetly teased him, telling him that if he joined their order, he would have sweet pears to eat every day. (Father Goldmann later called this a “pious fib.”) One day, the priests were visited by a fellow Franciscan who worked in Japan. He preached a sermon at the parish church about the wonders of the Orient and the dear Japanese people. Karl instantly decided that he would become a Franciscan and go to Japan, whereupon he asked the priest to take him back to Japan with him when he left Germany. The priest replied that a nine year old was too little for such a life. Karl, being a very tall boy, took this as an insult. When the priest said that he could not take him away from his parents at such a tender age, Karl replied that he would never be missed because there were so many more boys at home! Although it would be many years before he finally got to Japan, the seed was planted: he would be a Franciscan priest and work in Japan. His mind was made up, just like that. The missionary and the child made a pact: Karl promised to say one Hail Mary every night to ask God to enable him to become a Franciscan priest and to serve in Japan, his first independent step on the long road that led to the priesthood.

Move To Cologne

After the older Karl’s second marriage, the family moved to the big city, Cologne. The boys attended the Jesuit school and joined the Bund Neudeutschland, the Catholic youth group, which they loved. Their new school was thoroughly Catholic, excelling in academics and guiding the boys in good Catholic social work for the less fortunate. Dark storm clouds were on the distant horizon, however, with the rise of Hitler and the Nazi philosophy, so opposed to the Catholic boys’ deeply-held Christian beliefs. Nazism was the absolute opposite of everything Karl, his brothers and their friends at the Jesuit school believed — they, the good of Jesus Christ; the Nazis, the revolting evil of paganism and hatred.

It was not long before their beloved school was shuttered and they were all forced to attend the state school presided over by a committed Nazi. Being well trained in logic and philosophy, they bested him at every turn, infuriating him into white-hot anger. To continue their good works with the poor and downtrodden, they had to hide themselves in carts under cabbages to get to the outlying villages where they conducted their assistance to the less fortunate. Although they were arrested several times and threatened with prison, that did not prevent them from getting involved in street brawls with the Nazi youth to the point of injury. Nor did it prevent them from continuing to go to Mass and helping those in need of their charity.

Although the elder Karl was not in favor of his third-born entering the Franciscans (he would have preferred to have him become a diocesan priest), our young high school graduate entered the Franciscan novitiate at Gorheim-Sigmaringen; he then attended the seminary in Fulda where he finished his philosophy studies in 1939. He was now a very tall twenty-two year old with a solid education in philosophy and the sciences. The day after his last final exam, orders came to report for induction into the Army — the Nazi Army.

Army Life and the Terrible War

It was the last day of August, 1939, that young Karl along with two hundred other seminarians arrived at the Army barracks in Fulda; there were thousands of other young German recruits as well. Needless to say, the seminarians were looked down upon by the officers and non-coms responsible for their training. They were considered almost as traitors to the Fatherland — lesser creatures than the manly Nazis. Time and again the well-trained seminarians would prove their worth. Not only were they brilliant and highly educated, their bodies were hardened from outdoor activities and the rigors of religious life. Nevertheless, the most odious duties fell to them, and for the first seven weeks of their training they were given arbitrary duties on Sundays to keep them from Mass and the sacraments.

Several times the Nazis had to be reminded that Hitler had signed a concordat with the Holy Father pledging protection of Christianity in Germany. One amusing incident occurred at the beastly eastern front where the lowest of the low were sent. Karl, being the most outspoken of the seminarians, had just reminded some low-lifes that his religion was officially protected in Nazi Germany. One big-mouth fellow demanded to know if he was a “black man” or a “brown man” — the “black man” referring to a priest and the “brown man” referring to the Nazis. Goldmann replied, “Sir, I am a brown man.” Astonished, his adversary asked him when he had become a member of “the Party.” His reply: “I joined the browns in 1936 in the Franciscan monastery in Fulda. They have worn the brown habit for six hundred years, far longer, you will agree, than the other browns have been in existence!” There was uproarious laughter from the other men, making a fool of the tormentor. As reprisal, the seminarians were forced to climb a nearby tree and sing a hymn, at which command they sang the Te Deum — loudly. When commanded to descend and run into the forest, they did so at top speed until they came out at the other end of the forest, where they sat idly at the edge of the road until a car came by with the embarrassed, blustering officer, who had by this time become a laughingstock, ordering them back to the barracks.

It was the refusal on the part of the seminarians to swear an oath to the Fatherland without the name of God being invoked that actually earned them a promotion of sorts. Karl insisted that the only true oath must be sworn by the the name of God. Once again, his superiors did not know how to handle him. The following day, the commander returned with the news that they would be able to swear the oath in God’s name and that they would be removed from the regular army in order to enter the Waffen SS. This was astonishing news, for the SS was an elite group apart from the Wehrmacht. Hitler saw the SS (Schutzstaffel or “Protective Squadron”) as the armed wing of the Nazi Party during the war; after the war was won he planned on making it the elite police force of the Party . The SS was headed by Heinrich Himmler and functioned independently of the regular army. The seminarians were chosen because they were smart, well educated, in good physical condition and loyal Germans. No one was more surprised than they! The duties were much easier as they were trained as radio officers and had Sundays off. Amazing! The seminarians took full advantage of their new status to continue their prayer life, studies, and assistance to those German soldiers who remained Christian.

Although Himmler himself assured Karl in a personal meeting that the seminarians were free to practice their religion, he also warned that being in the SS would change their minds about service to the Church and God. Karl replied “We shall see who changes whom.” He knew he was treading on dangerous ground, but wanted to make it clear where he and his fellow seminarians stood. Their loyalty was first to God and His Church. When the news arrived that it had become official policy of the Nazis to destroy both Communism and the Church in Germany, they knew that their easy days were numbered.

One of the tactics used by their superiors to tempt them into abandoning their ideals was to quarter each seminarian in the homes of families with the most beautiful daughters in the town, assuming that they surely could not resist that temptation. Ridiculing Karl for not taking advantage of the lovely young Frieda, one of his fellow SS officers hinted that he was less than a man. Why, he didn’t even look at pretty girls! To prove his tormentor wrong, Karl asked Frieda to accompany him to the movies that evening. Knowing that she was safe with him, she consented; they arrived just late enough for all of the other men to see their entrance into the theater. Once again, he got the best of the sergeant who had cast the insults.

Moving Closer to the War

Moving into France, the young SS soldier became even more valuable to the Germans (or so they thought) because he knew French. It was his job to use his French to commandeer gasoline and other supplies from the French villagers. While he did take some, his habit was to tell the villagers to bury their gasoline and he would return for it at a later date. Never did he take all of their necessary supplies. In fact, he and the other seminarians were instrumental in assisting starving French children by giving them food meant for the German army. He was able to ascertain when attacks on churches were planned, warn the priests to hide themselves and place the Blessed Sacrament and necessary altar wine and bread in safekeeping with the villagers. Priests were usually shot on sight, but not if Goldmann had anything to do with it! He was shocked at the animalistic behavior of the German troops, looting their fellow soldiers who had fallen in battle, some even before they were dead, so crazy with greed were they. The seminarians attended Mass at the little village churches as often as they could, once even singing a choral Mass on Bastille Day, causing their superiors to accuse them of treason for celebrating the French national day with the enemy.

In Paris, Karl took the opportunity to visit the many beautiful churches of the city and take spiritual counseling with one Abbe Stock, the spiritual counselor of the Germans in the city. Given the opportunity to undergo officers’ training, he eagerly signed up, knowing that if he were in an even more prestigious position, he could do more good. During the training, Karl and another seminarian were the only two who finished a brutal forced march while carrying heavy packs on their backs This event proved to be a turning point in Karl’s career, for shortly thereafter, a number of the seminarians were called into an office where they were to be promoted. Just before they were sworn in, they were informed that one minor detail had to be taken care of: They would sign a paper declaring that they were leaving the Catholic Church and would never again be a part of the Franciscan Order. When the first two summarily refused and the others echoed their support, they all waited to be disciplined or even shot. Instead, the Nazi officer saluted them and declared, “Gentlemen, I salute you. I expected nothing less of you.” Naturally, they lost their officers’ commissions. Worse, the pressure was on. For their refusal to sign, they were constantly harassed by officers and denigrated as disloyal Germans.

Karl felt obligated to protest and was determined to let Himmler and all the other Nazi officers know (in an eight page letter) that he was not disloyal to the Fatherland; it was the Nazi philosophy that he could not agree with. For this he was expelled from the SS and sent back to the regular army. He was the only seminarian brave enough to put his thoughts into writing. His former companions were sent to the Russian front where every one of them was put on the frontline and died in battle. In this instance, Karl’s hard-headedness and courage saved his life.

East to Russia

After his dismissal from the SS, Karl was sent to the Netherlands and then moved eastward toward Russia. It was on the march through Poland that he became aware of the terrible treatment being inflicted upon Jews, Poles, Russians and priests by the Nazis. Their misery knew no bounds. It was obvious that they were considered sub-human by the Nazis. He states in his book, “We drove through Russia, passing endless columns of prisoners sunk in utter misery.” The drive into Russia was halted by that most formidable of Russian weapons, the Russian winter. The morale of the German army was at an all-time low. Karl contracted dysentery and was sent home to recuperate.

During his off time at home, Karl studied a nursing course so that he could be of some help to wounded of both sides and to innocent villagers as well. When he returned to his unit as a non-commissioned officer, however, he was warned by a friend that “something was brewing” against him. He had been watched since his days as an SS soldier, with informers taking copious notes against him for his anti-Nazi activities. In the end he was accused of twenty-eight points of disloyalty against Germany and a trial was set. The judge made it clear that his penalty would be death and allowed him a visit home to see his family. When he returned, the verdict was rendered, “Goldmann, you are free!” He could not believe his ears. The German officers on the tribunal were anti-Nazi and determined not to have an innocent seminarian, nurse, and radio-operator be sacrificed to the Nazi philosophy. His commanding officer was so delighted with the verdict that he allowed him a five month leave to continue his priestly studies.

Sister Solana May Reappears

Before being sent again to the Eastern Front after completing his studies, Karl returned home to Fulda to visit his family. He stopped to pray at the little chapel where he had served as altar boy so many years ago . As he knelt praying before the altar, the little sister who had served as his foster mother so long ago spotted him. Sister Solana May quickly approached him and questioned him about his prayer life, asking if he was ready to be ordained priest the following year. “Impossible,” said Karl; why he had not completed his theology studies yet. She told him that on the day of his mother’s death, she had begun offering all of her prayers and sacrifices for ordination in twenty years; moreover, she had enlisted all two hundred and eighty of her fellow sisters to do the same. She was more than certain that the ordination would be accomplished the following year. No argument from him would sway her from this firm belief — not the war, not the rules of the Church, not anything he said. She was certain. She told him that he would not go to Russia, but to Rome to see the Pope, but first he would stop and pray at Lourdes in France. Preposterous!

Amazingly, he was transferred to another unit that was to be sent to southern France for special duties, to a town called Pau, right near Lourdes! So he did go to Lourdes, and he did pray as Sister Solana May had instructed.

Italy

All along, Karl had expected an Allied invasion to take place in Sicily. This would gain the Allies a foothold close to the European mainland — the toe of Italy. The Italians were about to turn tail on Germany anyway, and an invasion of Sicily with fresh troops would allow the Allies to pound the few remaining Germans soldiers in Sicily to defeat. On their way to Sicily, Karl’s unit passed Rome. The Pope was nearby! So far, Sister’s prayers and predictions were being answered. Perhaps he could get back to Rome and see the Holy Father.

Karl’s unit had many experiences in Sicily, most of them sad and tragic. One edifying story occurred when his unit was being pounded, his men were dying and a young soldier reminded him that these men were Catholics and needed spiritual as well as physical help. He raced to the nearest church where he asked the priest to minister to his dying men. When the priest refused, he asked for consecrated hosts that he could administer to the dying men himself. “I need the Bishop’s permission for that,” was the reply. Karl then raced up the hill to what was left of the cathedral, obtained permission from the bishop — but only after being forced to put a gun to the Bishop’s head and then made by the Bishop to stoop low to the ground to kiss his ring. A certificate of permission was quickly forthcoming from the Bishop of Patti for “the Catholic cleric of the 29th Panzer Division to bring with due reverence Holy Communion to his comrades, especially the wounded.” That certificate served him and his dying men well in the weeks to come.

Another event proved fateful for Karl. The Germans were vastly outnumbered in Sicily; they were exhausted from running, with English troops hot on their tails and the Italian warships now bombarding them from the sea. They could move only under cover of darkness. One day when they were hiding and resting in the forest, Karl heard a loud voice shout several times “Get up and work!” He awoke with a start asking who had shouted at him. “No one!” Was it a dream? He picked up a shovel and furiously began to dig a foxhole. The men thought he was crazy, but he just knew that he must do it. He dug all day and into the night, so earnestly that one of his friends dug his own foxhole. The other soldiers laughed at them. Exhausted, Karl lay down. When he looked up at the sky, he was horrified to see ten bombers circling like vultures above him. They had been spotted! The bombers swooped down and unloaded twenty bombs on them. He and his companion in digging jumped into their foxholes, covered themselves up and prayed. Karl turned on his stomach to protect the Blessed Sacrament which he carried in his breast pocket. The scoffers attempted to find cover among the trees, but they were all killed.

About three weeks after the event, a letter came from Sister Solana May detailing the extreme sense of fear and dread that came over her on the night of the attack. She rushed to the chapel to pray for Karl’s safety. “Guardian angel, save him!” The hour that she awoke with the fear was the very hour that he first heard the voice.

Escaping Sicily proved to be long, arduous and brutal. What remained of the German Army were mostly young boys of sixteen and seventeen who were poorly trained and older men who were tired. Neither group was effective. They were badly armed and their losses after each skirmish with the enemy were great. During each battle, be it at a farmhouse or on a mountainside, Karl had ample opportunity to serve the wounded and dying by treating their injuries and giving them Holy Viaticum. More were left dead and dying in Sicily than escaped to mainland Italy. The remaining Germans, including Karl, continued to make their way north in the “toe” of Italy. It was amazing to Karl that the Italian priests in their small towns were generous in supplying him with consecrated hosts to distribute to the Catholic German soldiers, although several times he had to renew his supply of sacred Hosts at gunpoint. It was ironic that the only time he drew his gun in this war was against priests and bishops of the Church!

At one point in southern Italy, Karl got word that his home in Fulda had been bombed. He was granted a short leave, found that the damage was slight and his family were well. While in Fulda he took the opportunity to arrange for his immediate ordination to the subdiaconate and the diaconate, a rare privilege for one who had not finished his theology studies. He was most pleased to see little Sister Solana May at the ceremony, her years of prayer for him finally realized — almost.

Meeting the Holy Father

On his way back to the front, Karl found himself in Rome — so close to the Holy Father! He arranged to meet with the General of the Franciscan Order and boldly asked him to arrange a meeting with the Pope, Pius XII, so that he could request ordination. The General was horrified. “Out of the question until you have finished your studies!” Still he would not give up. Karl knew a certain German gentleman, Herr von Kessel, who lived in Rome and who “had connections.” He asked him to get him into the Vatican and, if possible, arrange a meeting with the Pope. With one phone call, the deed was done. The prelate who met him on the way to the audience asked him his business with the Holy Father — apparently a matter of routine. He stated two official matters and one personal. The official matters were approved, but the priest blanched at the personal request for ordination. “The Holy Father has no time to listen to such absurd requests.” He was forbidden to bring the matter up.

Karl thought of Saint Thérèse and her bold request at an audience with Pope Leo XIII asking his permission to enter Carmel at the age of fifteen after her family and the papal officials had forbidden it. If only he could work up the courage of that young girl! Finally, when his turn came in the audience, he spoke the official business. The Pope seemed to sense that he wanted to say something else. Not giving a glance to the accompanying priest, he spilled out his story from the time Sister Solana May began to pray for him until his recent experiences in Sicily where German Catholic soldiers were dying without confession. He had begun in Italian and ended in German. He told the Pope of his note from the Bishop of Patti and how he had been giving soldiers consecrated hosts from monasteries and churches in Sicily and the mainland. The Holy Father was amazed and impressed. Karl left the audience with an official note from Pius XII permitting his ordination despite not having finished theological studies. The Franciscan General was overjoyed and dubbed him Tedesco furioso — furious German. He returned to the front with the precious paper in his pocket.

Ordination Delayed

Twice during his exploits in Italy’s toe was Karl’s planned ordination postponed. More and more soldiers in his unit were killed as they moved northward. Finally, they reached the area of Cassino, where the ancient monastery of Saint Benedict was located on a nearby hill. The entire town had been reduced to ruins, most of the people fleeing to the walls of the monastery for protection. The treasures had been removed (some as booty by the German higher-ups). When Karl identified himself as a Franciscan, he was greeted with open arms by the few monks left there. Not long after his unit’s departure, American warplanes dropped 1150 tons of bombs on Monte Cassino, reducing the ancient monastery buildings to rubble. The Allied battalion commanders had orders to level the abbey because it was being used, so they were told, as a command post by the Germans. That was not true. A British intelligence officer had mistranslated a German communique, confusing the German word for “abbot” with a similar German abbreviation (abt.) for “battalion.” Days before the German general had the good sense to get his men out, while the misunderstood communique appeared to relay that the “battalion and monks” were still there. 250 civilians, mostly women and children, were killed in the bombings. There were about forty survivors, including the abbot and six monks, all of whom had taken refuge in the abbey’s underground vaults. (The monastery was rebuilt in the 1950s.)

The German soldiers were vastly outnumbered on the mountain when the Allied military arrived. They spent days on the run from fresh enemy troops, shot to pieces as they tried to escape. Karl’s unit was too tired and decimated to run very far, and eventually had to surrender. He waved his Red Cross flag which he carried in his boot because he was a nurse and, as a group, they were arrested by the British troops, given hot tea and chocolates. Thus began their march into captivity as prisoners of war. This was January of 1944 when the outcome of the war was no longer doubtful.

A Different Continent

After a terrible six-hour flight to Algeria in North Africa and some weeks of investigation into his situation — after all, a Franciscan priest-in-waiting who had been a member of the German SS was highly unusual — Karl was given a choice of venues where he would be detained — Canada, Australia, or here in North Africa. Learning that there was a nearby monastery of sorts led by a German abbot and inhabited by German seminarians in captivity, he chose to stay in Africa. Here he felt his chances of ordination were greatest. Little did he know that mere survival would become his greater concern in the not-so-distant future.

Learning and practicing the rubrics of the Mass under the abbot, Karl finally saw his ordination on the horizon. After several weeks of study, he — a former German SS soldier — was ordained by a French Archbishop (of Algiers) in a monastery in North Africa where the Abbot and all the seminarians were prisoners of war, likely the most unusual ordination in modern history. His first Mass was attended by a French general, who kissed his newly anointed hands — enemies in battle, but fellow Catholics in belief.

At this point, it was obvious that Father Gereon’s side in the war had lost. (Father Karl was called in religion by his middle name “Gereon”.) That meant transportation to a prison camp in Morocco because he had been a German soldier. Another time of trial awaited the new priest, but, true to his calling and his innate toughness, he was able to make the best of the horrible situations that awaited him.

It would be impossible to relate much of the story of Father’s two-year imprisonment in North African French Foreign Legion prison camps. Suffice it to say that the food was starvation level, the French captors cruel, and his fellow Nazi prisoners (since he had been in the SS he was always sent to camps with the most implacable and unrepentant Nazis) hateful toward this representative of the Catholic Church, which they despised. Several times he was very close to death by execution because of his SS association; the French were even under the mistaken impression for a while that he had been the commander of Dachau extermination camp.

At one point Father Gereon became deathly ill from pleurisy because of exposure to the elements and practically no food. Twice, a dear French Franciscan priest, Father Hermentier, rescued him from death, kept him in his own home and bed and cared for him until he was well again. Father Gereon refers to this dear priest as “the cussingest Franciscan ever” because of his colorful language acquired by spending so many years in the company of rough soldiers.

Once, our German Franciscan had to be saved from execution by a letter from the Holy Father.

At every prison camp in North Africa, although the situation looked hopeless with so many starving and lost men, Father managed to scrounge up a small altar, bread and wine, some sort of Mass utensils and receive permission to say Mass. Few men came at first. As he began to sermonize, the men listened. He formed choirs, musical groups, gave classes in Scripture, philosophy, theology and Church history. He brought many Catholics back into the Church and made many converts, even among his French captors. He also made the hardened Nazis very angry. As a result, there were several attempts on his life. His closest friends became his “bodyguards.” Soon more than a hundred crammed into his little chapel.

Mention of something almost miraculous needs to be made. This is the prayer network that grew all over Franciscan communities in Europe and North Africa. These nuns at many convents and hermitages all over the desert area had been praying for him, some for as long as twenty years. Franciscan missionaries had been in North Africa as early as 1219, and by the twentieth century, there were hundreds of missionaries there, some active, some cloistered and devoted to continuous prayer. Every time Father Gereon was transported to another prison, word got around among the nuns and several would appear at train stations with baskets of food and warm blankets for the cold desert nights. He did not know them, but they surely knew of him. He was continually amazed at this occurrence. Surely, he could never doubt the efficacy of such prayer storming Heaven.

Release and Return

At last he was released by the French and scheduled to return to Europe. On this occasion, Father Gereon was able to warn the French General that the Europeans of North Africa, the French in particular, would someday pay a dear price for their mistreatment of the native peoples. “Their mistreatment cries to Heaven for vengeance and inevitably will incite these natives to seek revenge. Heaven help all Europeans, oppressors and innocents alike, when that happens.” His vision was clear, for we are reaping the rewards of their actions today.

When he returned to Germany, Father had to finish his theology studies which he had not even begun before ordination. The three year course his superiors laid out for him was finished in nine months — he was that eager to begin priestly duties. He had applied for a visa to enter and work in Japan — his childhood dream. Eight years after his return and application for the visa, it was finally granted in 1954. The intrepid Franciscan, who had already had a lifetime of adventures, trials, and suffering, was still only thirty-eight years-old.

For the next twenty-two years, except for a number of excursions to aid the Church in India, Father Gereon labored in Japan, building chapels, churches, schools, hospitals, a summer resort for the poor, making converts, helping the destitute (of which there were many), even sending young Japanese converts to seminary. He was appalled at the paganism and lack of morals of the lower classes and the neglect of them by the wealthy and the government. He did so much for the Japanese poor that he was given the highest honor awarded for social work by the Japanese government, that of “Order of Good Deeds.”

While still in Japan, he adopted two Carmelite monasteries in India, traveling back and forth from Japan to India many times. One of his proudest accomplishments was the founding of the Academy of Ecclesiastical Music in Tokyo where he was musical director for fifteen years.

Home

Father Goldman’s health was not robust (although he certainly lived the life of a robust man). He blamed its decline on the harsh treatment in the North African prison camps. In his later years in Japan, he suffered three heart attacks and was sent home to Germany for medical treatment. He returned to Fulda, Germany, permanently in 1994 where he lived a life of prayer and study, seeing many visitors from around the world. There he resided until his death on July 26, 2003 at eighty-seven years old.

Father Gereon never lost faith; he never lost hope; his charity to all, even his Nazi enemies, was unbounded. His great weapon was prayer. Surely he is now in his true home; may he rest in peace.

 

For the complete story of Father Gereon’s prison experiences in North Africa, read his own book, The Shadow of His Wings.

 
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