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[Page 19]

The Jews of Ratno in the Last 70 years

by Yudel Konishter

Translated by Jerrold Landau

Ratno was situated on a large crossroad between Wolhyn, Lithuania and Poland, near the large bogs of Pinsk. Not many relics of Jewish life in Ratno remain. Therefore, we depend primarily on the memoirs of Reb Fishel Held, which appear to us as authentic.

Three hundred years ago, Ratno was very close to the Jazowka River, located south of the Ratno of our day. However, that Ratno was destroyed completely during the war between Poland and Sweden during the 18th century. Only one road remained -- a relic from the old town. It is called “The Old Road”. In the large area that spreads out broadly behind the bathhouse, covered with shallow water with reeds, it is possible to see black blocks of wood peeping out from the black soil during dry years -- relics of the houses of the old city that were burnt down during that time.

When the survivors of the war returned, it was natural for them to begin rebuilding their homes not far from the town that was destroyed, on the Prypiat River. It was no wonder that the mud on the streets was plentiful, and never disappeared.

From where does the name Ratno come? There is a theory that it comes from the Russian word “Ratn”, which means war, as a sort of hint to the many wars that were fought in the vicinity of Ratno.

The elders of the city relate that during their time, the town was much bigger, and it had many factories, liquor distilleries, tanneries, and horse operated windmills and flour mills. In those days, it was customary to not purchase flour for baking, but rather for each person to grind the wheat or barley in one of the many mills that were located in the town. Only the poor would grind the grains in their own houses with hand grinders.

In those days, the land connections were dangerous due to rain, snow, as well as the danger of robbers if the route was long. Aside from all these dangers, the Jews were afflicted with many tribulations on their way to Kowel or Brisk, the largest neighbors of Ratno. These journeys would take several hours. Connection by water was much easier, for the Prypiat River of Ratno connected with other rivers that led to large urban centers. At times, large ships would bring merchandise and food provisions to Ratno from Pinsk. In addition, daily connections existed with the smaller settlements along the banks of the river, and with villages such as Rechitsa, Sadowice, and others.

Etrog box (from the 17th century)

 

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Ratno, which was forgotten throughout the years on the side roads, in the midst of bogs and ponds, suddenly found itself on the highway when the road from Kiev to Warsaw, paved between 1840-1850, passed through the town. The ruler also began to pay attention to what was going on in the town, and even to concern himself with its needs. Thus, to the great surprise of the Jews of the town, wooden sidewalks were placed down along the length of the shops in the market square as well as the nearby roads, and it was now possible to walk from house to house with dry shoes, even though the mud continued to exude its odor from the road itself.

The road eased the shipping of merchandise and food provisions from Kowel and Brisk to the town, as well as the shipping of products of the nearby villages that were purchased by Jews of Ratno to the large cities. Of course there were wagon drivers who would import and export. They brought the merchandise from afar in their large, laden wagons to the market square where most of the shops of the town were located. During the summer months when the roads were dry, it was hard for these heavy wagons to reach the market. It was even harder during the rainy season when the ground turned to a dunghill. It was hardest during the season of cold and ice, when the mud hardened and turned into hard clods. It is no wonder, therefore, that the wagon drivers treated their poor horses cruelly, beat them and cursed them severely. When there was no choice, they were finally forced to unload some of the load, and return and reload it later.

 

The Streets of the Town

The market square was the center and the heart of the town. All of the grain shops, grocery stores, haberdasheries, textile stores and taverns were centered around it. Almost all of the streets of the town extended out from the market square. Zabolottya, or Holijanka as it was called by everyone, extended out from the right, which one would take to go to the train station at Zabolottya. The Street of the Butchers, whose name is indicative of its essence, was opposite the market. The Street of the Synagogues extended out on the left toward all of the synagogues of the town, headed by the Great Synagogue. The Old City Road, leading to the ruins of the old city, winds out from the Synagogue Street. To the left of it extends a long road that reaches the main street. Returning to the side of the Synagogue Street there is a small road that was called Egypt Street for some reason. How did Egypt reach Ratno? Only G-d knows. There was also the Road of the Mill and Slescza Road, which ended at a large square with green grass and a large wooden cross in the middle.

It was told in town that a church had once stood in that square. One day, a funeral of a Jewish holy man, who was a fearer of Heaven, laden with commandments, passed by there. Suddenly, the corpse arose and muttered something with his dead lips. Exactly at that moment, the church sunk into the ground, and was as if it never existed. Since the gentiles were afraid of rebuilding the church, they erected the cross in its stead.

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The Fairs

The town earned its livelihood from the fairs that took place on Mondays in the large market square and surrounding streets.

On the fair days, the farmers would arrive already at dawn. They would come from the surrounding villages with wagons laden with the village produce. Some of them would be carrying a cow or calf, tied with a rope, behind them. When they gathered in the market square, the farmers would unhitch the horses, put up the shafts, and sit in their wagons to fortify themselves with breakfast. After the farmer sold his animal and his wife sold her dried wild berries, garden vegetables and pig bristles, they would set out to arrange their purchases in the shops of the town. On cold winter days, they would go out in their fur coats and boots to drink in the taverns.

There was no shortage of purchasers of the village products. Purchasers would also come from nearby towns. The fair was bustling. Gentiles and Jews haggled loudly, with curses and swearing, shaking hands or parting in great anger. The horses neighed and the cows mooed. Sometimes, a fist fight would break out over some matter -- over a roll, worth a penny, that a farmer had stolen from the dough trough of a poor Jewess. However, the police would appear immediately, take control of the situation, and haul the gentile to jail.

Reb Nachman Aharon Klein, a wholesaler, would purchase the agricultural products and ship them to Warsaw and Germany. In the autumn, the trade in wild berries was brisk. They were used for making jam, and especially for making dyes. When Reb Aharon Klein died, and his sons, who were large scale merchants in their own right, scattered throughout the world, Reb Zecharia Honik, Reb Levi Yitzchak Bender, Azriel Shlitan and others took their place.

The large fairs took place at the end of the summer, when the cool winds were blowing, and the farmers, who had already gathered in the grain to the silos, began to prepare themselves for the winter by purchasing boots, fur coats for the men, and textiles for warm dresses for the women.

 

The Merchants of Ratno

There is no merchandisable product in which the Jewish merchants of Ratno did not trade. Here before you are the types of merchants according to their families, starting with the grain merchants.

The farmers of the villages surrounding Ratno were poor for the most part, some because their land was inferior, and others because they did not have land at all. A few months after the harvest, the farmers were already forced to purchase grains of wheat for flour and other food necessities. The Polish residents of the town were also good customers of flour and flour products. Thus, a brisk wheat business developed in the town. Reb Yaakov Lamdan, a Hassid of the Rebbe of Stepan, owned a large grain business. Other honorable householders such as Reb Yehuda Meir Richter, Reb Mottel Klein, Reb Eliahu Janowicz, Reb Itzel Yaakov Izaks, Reb Avraham Fuchs, Reb Yaakov Prosman, Reb Hershel Chamelrir, Reb Chaim Markuza, and Chisia Yankel, the wife

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of the shoemaker, were all owners of grain businesses, who sold flour wholesale as well as to individuals.

The grain and flour was exported to Kowel, Brisk and Luck, and at times even to cities farther afield. Several of the wheat farmers also traded in salt, which was imported through Zabolottya.

There were dozens of grocery stores in the town. All of them sold on credit, that is -- they inscribed the names in a thick book of debts, and “when they would be able to afford”, which for the most part would be after the fair, they would repay.

There were many haberdashery and grocery stores in Ratno, and a general store was not lacking. It was owned by Perel Charna's, a short woman, and accomplished businesswoman. Most of her customers were Jewish. One could purchase from her anything that one wanted, from spools of thread to sheets of silk, from bits of sugar and nuts to chocolate bars. One could even find silver objects for gifts there. She had no children, and her second husband, Berele the Litvak (Lithuanian), was a teacher of children.

Reb Shlomo Michel Avrech, Reb Asher Shapira, and Shaul Perlmutter, or as he was called, “Shoel the Small”, sold fine textiles for men and women. A few years prior to the Holocaust, Reb Asher Leker, Reb Shmuel Simcha Olitzky, Malka-Yehudit Richter, and Pesach Marin owned textile stores. There were also stores of iron utensils in Ratno. The largest iron merchant was Avraham Hochman, who was an astute young man who occupied himself greatly in communal affairs. In the later years, he was also a member of the school board. Reb Ben-Zion Steingarten, a great scholar and G-d fearing Jew, was also an important iron merchant. Reb Shlomo Michel Kahn, Yisrael Weinstock, Reb Leibel Waks and his sons, Reb Berl Held and his brother-in-law -- the son of Reb Fishel Held, were also occupied in this business. There was also a brisk cattle trade in the town. The principal cattle traders were from among the important householders and activists of the town, such as Reb Liber Karsh and Reb Moshke Rider. Smaller scale merchants included Reb Berl Larber, or as he was nicknamed, the crier, Motia “Bebnik”, Monish Zamel, and his brother Zelik.

Uncaptioned. Houses in the town

 

[Page 23]

They would purchase the cattle in Bessarabia. They would sell the fattest and heaviest cattle in Warsaw. The leaner ones were sent to pasture during the summer, and fattened during the winter with the oats that remained from the beer brewing. They also conducted business at the fairs, selling cattle to the farmers or exchanging them for other animals. Other Jews, including wealthy householders, were horse merchants, such as Felik Chayat whose two daughters settled in Argentina, Berl Leibish's, and others.

The hide trade was in the hands of Reb David Greenstein and his son Yitzchak, who would provide their merchandise on credit to the shoemakers of the town. He and Reb Berl Bergel would purchase the hides of oxen and horses from the local butchers or from Jews who peddled in the villages, and would sell them to outside merchants or give them over to the tanners of the town to work.

Ratno and the surrounding villages, which were situated on large areas of water, were rich in fish. Many villages such as Glukhi, Hirnyky, Tur, Krymne and others raised fish in pools. The largest merchants of pool-raised fish included Reb Mottel Galoz from the village of Tur near the town and his sons Reb Aharon and Reb Chaim, as well as Reb Mottel Klein. They leased pools from the government in the names of gentiles, for according to Russian law, it was forbidden for Jews to lease pools. The large fish were sent to be sold in Warsaw, and the small ones were sold in the local market, so that the Jews would have fish for the Sabbath.

The fishermen who caught the fish from the pools in nets were Jews, including Reb Yaakov Ber from the Synagogue Street, Reb Chaim Maniles, Reb Zisia Marin, Reb Hershel Zopok, and Reb Hershel and Getzel Konishter.

The egg trade was in the hands of women such as Sheindele the miller, Malka Konishter, Rivka Cohen, Rachel Kornblum, and -- in order to be fair to the men, also Velvel Nesis (Glazer) and others. Shipments of eggs were sent to Kowel, Brisk and even Warsaw. They were packed in large crates, with 1,440 eggs per crate. The quality of the eggs was discerned by candlelight. The best ones were exported and the inferior ones were sold to the local marketplace, for the making of challa and the like.

Since the land was poor, the raffia trade also developed, from which hattans were woven. These were a type of sandals that the farmers wore on their feet, which were wrapped in hand-woven cloth. Reb Getzel Konishter and Reb Itzel Cohen were involved in this trade.

Trade was also conducted with earthenware pots. One of the merchants was Avramel, who lived in the unnamed lane next to the Prypiat River. He was a tall man, a Hassid of the Rebbe of Trisk, and the son-in-law of the teacher Menachem.

The peddlers also earned their livelihood in the villages. They would travel from village to village with their wagons, sell various goods to the farmers, and receive agricultural products in return. Merchants such as these who wandered through the villages all week and returned only on Fridays included Shefa Langer and his son Feivel, Avigdor Klonder and his son Asher, Noach Berg, and others.

Local wealthy people were forestry businessmen. Reb Ben-Zion Steingarten, who was a scholar and also expert in worldly affairs, was such a merchant.

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Other forestry merchants included Reb Yaakov Shapira, Reb Yitzchak Marsik, Shamai Goldman, and -- from among the early Maskilim -- there was Reb Mottel Tiktiner and Reb Itzel Reichstal.

After the snow would fall during the winter, some people would load up wooden beams that were cut down during the summer upon sleds, and transport them to the banks of the Prypiat River. When the spring arrived and the water broke through the ice cover, they would tie the beams into barges and float them to Danzig. The contractors and officials in the forestry trade included Reb Peisa Grabov, Reb Levi Sobel, Reb Aharon Papir, Reb Leibel Tiktiner, Reb Avraham Droog, and Reb Yehudal Leib Vernik. In Ratno itself, Jews would purchase bundles of firewood for warming the houses in the winter and for fueling the ovens for baking bread. Reb Mottel Reicher, Yoel Wiener and others were in this business.

Reb Yankel Mendelson, or as he was called -- Yankel Rachelkes -- a scholar and a Hassid of the Rebbe of Radzin, and Reb Avraham Fuchs would import foodstuffs and sell them to poor shopkeepers on credit.

 

 
The “Cantonist” Reb Shmuel
the son of Reb Pinchas Berg
  Reb Aharon-Moshe Melnik

 

Manufacturers and Manufacturing

At the end of the 19th century, there were three horse-driven mills on the Street of the Mill next to the Prypiat River. Of these, only one remained until the later period, that of Reb Nuska Ides and his heir Reb Hershel Ides. There were several windmills owned by Reb Betzalel and his son Nota. An additional windmill belonging to Y. Melniker stood on the main street. Most of the farmers would grind their wheat and barley grains in the wind and water mills in the villages, but there were those who preferred the mills of the town, which were quicker and more organized. In the years following the First World War, a cooperative was formed with Reb Binyamin Kamper, Reb Yaakov Shapira and his sons-in-law, Shamai Goldman, Moshe Eilbaum, Boza Tanis, Reb Yaakov Lieberman and Yaakov Prosman, who

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set up a steam mill in the town. From that time, most of the farmers would grind their wheat in the town.

There were also factories for edible oils and dyes in the town. One belonged to Reb Nisel Kahn, and prior to that, to Pesia and Rita Chayat, who lived on Krywa Street. The second, which already worked with electric power, belonged to Mottel Klein.

Several bakeries operated in Ratno. Still at the beginning of the 20th century, they would bake bread for the entire week and challa for the Sabbath in every house. However, even at that time, two bakeries already operated in town -- one of Rita the baker and the second Yeshaya Leib Baker. They baked rolls, bagels, and small challas for the needs of the ill, and for the wealthy people who could afford them.

After the world war, when the standard of living rose and people got used to eating white bread even on week days, and the women of the house began to spoil themselves and baked less at home, two more bakeries were added -- that of Reb David Frigel and of Shefa Sofer. They baked fresh bread and challas, and brought a handsome profit to their husbands.

In Ratno, there was a tannery that worked hides for shoes. However, since such a business exuded a foul odor, they located it across the river. Two families, related to each other, owned the tannery: the family of Yossi Akselrad and his sons, and the family of Reb Moshe Melnik and his sons. The two heads of families were great scholars. Whenever they had free time, they would leave their business and study Torah. However, when the season was at its height they would leave their Talmuds as they hastened to work alongside their hired workers. Their children also did not stand at the side. The processed hides were sold in the local marketplace and in the markets of the region.

The “Other Side of the River” gave rise to several eccentric characters. One of them was Meir Akselrad, the son of Reb Yossi. This Meir spent his days as well as nights in the Stolin Shtibel, and his mouth did not take a break from studying Gemara as he plucked hairs from his blond beard. One day, people began to spread rumors that improper, impure books would drop from his bosom. “He peeked and was damaged”, people would say. Indeed, after some time, his articles about what was taking place in Ratno began to be published in Hamelitz, and it became clear that he was a Maskil, one of the first in town.

Gitel Melnik who also lived on the other side of the river, was the first president of WIZO (Women's International Zionist Organization) in town. She was a woman of many activities, and worked a great deal for the benefit of the Tarbut School.

Reb Chaim had a wood-engraving workshop on the Street of the Butchers. He would manufacture furniture parts and various utensils for the house and kitchen. However, the majority of his income came from the manufacture of wooden boxes that were used by the farmers to preserve butter and lard during their travels.

The town also had a home-based factory of bone combs. Reb Berl Melamed, nicknamed “Berl the comb maker”, and Kotzik the son of Shmuel Kotzik were involved in this. The combs were sold in the local market and at the fairs.

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Reb Ben-Zion Steingarten, a town notable

 

The soda water factory was founded by Reb Chaim-Yosef Chamiliar, who bequeathed it after his death to his son-in-law Reb Shimon Jacobson. The soda water was poured into large brass tanks or small glass tanks, and was marketed both inside and outside the city. In the summer, one could obtain a cup of cold soda, with or without juice, in kiosks set up for that purpose.

There were two factories for wooden tiles in the town. One belonged to Mottel Reicher who was nicknamed Cherkes, and the second to Aharon Katz who was nicknamed Sirochka. Reb Aharon Katz had an exceptional talent in arithmetic, and there is no doubt that under different conditions, Reb Aharon would have become known as a great mathematician. Even though he was not much of a writer, he would solve the most complex calculations by heart and very speedily.

 

Trades and Tradesmen

Ratno also had many tradesmen of all types. There were at least 15 men's and women's tailors. The best of them were Avraham Tuker, Leibel Chayat, Yisrael-Yankel Chayat[1] -- all for men's clothes; and Moshe Yankel and his brother Yehoshua the Tailor and Abba Fuchs for women's clothes. In addition to these, there were also second class tailors and seamstresses -- all of them proper and upright Jews. The tailors had no work for most days of the year unless a wedding took place in town. On the other hand, the work increased when Passover approached. During that season there were great opportunities both for Jews and gentiles, and the tailors worked day and night in order to prepare the clothing for the festival. It is appropriate to note that during the years 1922/23, Reb Yaakov Shapira and his sons, Reb Eliahu Janowicz and Yudel Konishter opened stores for ready-made clothing, which severely impacted the livelihood of the tailors.

There were also many shoemakers in Ratno. The most expert of them were Reb Yaakov

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An ancient Torah crown

 

Baion and his sons Yisrael, Itzi and Shmuel, who produced shoes of quality. Chaim the shoemaker (Feldman) and his brothers, and the shoemaker “The American” Sandiok who produced expert shoes. Most of the shoemakers were G-d fearing, upright Jews.

Just as competitors arose for the tailors, they arose for the shoemakers as well. After the world war, Moshe Ginzburg and Yaakov Trajanow opened several shoe stores that impacted their livelihood.

The brothers Zusia and Eliezer Geller, and Yossel the saddle maker who was, if my memory serves me correctly, the son-in-law of Moshe the Shamash, were the saddle makers in the town. They sold their merchandise (saddles, harnesses, straps, and other horse equipment) at fairs.

The hat makers were Reb Berl Feintuch and his sons, Mendel Blatt, Yankel Knaper, Meir Chayat and Feivel Rites. They manufactured hats for any occasion, and they sold them at fairs. On the other hand, there was only one stitcher in the entire town, Janek Apelbaum, who stitched the upper parts of boots for the shoemakers.

The expert furniture makers were Yitzchak Hirsch Berg and his three sons, Pinchas, Avraham and Eli-Ber. Other carpenters were Avraham Weissblatt and Yisrael David and Chaim Sheines who made doors, windows and door lintels. The builders were Kocik from the Old City Street, Eliahu Wiener and his sons, and Rothschild and his sons who lived on the main street. The plasterers were Itzel the Blind, Wolf-Leib Tirenblitt and others, who were unemployed during the winter period.

There was no shortage of work for those who were able to work in the workshops, such as the manufacturers of wooden tiles, Reb Eliahu Katz, Avraham and his son Moshe Reicher (Cherkes). The tinsmiths of the town were Reb Yitzchak Hirsch Rug and Asher Druk, who manufactured various household utensils in their workshop. They also ritually purged the cauldrons in which the fish were cooked for Passover, and colored the tin roofs during the summer. The wagon crafters were Chaim Weissblatt and Ben-Zion Stelmach.

There were approximately ten butchers in town. The most important of them were Chasia Teitelbaum, Reb Hirsh Chayat and his sons, Reb Wolf, Reb Chaim Yosef, Reb Avraham-Yitzchak (“Wanchek” as they called him), Reb Berl “The meat man” from the Street of the Butchers, Reb Berl Ternblitt, Yosele Reiches, Reb Yosef Marantz, Avraham Geller Koktik and Yankel Chayat. Their livelihood was meager in the summer, especially during the Three Weeks when it was forbidden to eat meat. However, they were busy when Friday came.

The sawyers worked very hard, literally backbreaking work. There were not any sawmills in the town and the region, but people needed planks and boards for building houses. Therefore Reb Matis “Blajaba”, Reb Itzel the sawyer and Reb Hirsh-Ber Blaustein would saw the lumber into large planks and prepare wood for building. They would work as follows: They would place the wood to be sawed on scaffolding. One of the sawyers stood on top of the wood and pushed the saw downward. The two standing below would pull it toward themselves. This would then repeat. Despite their hard work, their earnings were meager. On the other hand, the situation of the blacksmiths was better, even though they also

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earned their livelihoods by the sweat of their brow. These included Reb Binyamin and Reb Chaim-Hirsh Marder of the Smiths' Road, Yosel the Blind in One Eye, his son Nathan, Reb Meir and Reb Leibke Hochman and his son.

 

Germans in the Old Cemetery during the First World War

 

The pillars of the economy of Ratno were the wagon drivers, who would make the connections between Ratno and its two largest neighboring cities, Kowel and Brisk. They would transport food and other provisions in their wagons, and at times, they would serve as agents for poor shopkeepers. They would purchase various products with their own cash and sell them on credit to the shopkeepers who were low on money.

There were approximately 15 wagon drivers in the town, who were divided into two groups, depending on the destination to which they traveled. Those who traveled to Brisk included Hodel Kotler, a widow who rented a wagon for her work, her son Reb Eliahu Kotler, Reb Meir Milstein and his son Asher, and Reb Meir Toler. They traveled to Brisk only once a week, for the journey was long and exhausting. Reb Yaakov-Leib Slop and his sons, Meir Mastiszter, Zerach Hochstein, Eliahu Kohn and Yitzchak Hirsh Kotler, a former tailor, traveled to Kowel at least twice a week. Most of the provisions were imported from Kowel due to its proximity to the town. However, of course, there were provisions that were worthwhile to import specifically from Brisk. The two groups had large, covered wagons.

The wagon drivers were G-d fearing Jews. They would worship with the first minyan in the morning, and when they would come to Mincha and Maariv, when they were free from work, in order to hear the words of moral teachings from the preachers or words of Torah from the regular people.

There were four porters in Ratno: Yankel Chodesh who was a former wagon driver,

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Yosel-Meir Zabichik, Avraham Bezder and Hirsh Bendik. It goes without saying that the work of the porters was difficult, since they would trample in the bogs of Ratno with their loads on their shoulders. Their income was meager, and they did not always have bread for their household.

 

The New Cemetery

 

We will conclude with the musicians of the town, all of whom came from one family. The first and oldest of them was Rabbi Avigdor, who reached a ripe old age and died at the age of 100. He would play the bass with great skill, but could not read musical notes. On the other hand, his son-in-law, Reb Michel Shpilman, who came from the town of Liubsiai, was proficient in musical notes and one of the best musicians. He organized his own band, the members of which included his father-in-law Reb Avigdor, his son Rabbi Hershel and his grandsons Reb Getzel and Reb Yoel. They would play at Jewish weddings and at the parties of Christians. They would play at the parties of Christians with their yarmulkes on their heads, and they would not taste any of the food other than nuts and fruit. They did not look at women at Jewish weddings. After the death of Michel Shpilman, his grandson Itzel headed the band. Its members included the children of the elder musicians, including Aharon Yehoshua Konishter and others.

 


Translator's Footnote

  1. Chayat is a known surname in Ratno, but it also means 'tailor' in Hebrew. So it is unclear in this sentence if the term refers to the surname, to a professional nickname (i.e. Yisrael-Yankel the Tailor), or perhaps even both. Return

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