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[Page 49]

At the Dawn
of the Twentieth Century

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In the Days
of Change and Transformation

by Jacob Kobrinsky

(Original Language: Hebrew)

 

Der072.jpg
The Levitt Brothers
Sitting Herschel, Standing Berel

 

As one of the sons of Dereczin who left their birthplace at an early age, I was not close to the initiatives that motivated that marvelous generation which lived there between the two world wars, the generation that was incinerated, as all the Jews of Poland from that time were, [not close to] its means of sustenance and international values, which paved the way to the establishment of the State of Israel, and the rescue of masses of people. It is to our great chagrin that only few, a small number, were so saved, while the majority were left behind in graves.

* * *

When I reach into my memory for the Dereczin that I recollect, I return back to those early years at the dawn of the twentieth century. The little town is nestled among the impressive buildings of the golden age of Poland – the large fortress and the remaining palaces of the Duke,[1] in which the soldiers and officers of the Czarist Army were billeted, along with other officials of the regime. We, the Jews, lived in adequately spaced houses, built in rows a handbreath on either side of the market square, and also in flimsy houses that seemed to be constructed without any order or plan on the way down to the river.

On market days, and on the Russian Orthodox holidays, the large market square would fill up with the wagons of the farmers from the nearby villages, until there was no space left. Alongside the wagons, and in the adjacent stores, business is being conducted, and we children, are catching snatches of the intonation of the strange language being spoken, that our parents resort to with some difficulty. Towards the end of the day, the square became emptied, and the farmers traveled back to their villages, and the Catholic ‘townies’ went to their homes on the outskirts of town, and the town center reverted to being an exclusively Jewish quarter. The Jews then began, for the afternoon and evening prayers, to stream toward the spiritual center, the Schulhof, where three Batei Midrash were clustered, along with the large, beautiful synagogue, which was silhouetted against the sky, with its typical roof, alongside the old cemetery. What a good feeling and sense of beauty descended on these holy places, especially during the major holidays, the High Holydays and Simkhat Torah!

And these days were harbingers of change in the lives of the Jews: new ideas, challenging trends, increased anti-Semitism, and the footfall of the approaching upheaval, slowly but surely began to erode the solid signposts in their way of life, one of which stands out in my memory as most vivid of all. This was my grandfather, and mentor, Reb Ze'ev Wolf Lev, the Dayan. He sedulously observed the commandments of the Torah and its interpreters without any compromise, read only the works of the Sages and learned rabbis, and dismissed as rubbish any challenging [external] thinking. On Yom Kippur, he would not leave the synagogue from the time of his arrival for Kol Nidre, until the blessing of the moon at the nightfall of the observance. During the holiday night, he would snatch a short nap on his bench, and the rest of the time he would recite chapters from the Psalms, and selections from the writings of the Kabala. My grandmother supported the family with a small store, and when it was necessary for her to leave it, for some reason, and my grandfather was left to mind the store, he found it extremely difficult to conduct transactions with non-Jewish people. When he became a widower in his seventies, he turned over his house and assets to his heirs, and he himself went up to the Holy Land. I recall with what pride I sat with my grandfather and parents in the wagon that took us to the railroad station in Zelva, and how after us, came a long line

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of wagons and pedestrians – literally the entire town came out to wish farewell to my grandfather. Subsequently, he settled in Jerusalem in one of the Kollel institutions, but he did not live very long thereafter.

My parents, Reb Aryeh-Leib and Rivkah, were already ‘exposed’ to the new winds [blowing through] the Jewish world. My mother was one of those women in Dereczin who knew how to read and write Hebrew in an open [free] manner. She even peeked into the modern literature of the time, but she was sharply critical of those writers and authors who wrote about non-traditional subjects, and were derisive about the faith. She was the one that townspeople turned to, when they needed enveloped to be addressed that were sent to the United States – in those days, knowledge of the Roman alphabet was a rarity in Dereczin.

My father practically instigated a ‘revolution’ when he decided to enroll me in the ‘Revisionist Heder’ established by the teacher, Abraham Izaakovitz (who came from Mikhoysk), who attempted to teach reading and writing using the method of Ivrit-B'Ivrit,[2] using the textbook, Eden HaYeladim.[3] My father, and his friend Eliyahu Abramovich, the tavern keeper, nurtured the seed of the Maskilim[4] and subscribed to the Hebew newspaper (HaTzefira, which later became Zman - the Times), and read the creations of our authors and poets.

However, sharp and fundamental change came to our town on the wave of the Russian upheavals of the years 1904-5. It was as if the entire town was drugged. Young men and women, from all walks of life, mostly from the ‘Badgessel,[5]’ would congregate at the Bet HaMidrash, and orate about their ideas over the objections of the synagogue functionaries. On the Sabbath, and sometimes during the midweek towards the evening, large groups of the ‘brothers and sisters’ would parade with red colors, with the songs of revolution on their lips, to the outskirts of the town behind the Ma'agilkes (the Christian cemetery). Workers demanded an increase in pay, and once actually went on strike. Muscular young men would come around and shake down the wealthy for protection money (a ‘self-protection’ organization), they distributed labor organizing leaflets, brought outside union people from the big cities, marched with red flags, and of course, there were run-ins with the constabulary. A part of the bourgeoisie, and most of the common people sympathized, even warmly with these young people, but even so, they could not forgive them “because they say there is no God.”

Not many days went by, and this upheaval was suppressed, and all of its external trappings disappeared. But the way of life in Dereczin, especially of the young generation underwent a transformation, a daily Yiddish newspaper became compulsory in each and every home. Emigration surged upward. Many young men left, not to go to the Yeshivas, but to secular schools, or to learn a trade. And a new custom arose: unions that were not arranged by a matchmaker, but rather ‘out of love.’ In secret, the ‘self-protection’ organization began to operate again.

The younger generation in Dereczin became driven by the challenges of the times, and was hurled headlong into them with the outbreak of the First World War.

In those days, when I was on the threshold of maturity, having gone through growing pains of investigating what was over my head, faith and its abandonment, the secrets of nature and the human soul, the ways of the world both Jewish and gentile, etc. – I loved carrying on extended conversations with two of my friends who were inspiring – and yet both of them had ideas that were at extremes from

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one another.

One was Menahem Mansky, a man of revolutionary ideas, opposed to religion, and who saw the future of the community and its fortune dependent on the harnessing of the forces of nature, and who saw the ultimate salvation of the Jewish people through the establishment of a society based on equality and justice. The second, was David Alper, a man possessed of a profoundly intense sense of Judaism, rooted in the notion of being one of the “Chosen People.” A believer in the eternal existence of the Jewish people without hesitation or doubt, who yearned for the realization of the Zionist ideal. He was not well-read in books having to do with the debate of ideas, or natural phenomena, and in contrast to this, he literally ingested volumes of philosophy of the Jewish philosophers, and those of other nations, and was aroused especially by the new Jewish poetry which appeared at that time already in its greatest glory.

Menahem Mansky went to Moscow, where because of his good skills, immediately obtained a distinguished position with the Soviet newspaper establishment. During the 1930's we lost all contact with him, and according to what we heard he fell victim to the [Stalinist] purges. And David Alper, true to his creed, became one of our better teachers in Poland during the years between the two world wars, and as the headmaster of the Hebrew Gymnasium in Pinsk, he was responsible for inculcating a love of the Jewish people into many students, and to encourage them to make and consummate aliyah. Most of his students [in fact] did make aliyah, and he, himself was planning to do so himself, except that the Tormenter[6] may his name be for erased, got to him first. The master educator fell at his post.

 

Translator's Footnotes
  1. Seemingly, yet another reference to the works of the Sapieha family. Return
  2. This is the pedagogic technique of teaching a language by using the language itself in the instruction, literally, ‘Hebrew with Hebrew.’ Return
  3. Literally, the Eden of the Children. Return
  4. Disciples of the Haskalah Return
  5. The meaning is not completely clear: the word suggests the ‘little’ street where the bath house was located. The inference may be from ‘the other side of the tracks.’ Return
  6. A euphemism for the Nazis. Return


A Torah Scroll

by Fanny Boyerman-Feder

(Original Language: Yiddish)

 

Der074.jpg
Copy of a letter from R' Gavriel to R' Simkha-Isser in America, requesting him to remit funds speedily to his wife to cover the cost of writing the Torah scroll

 

Der075.jpg
Rabbi Plotkin

 

This story took place in the year 1907 or 1908 when Rabbi Leib Luner passed away in Dereczin, and there were no funds to provide a proper headstone for his grave.

My father, Simkha-Isser, may he rest in peace, went out across the entire town, and went door-to door, once, and then again, until he was able to accumulate a specific [sic: the necessary] amount of money. [From this] it would be possible to place a beautiful headstone for the deceased rabbi, and a small amount of money remained afterwards from the funds raised by my father.

As it happened, at that time, a pauper came from a faraway place to solicit alms, and he fell sick in Dereczin, laid for a short while in a sickbed, and expired. My father takes an interest in the deceased pauper's family, sends for his widow, and assumes responsibility for arranging the funeral. We host the poor widow for a couple of weeks, and send her home with a few rubles. Needless to day, this poor woman does not have the means with which to fund a headstone, so my father, once again, made the rounds around town, and gathered money from the balebatim for this purpose.

In assembling these funds, my father computed that, after providing a headstone for the grave of this deceased poor man, a tidy sum of money would be left over. [From this} he conceive the notion that with this remaining money, together with an additional sum he would contribute from his own pocket, that he would commission the writing of a

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Torah scroll.

So, he went off to Yudel the Scribe, and took counsel with him. The idea inspired Yudel, and the two of them applied themselves to the endeavor.

Yudel the Scribe ordered the best quality parchment from Warsaw, and it took a while until the Torah scroll was completed.

And when the Torah scroll was completed, my mother, Hindeh, may she rest in peace, baked and cooked for three days and three nights, to prepare the repast for the Feast of Completing the Scroll. Flyers were sent to the surrounding towns, and many rabbis came for this great [festive] celebration.

Our father felt himself to be the principal host for the entire celebration.

After the feast and all the formalities, the question was posed as where the Torah scroll should be domiciled. It was decided to do this by lottery, and the lots cast were in favor of der Alter Mauer [synagogue], which was the place where the town rabbi made prayers.

This caused yet another occasion for celebration in the town. Can you imagine: a brand new Sefer Torah is to be installed in a synagogue – no small thing! We grab a bite, and the brand new Torah is carried under a canopy from our house on the Neuer Gasse, to the Schulhof, with care not to go past the church. The young folk got a pail of kerosene from Sholom Pinoyer, and soaked rags in it, and carried torches [lit from this]. In all the houses that we passed during this parade, there were lamps lit in all of the windows. The Torah scroll is escorted with song on the lips of the entire company, and all the faces are shining with joy.

When the procession drew near the Schulhof, the Jews brought out all of the Torah scrolls from each and every house of worship, and came towards us in a welcoming procession for the new Torah. The community celebration lasted well into the night, and by the time the new Torah scroll was deposited in the ark of the Old Synagogue, and the company dispersed to their homes, dawn was beginning to break.

Our father counted himself as the happiest man in the world, and our mother radiated with joy, and she was exceedingly proud of her husband's accomplishment.

Shortly thereafter, our father departed for America. He arrived there during the time of a severe economic crisis, when many people were unemployed. He worked extremely hard, under bitter conditions, and yet from his meager wages, he was able to send back money to Dereczin to help build a new ritual bath. At that time, he [also] brought me to live with him in America.

He yearns, however, to return to his roots. After spending a couple of years in America, he returns to Dereczin, and I stay in America. To me, he said, that he is going back home, where Shabbos is Shabbos, and Yuntiff is Yuntiff, and Jews can live as Jews. When he arrived back in Dereczin, my mother wrote to tell me that all the Jews came to greet him. In those days, it was not a trivial thing to survive such a long voyage from America to Dereczin.

My father, indeed, brought back some dollars with him to Dereczin, but could not find an occupational outlet for himself. After another bit of time back in his hometown, my father decided to go once again to America. With him, he takes my two younger sisters and a brother, and leaves my mother and two younger brothers in Dereczin. He agrees with mother prior to his departure, that as soon as he can find suitable housing for the entire family, and get himself established and organized, he will send back ship tickets for her and the two brothers.

However, at the time that father arrives in America, with three young children, the First World War breaks out. This was in 1914. Contact between America and the ‘old country’ was broken. A couple of years later, America also is drawn into the world war.

During the war years, father was unable to discharge his plan concerning those whom he left in God's care, my mother, who was ill, with two small children. Meanwhile, the Russian Revolution breaks out, the sovereignty in that part of the world changes

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periodically, and we get no news at all from Dereczin.

Finally, when the war ended in 1918, we received a letter from Dereczin, with the sad news that our mother had died, along with one of the two younger brothers. Meir, may he rest in peace, died at the age of 13 in a typhus epidemic. Our youngest brother, Kadish, remained alone in Dereczin.

At the same time, a letter comes from Rabbi Plotkin, with a request to help find the Rabbi's relatives in the United States, who originally were from Minsk. It was not the easiest thing in the world to track down the rabbi's relatives. Our father attended several meetings of the Minsk Society, and in the end this finally led to him finding a cousin of the rabbi, who was a ritual slaughterer - a shokhet. In 1920, when Rabbi Plotkin visited the United States, he was indeed able to meet with his kin.

When Rabbi Plotkin arrived in America, he first sent for my father. I accompanied my father to this meeting. It was three days before Passover.

Rabbi Plotkin embraced my father like a long-lost brother. The hosts receive us with great respect, and father begins to inquire about his youngest child in Dereczin, about the family in general, and about everything and everyone.

The Rabbi says: “Reb Simkha-Isser, relax, sit down, and I'll tell you everything, whether it is about your son, or about Dereczin. Thank God that we are able to see each other again in good health. But before anything else, Reb Simkha-Isser, I want to tell you that I have brought you a gift…”

My father is astonished: “A gift for me? From Dereczin? Rebbe, I need to give you a gift for Dereczin, not you to give one to me…”

“Reb Simkha-Isser, I have brought you a gift,” the Rabbi reiterates, in a quiet but firm tone, “ I have for you the Torah scroll which you commissioned to be written in Dereczin!”

At this point, my father lodged a complaint: “See here, Rabbi, you removed a Sefer Torah from such a sanctified location, from our old Bet HaMidrash, and you brought it here, to a treyf country?!

Rabbi Plotkin replies: “ I know, Reb Simkha-Isser, that you are an observant Jew, and I [also] know how much time, work, energy and money was expended until this Torah scroll was completed…”

And, it was in this manner, that the conversation between my father and Rabbi Plotkin ensued for several hours, during which time the Rabbi related to my father what his plans were for his American trip, and he also solicited a variety of suggestions from my father. As the hour was growing late, my father arranged with the Rabbi that in a few days, the second day of Hol HaMoed of Passover, a Tuesday, the Rabbi would be a guest for dinner at our home.

Rabbi Plotkin then wished us a Happy and Kosher Passover, and I left with my father to go home. On the way home, we decided to invite several other Jewish relatives and acquaintances to dinner with the rabbi.

To our greatest sorrow, Rabbi Plotkin came to our home, not on Tuesday, but on Monday, the first day of Hol HaMoed.. And he came, not to a festive holiday dinner, but for the funeral of my father. My father died suddenly on the second day of Passover.

I do not remember who brought the Torah scroll to our house – father, or Rabbi Plotkin. I do recall, however, that during the days when we sat Shiva, the Torah scroll was used for reading.

When we left home for work, I was so afraid of either a fire or theft, that I asked our relative, Zalman Friedman, that he should take the Torah scroll to his place, and turn it over to our landsleit from Dereczin.

There were those among our landsleit who proposed that the Torah scroll be sold (it would have fetched about a thousand dollars at that time) and that the proceeds be sent to Dereczin to provide for the needy Jews there. However, the majority of the Derecziners were opposed to this proposal. It was decided to establish a Dereczin Landsmanschaft Synagogue, and this Torah scroll, which was commissioned by my father to be written in Dereczin, was taken into this synagogue.

This synagogue was situated in Brownsville, a

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neighborhood of [Brooklyn] New York City, which at the time was largely inhabited by Jews.

A short time back, I became interested in determining the fate of this Torah scroll, and the Dereczin Synagogue. All these years, I live far away from Brownsville. To my sadness, I discovered that the synagogue had not existed for many years already, the neighborhood had completely turned over, and most of the Jews from their had moved to other neighborhoods in New York. I did not find the Torah scroll, and I do not know where it is. I hope however, that I will have the opportunity to continue to search for it.


Rabbis, Scholars and Teachers

by Malka Alper

(Original Language: Yiddish)

 

Der077a.jpg
The Melamed, R' Yosheh Abelovich

 

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R' Meir Yanovsky (‘Meir der Melamed’)

 

Der078a.jpg
The Teacher, Leib Abelovich

 

Der078b.jpg
Y. Pintzov, Teacher of Russian Language

 

When I cast a glance at Dereczin from the perspective of many decades later, I can confidently say that my town stood – without exaggeration – on a very respectable cultural level, even by today's standards: all children of school age were enrolled in study at a Heder, or in Talmud Torah, or under the tutelage of a rabbi. And Dereczin was blessed with good rabbis and scholars.

The scholars that I remember were: Reb Meir Yanovsky (Meir der Melamed)[1], Reb Alter (Alter Deikhess), Hirschel der Lehrer, Reb Leib Abelovich, who later emigrated to America, Abraham Izaakovich (der Mikhoisker), Reb Leib Kobrinsky (Leibeh Meite's), and others, whom I can no longer recall.

When the Talmud Torah came under the oversight of the Hevra M'Fitzei Haskalah,[2] before the First World War, they began to teach arithmetic there also to the children.

In the first decade of the twentieth century, the Haskalah movement, with the concept of promoting the study of Russian language and other general education in middle-level schools, began to do so as well in my town of Dereczin. The instruction of children in Russian was begun, preparing them for gymnasiums, taking advantage of every opportunity to utilize the skills of qualified or trained teachers, such as the pharmacist, and Mordechai-Yankel Lansky (the father of the well-known Hebrew poet, Chaim Lansky, who perished in Siberia), and Pintzov, and Motkeh Izaakovich, and others. More and more spheres of skills were encompassed and harnessed through the spread of general education. Young people champed at the bit, to leave the town, and Pale of Settlement, which was far from the railroad, even without a spur to the train station, to

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break out into the larger world. The long and the short of it was – one wanted to be “a person, alongside other people, on an equal basis.”

The religious balebatim did not want to, and could not reconcile themselves, to permitting Russian to be the language of instruction for the children. What is to happen to Yiddishkeit? A page of the Gemara? Reb Velvel Meite's the Talmud teacher, in his older years, after his wife passed away, went to the Holy Land; the Talmud teacher from out-of-town, hired by several of the balebatim to come to Dereczin to teach the Talmud to their children, found it necessary to return home after a couple of years. Can this be? No Gemara?

In this instance, it was Rabbi Plotkin who came to the aid of the balebatim. He organized the parents, and arranged to send the young boys to study at the Yeshiva of Szczuczyn. He, the rabbi, took responsibility to escort the boys there to the Yeshiva. As he said, so did he do. To the best of my recollection, this group [of boys] consisted of: the Rabbi's son, Moishkeh Plotkin, Shmuel Shepshelevich, Shmuel Abelovich, David Alper, David-Zelig Epstein, and his brother, Berel, Joseph Dykhovsky, Berel Sakar, and several others. The rabbi accompanied them, arranged for where they would be given their ‘days’ of food, and lodging – in a word, he erected a wall as a barrier against assimilation.

In those years, in the beginning of the twentieth century, the yeshivas were already not so hermetically sealed off from the influences of the Haskalah, especially not opposed to the influence of Hebrew language. The young men began to look into the pages of the new Hebrew books of prose and poetry, which they would conceal inside the folios of their Talmud volumes. When they came home for the holidays, at the end of a school period, one would hear them singing songs written by Bialik or Tchernikhovsky, carry on literary discussions, or general themes of public interest, such as Zionism, the Bund, Hebrew, Yiddish, etc.

It was in this way that the modern Yeshiva students sought a synthesis between the Gemara and the new national imperatives, in order to inject a little modernity into the Jewish-national thought processes, into the life and learning of the young people.

Indeed, the debate surrounding the Hebrew-Yiddish issue took on a concrete form, when a Culture Club (Kulturverein) was founded, at the initiative of Bundists, and a library for Russian and Yiddish books was opened. The pro-Hebrew faction, who also joined as supporters of the Club, demanded that a section be set aside in the library for Hebrew books as well, in order that [the library] be given a truly general nationalist character. After some heated discussions, debates, and lobbying, they were able to carry out their agenda in large measure, and a section for Hebrew books was created for the library.

Those who were caught in the yeshiva reading a treyf-possul[3] pamphlet, such as the poems of Bialik, or other authors, or books by the new Hebrew writers, were forced to leave the yeshiva. Fairly advanced yeshiva students, already close to ordination, used to wander between the smaller yeshivas, looking for an opportunity to complete their studies and reach their objective.

 

Der ‘Mikhoisker’ and His Progressive Heder

I will tell of one of the exponents of Hebrew and secular education in Dereczin – about Reb Abraham Izaakovich, who is remembered as der Mikhoisker.

When I came to his Heder, at the age of seven, he had already educated a couple of generation of students, among them were such that were already studying medicine at the university, or pedagogy at Steinberg's Teachers' Seminary in Vilna.

His progressive Heder was very well received in Dereczin. There were two sessions taught: until noon, Pentateuch, Prophets, Hebrew and Prayers (davening). In the afternoon – reading and writing Russian, penmanship, and arithmetic (the afternoon sessions were conducted in Russian). Both boys and girls received instruction in his

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progressive classroom, in which they sat as equals but in two separate groups.

His classroom was to be found in his own small house, which stood off to a side on the Neuer Gessel. The house was divided into two parts, and a large dark foyer separated his private quarters from the Heder. The windows of the small house were set close to the ground, and in the winter, during the great snowstorms, they became obscured by the snow, and it was necessary to learn by the light of kerosene lamps which hung from the rafters.

Reb Abraham Izaakovich was an intellectually accomplished Jew. Apart from Jewish reference material, he was knowledgeable in Russian (his children were education by the Russian method – in high schools), and German. He made use of a Tanach with Mendelson's commentary. Often, his discourse on the Tanach, peppered with German phrases, was unintelligible, almost as bad as the source material itself.

His classroom took on a much improved appearance when he built himself a new house, a wooden construction, with nice windows and well-lit rooms.

Reb Abraham went through many changes of situation as a teacher: he ran the progressive Heder until the First World War, then there was a period during which he was unemployed during the German occupation; later, [he was] a teacher of Jewish religion and German language in the German school, which the occupation forces established; and at the beginning of the 1920's he taught Hebrew (Ivrit B'Ivrit) in the middle classes of the Tarbut School for a number of years – until is children brought him to Russia, where he was not comfortable.

His memory and his pedagogic and scholarly accomplishments are woven into the history of Dereczin, quite apart from his skillful leadership in school education from the end of the nineteenth century until the end of the first quarter of the present [sic: twentieth] century. Because of this, a hidden envy lay deep in the hearts of Dereczin residents relative to their more affluent neighbors in Zelva, but they understood that their town, Dereczin surpassed Zelva in its spiritual qualities. Beginning with the great rabbis who served the community of Dereczin, up to the time of our national liberation, Dereczin was known as a seat for learning, study and reflection. Its Jews were blessed with lively thought, a yearning for scholarship, and Zionist activities. We find testimony to all this here in Israel and in the Diaspora, among the remnant of Dereczin residents, who are doing everything they can, to perpetuate the glory of the little community of Dereczin, destroyed and annihilated during the Second World War.

 

Translator's Footnotes
  1. Spelled Yanofsky in the USA. Father of Sarah Slotnick; originally from Zelva. Return
  2. The Organization for Dissemination of the ‘Enlightenment,’ a progressive movement. Return
  3. Impossible to translate the sense of loathing that comes with the notion of being ritually unfit for human consumption! Return

 

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