The Little Rabbi, A Giant of a Tzaddik

Photo: Marko Dashev

For over 20 years, R’ Sholi Katz of Forshey had the privilege to host the late chossid Reb Zalman Yudkin during his visits to Monsey. In this tribute, he shares some of the fascinating interactions he heard and witnessed of this special Lubavitcher chossid.

By Sholi Katz – Forshey, Monsey

I had the privilege to host Reb Zalman Yudkin twice a year when he would come to Monsey to raise funds for his Yeshivah in Kiryat Malachi. 

He stayed at our home for 8 weeks a year, spanning roughly 20 years. My wife made him breakfast, lunch and supper, washed his clothes, took care of what he needed, which was no small task, as he had only specific items that he ate and she had to run to different stores to get only the Israeli-made products he requested. She did it all with a smile and tremendous devotion, may she be blessed and rewarded. I drove and accompanied Rav Yudkin in the evening on his collection rounds, stopping work at 5:00 PM driving  around until after 11:00 PM.  

Many people were inspired by Rav Yudkin’s Mesiras Nefesh in Russia, as he was one of the few who fought the Russian communists during that time. He was thrown in jail 4 times for a total of over 10 years. Where many Yidden had failed, being consumed by the communist onslaught, Rav Yudkin survived it all, and came out even stronger in his Yiddishkeit than before. 

As Rav Yudkin spoke in many shuls, he recounted his personal terrible trials and tribulations. Many Roshei Yeshivos were quite eager for him to speak to their talmidim, for them to see how a Yid lived in Russia that had the strength and courage to withstand all the persecutions and torturous physical force. Rav Yudkin was happy to do it, as he wanted to show how hard the communist regime tried to make the Yidden uncommitted, and he also desired the boys to know how fortunate they are to live in this era. 

Another thing Rav Yudkin wanted to show, one should not blame those who succumbed to the pressures and onslaught. He continuously made note how the communist spent 70 years trying to undo Yiddishkeit, we must do what we can to bring those who were lost back into the fold. He always recounted how his father once took him to a window and showed him a tree, saying – – see the tree? It stands strong and tall, wind, rain, and hail cannot do anything to it. Even if it eventually will break, it stays in one piece, So should you my son, never compromise, never bend, if you will have to die for Yiddishkeit do it standing up. 

Born in Riga, Latvia to a Chabad Family, Rav Yudkin was raised by his father, a very open minded person and who was close to many non-Lubavitcher people.  His mother was a strong Chabadnik. I can recall Rav Yudkin smiling when he said his mother was still mad at the misnagdim for putting the Alter Rebbe in prison, asking “how could they do such a thing?” 

He began his early education in a cheder run in the ways of Reb Shamshen Rafoel Hirsh. Later as the communist forced all the Jewish children to go to the local secular school. When that decree came out, he overheard his father late at night crying to his mother “we lost our children”. But they had no choice, they were compelled to send their children to these communist schools, or otherwise risk the government removing their children from the home. 

He recounted how the school played “tricks” with the children to indoctrinate them to the communist atheist ways, especially targeting the Jewish children. The teacher would take them to a water fountain in the hallway, which was not working. Instructing the children to ask for water, each in his own religion, and to the Jewish children make a bracha. They turned the knob, but no water came out. Telling the Jewish children to make the bracha even louder, nothing. “Scream with all your might to Hashem” for water! – still nothing. Then the teacher said they should all ask in the name of “Comrade Father Stalin”, and only then on the other side of the wall someone opened the spigot and allowed the water flow in abundance. 

Rabbi Yudkin shared that he only realized this later in life that there was another person on the other side. How then can one expect the Jewish children to remain believers with all these foul ploys constantly played upon them? His parents were always asking him what they were learning in school, and when it got to heresy, they put cotton strands deep into his ears so he would not hear it, and the teacher will not notice it.  Shabbos, they took a chance not to send him to school, or they would wrap his hand in bandages so he would have an excuse not to write. This is how his formative years of his upbringing was spent. 

Rav Yudkin would remember how his mother, when she lit the shabbos candles, she stood there for a very long time, her hands covering her eyes wailing bitter tears, beseeching Hashem to just let her children remain Yidden. With parents like that, he stayed strong and faithful against all the odds. Rav Yudkin used to make a comparison, to what we ask for in regard to our children. We ask they should grow up to be a Talmud Chacham, get married, or have an easy and plentiful parnassa. He said, while in Russia when he was wheeling his children in the carriage with one hand, in the other hand he held a Tehillim begging Hashem they should just know there is a Aibisther in the world. “I didn’t even think of anything more.”

Later as the Pogroms started, like all the Yidden around them, these families suffered bitter atrocities. Rav Yudkin told me it is too difficult to talk about it. He did say, he witnessed his mother and his younger sister being killed right in front of his eyes. Later, he ended up in a concentration camp. 

Right after the war as the Russians liberated the camp, he found himself alone, his father had also perished, and no one was left from the family. Being a Russian citizen he was drafted into the Russian army.  Once, while on watch patrol (something he liked doing because he was alone and could daven), he was caught saying Tehillim, and was beaten severely, not just for being distracted, but on top of that he was doing Jewish prayers. 

He used his break-time to go into his locker, that was just big enough for a person to fit in, locked the door, and there he managed to put on tefillin every day.  However, on occasion, he did confide in me some hair-raising horrifying stories during those hard times, those of which I know he would not want me to repeat. (When he finally did manage to make it out to Israel, he told me, once his feet touched the ground he knew all the pain and suffering are over, He became completely overwhelmed, just collapsed, fell down and kissed the ground.)

After serving his time in the Russian army, he found himself back in Riga which was still Russian territory. He found work in a factory, where he made a deal with the foreman, by which Reb Yudkin would give the foreman his full day’s salary for Shabbos, if he would allow him to hang around the factory but not actually do any work. The foreman was hesitant, but then let him do it, while enjoying the extra money.  When someone told out on them. The communists sought to punish the foreman and had to get Rabbi Yudkin to admit that he was “paying” the foreman. However as the foreman did this for him, he held strong, accepted the beatings, and other punishments, never betraying the foreman. 

At this, or maybe another factory, he met this younger Jewish girl who came from a very frum litvishe or misnagdisher family, but was torn away from her family during the pogroms at a very young age. Now older, she was working in this same factory. She really knew almost nothing of Yiddishkeit. However, she was a wonderful eidel yiddish girl and they married. She looked up to him all their long life together, in the hard years in Russia, and the better years in Israel and America. Whatever stringency in Yiddishkiet Rav Yudkin held (my wife and I can readily testify to these, and there were not just a few), she went along with it. 

As time went on, the communist regime took their quest to “eradicate Yiddishkeit” into overdrive. What most do not understand is, the communist allowed Shuls to function, their fight was against Torah learning. Even when Golda Meyer went back to Russia a bit later, she spoke in shuls that were packed by the thousands. 

Once when exiting the Monsey Vishnitz shul, Reb Yudkin saw everyone running to and fro, he remarked to me, “Look how lucky they are! It was years where I never stepped into a shul.” I asked him, “Why? Didn’t they allow shuls?” 

He explained, Shuls in Russia were infiltrated with spies, and because he was Frum, it was not a good fit to be there. He recounted a story where a very frum erlicher Yid could not hold out, and he agreed to become an informer to get out of jail. That man davened and cried in shul every morning begging Hashem that he should not see someone doing something, which he would be compelled to inform the government. I asked why he didn’t just ignore what he saw. He laughed, you think there was only one spy, every bench had one. They would then know this one was not keeping his side of the bargain. Reb Yudkin said he himself was also offered the opportunity to become a spy and your mind freezes – to get out of here!!  He consolidated all this inner strength, blocked out any thought, and gave a huge shout NO, the officer proceeded to slap him across the face with all his might, he fell over and was then dragged back to his cell. 

The communist didn’t mind someone was Jewish, they just wanted to eradicate Torah and the commitment to Hashem. 

He told a story about how Chabad had mesiras nefesh to teach the children Torah. As they made laws forbidding Torah learning, Chabad set up a networks of Chadorim (small groups) in Attics and Basements.

One such Rebbi was teaching young boys when a raid took place. Getting caught meant death, as many of these Rebbeim were actually taken and later shot. (Many families never knew the exact date of their death, once caught they were just never heard from again. The families took the Yahrzeit of the Frerdiker Rebbe and held it for their own parents. Later as the Soviet Union opened their records, many were able to know and hold the real date.) This Rebbi ran for his life, got into the yard, however there was nowhere to run. He chose to jump into an outhouse pit and moved to the side where they could not see him. He stayed there for an hour or two, until the hunt for him was over.

When he got out, he washed himself off, changed clothing, but suffered from the terrible odor clinging to his skin. At Mincha that day, the other congregants started smelling this odor and they could not daven. They sniffed around, looked under their shoes, and finally found him to be the source. They had no choice but to ask him to please leave. However, the Rov, who knew what he did, ran over to them and shouted at them – this is not a foul odor, this is the odor of Gan-Eden! 

Rav Yudkin’s wife was pregnant and the doctor warned them, if it is a boy do not even think of making a bris. He said secretly he and his wife hoped it was a girl. When the boy was born, he was terrified to make the Bris. For 6 months he went around depressed and contemplating what to do, as he was indeed very scared. One day he gathered up the courage, claiming “my very own son is not a yid, as he never went into the covenant of Avrohom Aveinu”. He quietly found a mohel and asked him to make the Bris. This mohel had stopped doing Brisim, as caught meant simply a bullet to the back of the head. After begging him, the mohel agreed on one condition – I will come in middle of the night, I will do the Bris and run, you will have to bandage up the child yourself. He agreed to that arrangement. 

That night the mohel did the cut and took off into the dark, the child was naturally crying. Rav Yudkin did not realize, the communist police had told a neighbor if you hear a baby crying in strong pain, call us right away. They burst into his home; he told me he still had the blood from the Bris on his hands. “Murderer, Killer!”  they shouted, how could you do this to your own child? What kind of animal are you?  They chained him up and led him down from his apartment and the entire building was up watching him being led away. Several long years he suffered for this in Jail. 

Now, understand, this was no Federal penitentiary of Otisville, these were the dregs of society. He told me in Yiddish with tears in his eyes, reminiscing, “men fleght mir shlugen” the other prisoners used to beat him. He explained, they saw a nice, fine character of a man among them, and asked him what he did that he is in jail, but he didn’t answer. It was known the Russian prison officials used to plant spies among the inmates to keep tabs on them. They were all but sure he was one of those spies, and got nice beatings in kind. This was on top of the beatings that the guards distributed his share to him. I asked him why he did not tell them he is in jail for giving his son a Bris, he said with a chuckle, “Them they would hit me even more…”

Every night, boards were slipped under the door to sleep on, rats running around and all over you. Screaming all night by other prisoners. Damp musty cells, no windows. Food was a piece of black bread, rice, maybe a potato once in while. Many prisoners took their own lives. Later in his life, at night he would him scream out in his dreams from the terror in those times. When he was released, he told me he did not even have the strength to walk up the stairs to his home.  

May I ask – how many of us would have given a bris to their son in that situation? The communist could not break him, he remained standing strong and tall as that tree!

Many people think the reason he did not eat meat was, as he was going into people’s houses he was worried about the Kashrus. Many Rabbonim got insulted, trying to assure him the meat in their homes are beyond any question…they personally know the shochet etc.  However, he told me that was not the reason. He had made a promise to Hashem that if he would be saved from a certain terrible thing, he will never taste meat again for the rest of his life.

He told me how the older chassidim took on the duty and tried to keep the younger Chassidim in check not to falter. They tried to be mashpia on the younger ones to remain strong. When a Sicha from the Rebbe somehow got smuggled into Russia, the chassidim stayed up all night, copied it by hand, and gave them out to the younger ones. Many of the younger chassidim that eventually got out, said those Sichos stayed with them all their lives. 

Rav Yudkin described to me the downfall of a typical Yiddishe family. As food was scarce, nor any shochtim able to shecht, there was not much to eat. Black bread and vegetables they had, fish there was some from the rivers in the cities and herring they also had. He explained many mothers could not absorb that the young children were not getting enough nourishment and could get sick. So they took one of the 4 gas burners and cooked not kosher food on it to feed their young children, reasoning what choice do they really have? Then the older children complained and begged they also wanted the meat and chicken, and a “mothers pity” gave in. Now they had two burners for the children, and the other two the parents used. Then a few years later, the mother, keeping on smelling the meat and could not hold out, now it was three burners to one – only for the father. A few years later that one also went the way of others, and with that the Yiddishkeit was nebach lost to the entire family. It was a real hard time for Yidden to remain frum, and these few that went against the current, in defiance of all odds, complete with their unwavering Meseras Nefesh. They withstood all these hardships and difficulties – for so many long years. May they be looked up to by all of us, and be remembered for the good!


At this point, I would like to reveal something else about Rav Yudkin’s going around collecting money, which people do not know. To everyone he was a Tzaddik – with one of his ways to do good was raising funds for the Yeshiva in Kirayat Malachi, an immigrant settlement where they were trying to teach the boys to become better Yidden. However, that wasn’t so simple, there was something more: he was going around helping people in their quest for parnassa. 

I witnessed many instances in relation to this. It even took me going around with him every night for the first several years, to finally realize this. Originally, I also assumed he was going just to raise money for the Yeshiva. What shocked me in the beginning, he had this enormous energy, he just keeps on going. We would go around till it got late at night, always saying let’s just go to one more person, then after that he would call someone, if he answered, he asked if it was not too late – 11.30 PM, no problem. I was taken aback how he had the energy at his age, and I thought, wow he really wants the money. I was thinking maybe I can learn a lesson here for my business; pursue every single lead, at any time, at any hour, that’s how you make money.  After someone gave him a check in the house, which he folded and did not look at it (as maybe the person gave less etc. not to embarrass him), only in the car did he open it.

On many occasions, he would remark to me saying, “He gave me the same – even though his parnassa is not going so well, a finer Yid (a good Jew)”. After many times, It dawned on me: I was in the house with him, I saw nothing to indicate that, everything was Burach Hashem etc., where does he know that this person is not doing so well or struggling. Thinking maybe the person spoke with him during the year? He has no cell phone, and he was almost never home. When I asked once or twice if he spoke to this person during the year, he says no, just this once a year. Several times I would meet an acquaintance in the shul of that neighborhood – and then realized he would get it 100% right. 

Right after noting this, that he has the gift of intuition, and knows the situation of parnassa just by going into houses, we were coming out of a shul and while being distracted talking to a person, he fell off the step right outside the door. He fell straight down, face first and we ran to help him. He did not want Hatzalah. I took him home, put ice on the bruises and bandages on the cuts. As he was sitting on the couch recovering, I got upset and told him, “Reb Zalman you suffered enough in life, it is time to relax”, you did your share for Yiddishkeit, you have to stop this, you are not young anymore. I kept pushing this, and forcefully tried to get this through to him. All of a sudden, he grabs both my wrists each with one of his hands, as I remember it clearly, looks me straight in the eye and tells me. “You think I am going only for the money, Naah! There is a lot that I can still do, I want to go into people’s houses.”

I then realized what this is all about. I also now realized when he goes till the clock strikes twelve, he is thinking maybe I can help another Yid before the night is out.  From that day on, I never said – I am too tired, or let’s cut out early, as long as he wanted to go, I went with him. If I can help him get into more houses, where he might be able to help, that will be my contribution to do good deeds. Tiredness and fatigue were only a small price to pay. 

After he started getting older and more frail. I came up with a bright idea, I converted our work van, by putting up silk curtains all around, carpet on the floor, nice lights on top, screwed down a large comfortable arm chair with a small table in front, put up a picture of the Lubavitcher Rebbe, built wooden steps up to the door. The next time Rav Yudkin came I was so happy and proud to show him how we are going to go around from now on. He will sit in the comfortable chair and relax, I will go into the homes and bring out the person to meet him. He took one look, smiled, and said it is a good idea, however I have to go into the houses. 

Here are just a few stories of how he tried helping others:

When he made his rounds, we would go to many different shuls to daven. Once, he met someone and exchanged a simple “Sholom Aleichem” without saying a word. A minute later, he turned to me and said, “We must go to this person right away.” As I took him home, supper was on the table for him, but he said, there was no time to eat and we have to get going. We went straight to that house, where the person asked me if he can have a private talk with Rabbi Yudkin so I went to wait in the car. They came out half hour later and the man was very emotional. He had lost his business and he thought it was because of a serious sin he committed. Reb Yudkin kept comforting him and assuring him it wasn’t his fault  “Hashem gives and Hashem takes, do not blame yourself.” The man was not ready to accept that and still had deep despair in his eyes. Reb Yudkin kept telling and reassuring him, “you will see the Aibershter will give you again.” This he said to him many times in a strong voice “v’yachzor vyiten” even after taking it away, you will get it back again. Half a year later I met up with this fellow and asked him how is it going. With a lit up face he tells me several times Baruch Hashem during our conversation. I really don’t know what he meant with that, but I assume it was much better for him, and maybe it was already v’yachzor v’yiten.

There was a doctor we used to go to for donations. One year, we were in his house late at night and the family was sleeping. All of a sudden, Reb Yudkin starts asking for food. Watching his actions, I figured it out already, this was his way to help the person. Asking for food means, give me food and I am going to try and help you. Also, I noticed if he put on his gartel after the food, to give the bracha, that meant even more. He told me many times, I make a bracha in the house, then I leave a bracha.” On this occasion, I saw him starting to make these kuntzin for food. Reb Yudkin starts off by asking for a banana, the doctor looks around, doesn’t find one, he offers apples, but at eighty years old he cant eat them. He then asks for plums, grapes, but none are available. Rav Yudkin asks “What do you have?” as the doctor is looking in the fridge. He says he sees celery or maybe a tomato. Reb Yudkin tells him that tomatoes are very good. The doctor puts it on a plate and Reb Yudkin proceeds to eat the entire tomato. Then he takes the doctor’s hand and with total sincerity and closed eyes, he gives him a bracha. Several weeks later I meet up with the doctor in shul and asked him how his new practice is going? He says he just recently had to gave it up, it did not get traction and he is back at the Nursing homes and Hospitals. I then understood what the good Rav Yudkin was trying to do late that night.

One thing I can say with certainty – whenever he saw a person’s face, he knew what the status of his parnassa was. There was a time we went to a person that lived in a very small home. He was a real erlich, sweet, unassuming Yeshivish man who looked as if he was a rebbe in Yeshiva. They were extremely nice to Reb Yudkin, serving tea while talking. As we left the house and out to the walkway, he told me that this man is a wealthy man, (something which he hardly would say).  The next year as we leave the house he said the same thing, that this man is extremely wealthy. This gets the better of me, a tiny house, plastic on the couches, wrinkled suits,  sparse china closet with a few old candelabra that was passed down etc. and Rav Yudkin tells me this guy is super wealthy. I am friends with someone who married his niece. The next time in Brooklyn, I met this person and I ask him if this uncle has money?  He says he has some kind of parnassa, nothing special. He says from what the family knows he is a regular simple guy. The next year he is not at the house. A year later Rabbi Yudkin tells me he found out where the person moved to, he built a new house.  As we pull up I do a double take – a huge mansion, an east and west wing, the 3 story entrance is bigger than the entire old house. And no one in the family, nor any of the people in shul or elsewhere knew about it, however Rav Yudkin saw it just by looking at him.

He used to have this policy, that if he came to a house and it was not the house we were looking for, once we had already pulled up in the driveway he would say if the Aibesther sent us here, it is for a reason, we have to go into the house. On this occasion we did this, we came to the wrong house, and this was during the time Reb Yudkin was already very frail, and I had to hold on to him under his arm not to fall as we walked. There were these long steps up to this decent-sized house. We knocked on the door and a young guy opens. I start to explain to him in English what Rav Yudkin is collecting for. He does not wait to hear, but sticks his hand in his front pockets looking for money, and can’t find. Then he tries his back pockets and he found a few crumpled-up dollars, he peels one off and gives it to Rav Yudkin. I am looking at him, here is a frail 85-year-old man, who just schlepped up his entire steps and he cant even do a $5. I am a holding myself back from letting him have it verbally. However, I notice Rabbi Yudkin giving him Brachos, and he keeps going on and on, exactly like it might have been Erev Yom Kipper. Back at the car Rav Yudkin sees how upset I am, and he tells me why are you upset, we have the zchus of getting this person to do a mitzvah. He did not have to give us that dollar. He worked for the dollar and now gave it to Tzedakah. He then wants me to feel good, so he says it is your zchus, I cannot do it myself without you.

He told me when he started going around, he went into Yechidus with the Lubavitcher Rebbe and the Rebbe told him a few things  –  you can only go to where you have a good achsanya (place to stay)  –  whatever one gives, you should accept with a full heart, never push anyone for more  –  keep working on a salary basis and don’t go on commission  –  and never agree to do any shtick for people with Tzedakah money. If he took the average fundraisers commission, he would be very well off, even rich, as some people did give him very nice amounts. Accepting anything they gave him- I saw it hundreds of times. It made no difference if a person gave him $1,000 or .50 cents, he got the exact same “string of Brachos”. 

Some other Rebbes enjoyed when Rav Yudkin came to them, and they would sit and talk with him for a nice while. One of those was the Ribnitzer Rebbe zt’l, who even at times himself asked Rav Yudkin to come visit with him. After one such occasion, I asked him why the Ribnitzer, that was also in Russia at the same time did not suffer, but you did? He answered, most probably because he had more Zichusim then me. Later, while studying the Russian government of that period, I realized that where the Ribnitzer was – in Romania there were small towns that even though the Russians controlled it, if you were good with the Chief of Police you were fine, as he was the one who really had the control of the town. In Rav Yudkin’s, case he was living up north in Russia properly, in a big city like Riga or Minsk, where they were adamant to stamp out Yiddishkeit and a person like Rav Yudkin was a real thorn in their sides. He most probably had a huge file in the local police station, and they kept a close eye on him.

In my business, as I had only non-Jewish office workers, a new girl we recently hired and was being trained in by the others. Reb Yudkin calls and this new worker picks up, she puts the call on hold, looks at the others, and tells them there is this guy talking like he is crying and she cannot make out a word what he is saying. Right away the others say that is “The Little Rabbi.” I then overhear them telling her – when this little Rabbi comes every now and then, get ready we are going to get crazy busy. You will not have a moment to breath during the day. I myself did not notice this, as I was not so involved in the day to day operations, and when Rav Yudkin was here, I was ferrying him around half the time. However, these non-Jewish girls somehow began to notice the increase when the little Rabbi showed up. After hearing this I started looking at reports of order volume in conjunction as to when he came and saw exactly what they saw….Imagine Goyim noticing this!                 

I will end with one story he told me that stands out, and hopefully others will also get inspired. 

While going to Toronto he stayed a night in a very wealthy person’s home. As to the clothes that he wore – let’s put it mildly, not the best. Schlepping around, he could not carry a full wardrobe. Many seams were torn from running around all day, buttons off etc. The wealthy lady of this house was outfitted in the finest of dresses while being made up so elegantly. However, when Rav Yudkin went to sleep that night, she quietly took his clothes, washed them out, sewed on all the buttons that had fallen off, fixed up all the hems that had fallen down, and repaired the seams. She had to iron them after the wash, and then set them down on the exact same spot he left them. She was a woman that most probably for the last 30 years, never touched a sewing needle. Here she did it all herself, as Rav Yudkin told me she must have been up all night. He was very touched by this and wanted to show, see what fine people walk among us!  All of us could and should learn from this lady.

May his memory be always remembered for the good. These few individuals that stayed so strong and suffered so much for Yiddishkeit, are not among us anymore. Let us remember their Miseras Nefesh. Let us recall their self sacrifice. There was nothing in the world Rav Yudkin wanted for himself. His life was “Bilti Hashem L’vado” only to serve Hashem. From when he arose at 5:00 AM, going to the mikvah, davening shacharis till 9.30, after eating a bit, he would go speak in a Yeshiva, said Tehillim, listened to his Shiurim, went to put tefillin on factory workers that were not frum. And then after all that, at night he went to collect and help people. He thought about nothing all day – just about the Aibesther and how he could help another Yid. At night it was a half hour for Kriyas Shmah, complete with the full viduy and sobbing before he laid his head down. Those who knew him, those whose homes he entered, may they keep his memory alive and feel honored they knew such a tzaddik in our time.

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  1. I had the zechus to interview Rabbi Yudkin for Jem’s My encounter with the Rebbe project. A special thing he told over was about the emotional farewell of hundreds of chassidim and yidden gathering at the train station in Riga on 24 Adar I 5700 to see off the Frierdiker Rebbe as he departed to Stockholm from where he embarked to America. Being during the war time and the beginning of the Holocaust this was a very emotional event.

  2. Thank you for your article
    As I’m reading it all his speeches in shul that I heard are coming back to me!

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