World War II: Soviet Agressions--Poland (1939-41)

Soviet attrocities in Poland
Figure 1.--Here we see Polish boys in an undated photograph, but was probably taken in 1940. The photograph looks like a NAZI concentration camp image, but the boys were in a Soviet camp. I'm not sure just why these boys were interned by the Soviets, but they clearly are not being adequately fed.

The shattered Polish forces fall back east and attempt to organize a new defensive line. Once certain of Polish defeat, Stalin seeing that the Polish Army was unable to resist the Germans and that the British and French were not intervening, ordered the Red Army to attack from the East (September 17). A Red Army force of 1 million men enters Poland, Soviet propaganda claims it was necessary to "protect it's Byelorussian and Ukrainian population." This was an attempt to follow the NAZI success at claiming to protect the German minority in Czexhoslovakia and Poland. The demoralized Polish Army which valiantly fought the Germans, offers little resistance to the Soviets. The Soviets take 240,000 Polish soldiers and 15,400 officers prisioner German and Russian forces met at Brest-Litovsk (September 18). World War II accounts usually focus on the NAZI invasion and occupation of Poland. In fact the Soviet occupation was also horific, although it did not include the biological genocide of the NAZI occupation. Stalin like Hitler, however, was at this stage of the War intent on destroying the Polish nation. Polish soldiers were internened in camps by the Soviets. Soviet actions in eastern Poland were extremely brutal. An estimated 0.1 million Poles were killed by the Soviets (1939-41). The most publicized killings were the Polish officers shot by the NKVD in the Katyn Forrest, but this was only a part of the wide spread executions of Poles by the Soviets. Some estimates suggest that 2.0 million Poles were deported to Siberia and other areas in the Soviet Union.

Polish Republic (1919-39)

NAZI-Soviet Non-Aggression Pact (August 1939)

NAZI Foreign Minister Ribbentrop and newly appointed Soviet Commissar for Foreign Affairs Molotov on August 23, 1939, signed the Nazi-Soviet Non-Aggression Pact. At the time of thesigning, British and French delegations were in Moscow trying to reach an understanding with Stalin. Hewas convinced, however, that they were tring to draw him into a war with Hitler. The two countries which until that time had been bitter foes, pledged not attack each other. Any problems developing between the two countries were to be delt with amicably. It was last for 10 years. The Pact shocked the world and the purpose was immedietly apparent. It meant that Germany could attack Poland without fear of Soviet intervention. Thus after defeating Poland, Germany did not have to fear a full-scale European war on two fronts. What was not known at the time was that there was a secret protocol to the pact which in effect divided Eastern Europe betwen the two countries. This protocol was discoered after the end of the World War II in 1945. The Soviets continued to deny this protocol until 1989. The NAZIs 8 days after signing the Pact invaded Poland on September 1, 1939, launching World War II. Britain and France declared war September 3. Poland's fate was sealed on September 17, when the Soviets invaded Poland from the east. Although the Soviet's did not enter the War against Britain and France, the Soviets were virtual NAZI allies as they provided large quantaies of strategic materials, especially oil. Communist parties in Britainand France opposedthe war effort. The Communst Party in America opposed President Roosevelt's efforts to expand defense spending and assist Britain and France.

NAZI Blitzkrieg (September 1, 1939)

The Germans more than any other military, correctly assessed the lessons of World War II. The War in Europe began in 1939 when the German blitzkrieg smashed Poland in only a few weeks. The invasion was made possible the preceeding week when Stalin signed a non-aggression pact with Hitler. The Panzers crossed the Polish frontier on September 1 along with a devestating strike by the Luftwaffe. The Polish Army and Air Force was shattered. Over 1 million German soldiers surged into Poland. Hitler emerged from the Reich Chancellery in a new grey uniform with his World War I Iron Cross. In a speech at the Reichstag before cheering NAZIs he declared, "I myself am today, and will be from now on, nothing but the soldier of the German Reich." Whithin 6 days Cracow, the center of Polish nationhood, fell. Pincer movements began on September 9 to encirle the major remaining Polish forces. Once certain of Polish defeat, Stalin ordered the Red Army to attack from the East. German and Russian forces met at Brest-Litovsk on September 18. Warsaw fell a few days later after a ruthless bombing assault. The Blitzkrieg tactics that were to prove so devestaing in the West during 1940 were all on display in 1939. Neither the British or French showed much attention, abscribing Polish defeat to military incompetance. The French had promissed the Poles an offensive in the West. It never came. [Fest, pp. 602-603.]

Soviet Invasion (September 17, 1939)

The shattered Polish forces fall back east and attempt to organize a new defensive line. Once certain of Polish defeat, Stalin seeing that the Polish Army was unable to resist the Germans and that the British and French were not intervening, ordered the Red Army to attack from the East (September 17). A Red Army force of 1 million men enters Poland, Soviet propaganda claims it was necessary to "protect it's Byelorussian and Ukrainian population." This was an attempt to follow the NAZI success at claiming to protect the German minority in Czexhoslovakia and Poland. The demoralized Polish Army which valiantly fought the Germans, offers little resistance to the Soviets. The Soviets take 240,000 Polish soldiers and 15,400 officers prisioner. German and Russian forces met at Brest-Litovsk (September 18). The Soviets encountered only scattered resistance from Polish military forces. Polish forces at Grodno resist a Soviet armored force (September 20- 21). A Polish regiment at Kodziowce resisted another armored attack (September 22). The Red Army rapidly occupied eastern Poland, however, with very limited resistance. Most of the Polish Army in the east was taken prisoner without serious incidents. One Polish account describes an incident at Grabowiec 150 Polish policemen, 4 NCOs and 6 officers were executed by the Soviets with the aid of local Ukrainian militias (September 27). I do not have further details on this incident. The Soviets also occupied areas with Ukranian populations. The terror that had been visited on the eastern and central Ukraine was now imposed on the area of the westetn Ukraine seized from Poland.

Polish Government in Exile

President Ignacy Moscicki on September 17, 1939, who was in the small town of Kosow near the southern Polish border appointed Wladyslaw Raczkiewicz, the Speaker of the Senate, as his successor. Raczkiewicz realizing that the Polish Army had been defeated and wanted to make sure that a Polish Government be established to resist the NAZIs from overseas. Raczkiewicz was in Paris and took the oath of office at the Polish Embassy. Raczkiewicz appointed General Wladyslaw Sikorski as Commander-in-Chief of the Polish Armed Forces and Prime Minister. The Government was recognized by the French, British, and Americans. The Polish Government at first was located in Paris, but with the fall of France moved to London. The Government in Exile was a coalition government of National Unity. As other War-time goivernments in exile, the Polish Government was a government of national unity. It was made up of representatives from the four important political parties: The Christian Democratic Labor Party, The National Democratic Party, The Polish Peasant Party, and The Polish Socialist Party (PPs) as well as members without party affiliation. The participants put domestic dfferences aside to focus on liberation of their country. General Sikorski was killed in an controversial aircrash near Gibraltar (July 1943). General Sikorski was succeeded as head of the government in exile by Stanislaw Mikolajczyk. The Polish Government-in-Exile placed great emphasis on the procecution of war criminals after the War.

Polish Military (1939-40)

The great bulk of the Polish Army was interened in NAZI and Soviet POW camps Much of the small Polish Navy managed to get to Britain. Thousands of soldiers managed to escape through Romania which was at the time still neutral. Czechoslovalia had been partitioned by the NAZIs. A few Poles managed to get to Sweden. Some of the Poles fought with the French and after the fall of France with the British. The RAF had two squadrons of Polish pilots in the Battle of Britain. The pPles had very limited forces at first and were only able to begin to assemble sizeable infantry formations with the Soviets after the NAZI invasion (June 1941) released the Polish Army personnel they had interened.

Internment of the Polish Army

Polish soldiers were internened in camps by the Soviets. Available accounts suggest that the conditions in the Soviet POW camps were for the most part tollerable. [L. Gladun]

Soviet Attrocities

Soviet actions in eastern Poland were extremely brutal. An estimated 0.1 million Poles were killed by the Soviets (1939-41). The most publicized killings were the Polish officers shot by the NKVD in the Katyn Forrest, but this was only a part of the wide spread executions of Polish civilians and soldiers by the Soviets. There are few first hand accounts of what happened to the Polish officers because so many were killed and because for decades after the War Poland's Communist Government suppressed any inestigation or discussion of Soviet actions during World War II. There are countless instances of Soviet oppression. And they were not just aimed at Poles. One young Ukranian patriot recounts being arrested by the NKVD (January 1940). He was incarcerated in the Brygitki prison with 10,000 other Ukranians. They were subjected to ruthless intrerogation and totrure. They heard bombs falling and realized the Germans invaded the Soviet Union (June 22, 1941). They thought they might be liberated by the Germans. That very afternoon, however, the NKVD guards began taking small groups of prisonors into the cellar of the prison where the poping noises of gun fire could be heard. By the time the NKVD evacuated only 500-600 of the prisoners were left allive when the Ukranian underground broke into the prison. [Kazaniwsky]


Polish sources charge that thousands of Polish civilians were "slaughtered in eastern Poland by elements of Ukrainians, Byelorussians and Jews, encouraged by Soviet slogans such as: "For Poles, Pans and dogs--a dog's death!" (September 17-25). I'm unsure how to evaluate these charges, especially the charge that Jews were involved in killing of Polish civilians. This sounds more like the lingering anti-Semtism in Poland and the lack od scholarly assessment of the Soviet occupation of Poland. These attrocitoes apparently occurred in areas of pre-War Poland in which Poles were a minority.


The Soviets targeted Polish officers, but unlike the NAZIs not enlisted soldiers. NKVD Chief Lavrenti Beria set up a Directorate for Prisoners of War and established camps for the 240,000 Polish POWs held by the Soviets (September 19). About 37,000 were used as forced-labour. The officers executed at Katyn and other locations had no idea of the fate awaiting them. The conditions for the Polish POWs were tolerable. The NKVD transported 15,400 Polish officers to concentration camps at Kozielsk, Ostashkov and Starobielsk in the Soviet Union (September-November 1939). The officers murdered at Katyn and other locations were taken from the Kozielsk, Starobielsk, and Ostaskhov POW camps. Transports from the Kozielsk Camp began (April 1940). Kozielsk was a POW camp set up in a former monestary. It is believed that this was when the NKVD began executing the Polish officers. The father of one of the few srvivors writes, "My father records the first battles against the Blitzkrieg and Red Army in 1939, to VE-Day in Italy in 1945. Leon trained and fought in Poland, the USSR, the Middle East and Italy. As a Soviet prisoner-of-war he records one of the great crimes of the war: Katyn, in which most of his friends perished. Leon Gladun was one of only 448 who survived the murder of 27,000 Allied POW's by Stalin." [C. Gladun]. At the time it occurred it was not widely known. Most of the world's attention was on the NAZI actions in Poland. Some rumors reached the Polish Governnment-in-Exile, but not hard evidence.


Some estimates suggest that 2.0 million Poles were deported to Siberia, Central Asia, and other areas in the Soviet Union. We have little information about the deportments. We note a diary about the Soviet Gulag from a Polish patriot who fought both the NAZIs and Soviets [Sulkowska-Gladun] In many cases whole families were deported. This was in keeping with Soviet attitudes toward classes of people. If a perdon was a businessman, police officer, military officer, member of the imteligencia, ect. than his whole family was subject. As a resort among the depoetees were thousands of children. Guven the circumstances of the deportatiins, thousand of people (especially children and the elderly) perished because of hunger, exposure, and lack of care. After the Geman invasion (June 1941) Soviet policy changed. Negotiations were held between the British, Polisg Government in exile and Soviets. The Soviets agreed to allow Poles who wanted to leave the country. Polish refugees took the opportunity. The exit was very difficult and only Poles who enlisted in the military were provided food and supplies. Even so, civiliands made their way to Iran. Many died on the way. From Iran they made their way to facilities throughout British held areas as well as Mexico.


There were both Jewish refugees trying to escape the NAZIs by fleeing east into the Soviet zone as well as Jews living in the Soviet zone.


About 300,000 Jews are believed to have escaped the NAZI-occupied area into the Soviet zones. Anti-semtic Polish sources suggest that they were enthusuiastically greeted by the Soviets. Our understanding is that their treatment varied, depending on the attitudes of the Soviets encountering them. Some were forced back into the NAZI zone. There are are verified accounts of Soviet forces firing on Jews trying to escape into the Soviet zone. Some were even turned over to the NAZIs. We do not think that the Soviets had any set policy for dealing with Jewish refugeees, but our informstion is still limited.

Resident Jews

The mass deportations of targeted groups into remote areas of the Soviet Union primarilyu affected the rather than the minorities (Jews, Lithunians, Ukranins, and others). Some Jews were arrested, primarily pre-War Jewish social and political activists. This included those Jews involved in Zionist organizations as well as with thhe Bund. There is considerable controversy about this and the issue is not well researched, in part because it could not be touched during the Communist era. It is also well documented as to Jews and other minmorities that worked with the Soviets during the occupation or cooperated with the NKVD in the repression of Poles. It was widely believed by the Poles that the Jews cooperated extensively with the Soviets or at least were less severely targeted than they were. This is a widely held belief among Poles in eastern Poland that Jews and the other minorities were involved in anti-Polish and pro-Soviet activities. Such string feelings can not be simply dismissed, but there is not documented studies addressing this issue. This is difficult to assess because virtually no hard data exists and perceptions may have been affected by pronounced anti-Semitism thst was widespread in pre-War Poland. Soviet policy was to use the minorities to help them control the majority Polish bpopulation. The Ukranind in particular were used in this way. And many Jews in Eastern Poland had Russian or Jewish orthodox cultural roots rather than Polish Catholic connections. The Jews that were politically aware were relieved that the Soviets had essentially prevented NAZI occupation. And there was a greater degree of support for Communist ideology among Jews than Catholic Poles. Jews in pre-War Poland had been descrimibated in a variety of ways.

Soviet Goals

World War II accounts usually focus on the NAZI invasion and occupation of Poland. In fact the Soviet occupation was also horific, although it did not include the biologica genocide of the NAZI occupation. Stalin like Hitler, however, wanted to destroy the Polish nation. This changed with Opperation Barbarossa and Stalin decided that the Poles would be useful to fight the NAZI invasion.

Opperation Barbarossa (June 1941)

The Battle of Britain in many ways changed the course of the War. An invasion of Britain was impossible without air superiority. Hitler, fearing a cross-Channel invasion, decided that the only way to force the British to seek terms was to destroy he Soviet Union. He began shifting the Wehrmacht eastward to face the enemy that he had longed to fight from the onset--Soviet Russia. The nature of the War changed decisevely in the second half of 1941. The Germans invaded Russia in June 1941, launching the most sweeping military campaign in history. The Soviets were surprised and devestated. Stalin ignored warnings from the British who as a result of Ultra had details on the Germna preparations. Stalin was convinced that they were trying to draw him into the War and until the actual attack could not believe that Hitle would attack him. The attack was an enormous tactical success. The Soviets were surprised and devestated. The Soviet Air Force was destoyed, largely on the ground. The German scaptured 3.8 million Soviet soldiers in the first few months of the campaign. No not knowing the true size of the Red Army, they thought they had essentally won the War. German columns too the major cities of western Russia and drove toward Leningrad and Moscow. But here the Soviets held. The Japanese decission to strike America, allowed the Sovierts to shift Siberian reserves and in December 1941 launch a winter offensive stopping the Whermacht at the gates of Moscow--inflicting irreplaceable losses. The army that invaded the Soviet Union had by January 1942 lost a quarter of its strength. Hitler on December 11 declared war on America--the only country he ever formally declared war on. In an impassioned speech, he complained of a long list of violations of neutality and actual acts of war. [Domarus, pp. 1804-08.] The list was actually fairly accurate. His conclusion, however, that actual American entry into the War would make little difference proved to a diasterous miscalculation. The Germans who months before had faced only a battered, but unbowed Britain now was locked into mortal combat with the two most powerful nations of the world. The British now had the allies that made a German and Japanese victory virtually impossible. After the Russian offensive of December 1941 and apauling German losses--skeptics began to appear and were give the derisory term " Gröfaz ".

Soviets Release Polish Soldiers (August 1941)

With the NAZI attack on the Soviets, the Polish government in exile decided to established diplomatic relations with the Soviet Union even though Stalin had conspired with Hitler to destroy Poland. The success oif the Germans caused Stalin to deal with the Polisg Government-in-Exile. The major consequence was that Stalin released hundred of thousands of Polish POWs that had been interened as well as civilians deported to Siberia and other locations. The head of the commission for Polish mobilization visited the POW camps as did General Anders and General Bohusz-Szyszko. After tge speeches they began recruiting the Polish soldiers. They were allowed to either join Polish formatioins organized within the Red Army or move west and join Polish formations being orhanized ny the Western Allies. Allied control of Iran and Iraq allowed the Poles to leave the Soviet Union and reach Allied forces. They were formed into the 2nd Polish Corps led by General Wladyslaw Anders which added a sizeable force to the Polish forces fighting with the Allies. It is at this time the Poles notice that large numbers of officers are unaccounted for. Many were known to have been in the custody of the Soviets.

Katyn Forrest Graves Discovered (April 1943)

The Germans discovered graves of about 8,000 of the Polish officers thathad been executed bybthe NKVD in the Katyn Forrest near Smolensk.. The Germans used the discovery in their propaganda. The Soviets denined that they were responsible and blamed in on the NAZIs. The Germans to prove theirvallegations invited the International Red Cross to inspect the grave visit. The Red Cross reported that the bodies were Polish officers and that they had been executed with Soviet weapons. The Soviets claimed that Germans had fabricated the episoide. discovery. The discovery was not at all welcomed by the Allies who were having trouble with the Soviets as was. The Red Army in 1943 had done the great bulk of the fighting against the Wehrmacht. Stalin was demanding a second front and becoming increasingly suspicious thatthe Western Allies were opersuing a plicy of allowing the Soviets and NAZIs to fight each other so that the Allies could control Europe. As a result, they accepted the Soviet explanations without asking many questions. The Polish government in exile refused to do so and pressed the Soviets for an explanation. Continued demands eventually caused Stalin to severe relations with the Poles and form his own more compliant Polish exile Government.

Polish-Soviet Negotiations (1943-44)

The breach between the Polish Goverenment in Exile and the Soviets was disatrous for the Poles as it was the Soviets who would liberate Poland. In the end, however, it was actually unavoidable. The Allies during 1943 and 1944. especially Winston Churchill, tried to reconcile the two sides. This proved impossible. The Katyn Forrest masacre was a major impediment, but there were other issues as well. Here the most important was Poland's post-War boundaries. Stalin demanded the territories that he had annexed in 1939. These were areas thatvthe Bolsheviks and Poles had contested in the early 1920s and had majority Ukrainian and Byelorussian populations. Stalin offered to compensate the Poles with German territory. Mikolajczyk refused to accept the Soviet demands. Another issue was Mikolajczyk's refusal to accept a Communist Government in post-War Poland. Stalin ordered the creation of a compliant Polish government which became known as the Lublin Government as it was based in Lublin, a Polish city that had already been liberated.

Red Army Retakes Poland--Operation Bragration (June-July 1944)

The attention of the Western Allies was on Normany in June 1944. As a result, the greatest defeat of a Germany army in the field is virtually unknown in the West. Unlike the Axis, the Allies attempted to coordinate their strategy. Thus the Soviets launched their major 1944 effort in coordination with the D-Day landings to prevent the Wehrmach from transferring forces west to smash the Normandy bridgehead. Operation Bragration was timed to begin on the same day the NAZIs invaded the Soviet Union (June 22) 3 years earlier. The NAZIs had launced offensives in Spring or early Summer 1941, 42, and 43). The Wehrmacht no longer was capable of a major offensive in the east. It was the Red Army's turn in 1944. The target wast the Wehrmcht's Army Group Central and in many ways it was a replay of Barbarossa, only in reverse. TheRed Army launched a powerful offensive in Byelorussia (eastern Poland). The offensive in 5 weeks suuceeded in moving the front line west to Warsaw, liberating much of Poland. Army Group Center was shatered. The Red Army completely destroyed 17 German Wehrmacht divisions and heavily damaged the combat effectivness of more than 50 other German divisions were shattered. It was the single greatest defeat suffered by the Wehrmacht in the War. The Wehrmact sffered greater casualties than at Stalingrad. [Zaloga]


Lublin Government (1944-45)

5 Lublin is an important industrial city in southeast Poland. Lublin was an important city in Polish history. It was the site of important diets during the (16th–18th centuries. One of these diets resulted in the unification of Poland with Lithuania (1569) Poland with Lithuania. Lublin was awarded to Austria in the Third Partition (1795). After the Napoleonic Wars, Lublin was awrded to Russia at the Congress of Vienna (1815). Lubin was after World War I briefly the seat of a Polish Socialist government (1815). After the NAZI-Soviet invasions, Lublin was in the Soviet occupation zone (1939). When the NAZIs invaded the Soviet Union (1941), the Majdanek concentration camp was established near Lublin. When the Red Army moved into Poland (1944), Stlalin established a provisional government at Lublin to counter the influence of the London-based Government-in-exile. Under Allied pressure, Stlalin at the Yalta Conference (February 1945) to broaden the political base of the Lublin government by adding members of the London Government-in-exile. The Allies at the Potsdam Conference agreed to recognize the Lublin government as the sole Polish governing authority (August 1945).

Soviets Install Communist Government (1945-47)

President Mikolajczyk resigned to return to Poland which had been liberated from the NAZIs (November 1944). He took office in the new government established by Soviet occupation authorities. Many of the Poles in exile thought that this was a mistake and that the Soviet-installed Government a facade by the Soviets for a Communist Government which of course was the case. Mikolajczyk lost an election that the Communists had rigged and finally left Poland (1947). The Allies had withdrew their recognition of the Polish Government-in-exile (July 1945). They continued to maintain an organization, but was only a symbolic image. The regime installed by the Soviets proved extremely repressive, employing Stalinist policecstate practces in te late 40s and early 50s. Large numbers of peoole were arrested any many executed.

Yalta (February 1945)

As the Yalta Conference was being held. The Red Army was passing over the former Polish-German frontier. Roosevelt and Churchill accepted the boirders demabnded by Stalin. As the Red Army controlled the area, there was little alternative here, They did extract a promise from Stalin to establish a government based on democratic principles. The 7th point of the Yalta protocol read, ""The three heads of Government consider that the eastern frontier of Poland should follow the Curzon Line with digressions from it in some regions of five to eight kilometers in favor of Poland. They recognize that Poland must receive substantial accessions in territory in the north and west. They feel that the opinion of the new Polish Provisional Government of National Unity should be sought in due course of the extent of these accessions and that the final delimitation of the western frontier of Poland should thereafter await the peace conference." [U.S. Department of State]

Polish Allied Soldiers

The Polish military forces which fought with the Allies were disbanded in 1945. Few wanted to return to Communist Poland. And if they had had most would have been arrested.

Cold War Poland

The most crucial country for a variety of cultural and geo-political reasonns was Poland. Poland because of its geographic location became the epicenter for the Cold War. For without a compliant Communist Poland, a the Communist East German regime was untenable. Unfortunately for the Soviets, Poland proved the most difficult Eastern European satellite country to control. It is interesting to specuale as to just why Poland proved so difficult for the Soviets to dominate. Poland was the only Eastern European satellite that had until the 18th century been a major European power. With the Polish partitions of the late 18th century, the Polish nation disappeared from the maps of Durope. What did not disappear was the Polish Catholic Church which became the repository for Polish nationaism for three centuries. Stalin spoke derivisely of the Vatican, asking how many divisions the pope commanded. In fact it was a Polish pope in the 1980s that would play a critical role in the unraveling of the Soviet empire Stalin constructed in Eastern Europe.


U.S. Department of State. A Decade of American Foriegn Policy : Basic Documents, 1941-49 Prepared at the request of the Senate Committee on Foreign Relations by the Staff of the Committe and the Department of State. (Washington, DC : Government Printing Office, 1950).

Domarus, Max. Hitler Reden und Proklamationen 1932-45 Vol. 1-2 (Neustadt a.d. Aisch: Velagsdruckerei Schmidt, 1962-63).

Fest, Joachim C. Hitler (Vintage Books: New York, 1974), 844p.

Gladun, Chris. "Poland's Holocaust: A Family Chronicle of Soviet and Nazi Terror". Chris has provided a synosish of his father's World War II diary: Leon Gladun, Polish officer, A Katyn and WWII Diary, "A Katyn and WWII Diary.

Kazaniwsky, Bohdan. "Amid death, gratitude for life," The Washington Post (May 28, 2004), p. W12.

Sulkowska-Gladun, Jania. A Gulag and Holocaust Memoir.

Zaloga, Steven J. Bagration 1944: The Destruction of Army Group Center (Praeger Illustrated Military History: Praeger Publishers, 2004), 96p.


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