Shelby Stanger: I’ve interviewed a lot of people during my time as a journalist, but when it comes to the most badass people I’ve ever spoken to, as far as having a positive mental outlook, and an incredible ability to persevere, even in the worst situations, Dr. Edith Eger, a 91-year old Holocaust survivor, author, speaker, therapist and coach, she was at the top of the list. She was an absolute honor to interview for this episode. I first heard Dr. Eger speak when I was in eighth grade, and she made a huge impression on me, so much I ran home and told my mom all about her.
I saw her speak again just two years ago when she was on tour for her book, The Choice, and hearing her story years later was even more powerful. Her story is her life’s work. It’s one about resilience, courage and the power of choice we all have. She’s a woman who’s seen a lot in her 91 years, and she has a vibrant spirit, and she’s full of wisdom. If you’re looking for sage advice, listen to this one through the end.
I’m Shelby Stanger, and this is Wild Ideas Worth Living.
Edith grew up in Hungary. She was the youngest of three girls and had two older sisters, Magda and Clara. The oldest, Clara, was a prodigy of the violin, and her other sister, Magda was often praised for her beauty.
Edith, however, was more focused on her studies and on books. As a teen, she discovered ballet and gymnastics, and she felt most alive when she was dancing and moving her body. She was also really good, so much that in 1944, when she was 16 years old, she was actually training to make the Hungarian Olympic Gymnastics team.
I thought we should start. You’re the youngest of three girls, and I’m the youngest of three girls, so I related to this a lot. I’m curious to know, for people who don’t totally know your story, what your life was like before the war. What did you and your sisters do for fun, for your spare time?
Edith Eger: They were making up songs about me, that I’m so ugly and so puny that I’m never going to find a husband. When they took me for a walk, they blindfolded me so no one would see how ugly I am because I was becoming cross-eyed when I was three years old. I was very young. I believed my sisters, that was today when I am telling everyone in school, “Don’t allow other people to define who you are.” Because, unfortunately, I did listen to my sisters, and I believed that I was ugly. Actually, my mom also told me, “I’m glad you have brains because you have no looks.” That was reinforced, and I became a very erudite teenager.
I had my own book club, I had The Interpretation of Dreams by Freud. You see, that’s how I grew up, because my parents really wanted a son, and I came along. It is important for us to know that we can rewrite our script. That I can be now what I choose to be, and not to be a victim of anyone or anything at any time.
Shelby: Your sisters were so mean. All sisters and siblings can be mean, but that was not nice of them to say that, or for your mom, and you’re a stunning woman. You’re beautiful. It’s hard to believe someone would have said that about you.
Edith: Magda was the pretty one. Clara played a Mendelssohn Violin Concerto when she was five years old. My parents really wanted a son, and I came along.
Shelby: Magda was your sister who went to Auschwitz with you, and Clara–
Edith: Yes, she’s still alive.
Shelby: She’s still alive. That’s such a beautiful thing.
Edith: Clara died of Alzheimer. She was playing violin with the Sydney Symphony.
Shelby: Clara played the violin at the highest level in Hungary when you grew up. Magda, your sister, was also talented and very sexy, you said. You had sports. You got into dancing, you said, and to gymnastics.
Edith: Yes, I had a very spiritual ballet master who picked me up and said to me, that God made me in such a magnificent way. That all the ecstasy, he used that word, I didn’t know what it meant, the ecstasy comes from inside out. I didn’t understand until I did go to Auschwitz and I lost everything. Everyone, except my sister, was with me. My mother was right, I still had my mind. That was with me.
Shelby: You’re incredibly smart. At 14, you had your own book club, and you met this–
Edith: Studying Latin. Studying Greek. You know what? There is a good Latin saying, I’m going to say it in Latin [Latin language]. Times are changing, and we are changing with the times. See, I go dancing once a week. You know what kind? Swing dancing.
Edith: You know how you call it? Supermarket music.
Edith: It’s true, I know.
Shelby: It is true.
Edith: You call it elevator music.
Shelby: I don’t know. I like that kind of music, though. I like the big band music. It’s fun.
Edith: You got it. That’s my speed.
Shelby: I have to tell you, I’m a terrible dancer, but I love it. You were a gymnast. I think we need to go back to this, because you weren’t just any gymnast, you got invited. You would have been.
Edith: I would have been in the Olympics.
Shelby: You’re a gymnast and a dancer, which to me it’s the ultimate–
Edith: I had to do the two together. I do a lot of splits.
Shelby: Its strength and grace, though. Those are the two most-
Edith: Very graceful.
Shelby: – beautiful– Yes, and you still dance today.
Edith: I still dance today, and I still do the high kick today. Not as good, but people like it that a 91-year old can finish a lecture, hopefully a good one and a meaningful one. I do get a standing ovation, and I do the high kick, and we celebrate, and we dance.
Shelby: It’s so cool. Dr. Eger is referring to the fact that every time she doesn’t talk, whether it’s a TEDx talk or a TED talk, or she’s on Oprah, she finishes it with a high kick. I know you can’t see that driving in your car. I don’t know how tall you are, but you’re tiny but mighty. She’s this cute little thing–
Edith: I was introduced the other day, that she’s very small in stature, but her spirit is as big as the ocean. I thought, “You got it good.”
Shelby: While her older sister Clara was often in Budapest away from the brink of war, the Conservatory of Music, in May of 1944, Edith, her parents and her sister, Magda, were forcefully taken in a wagon to Auschwitz, one of the most infamous Nazi concentration camps located in Poland. It’s estimated that at least 1.1 million people died at Auschwitz during World War II. The stories that Edith tells of her time there are both blur and heartbreaking. From the start, she was placed in one line with her sister, Magda. ll her parents were sent to the other line to shower, which she later learned was really no shower at all but the gas chambers where they were murdered.
Not much later, while in the concentration camps, Edith was forced to dance for Dr. Josef Mengele, known as one of the most evil Nazis of all time, or the Angel of Death, as people called him. She talks about sharing her meager meals and the small piece of bread she was given with other girls, who later came to her rescue when she grew too frail and weak to walk herself. Edith shares openly and gracefully about this traumatic time and the lesson she learned there.
She does it so she can help others everywhere deal their own trauma. She says she wants to help guide people to get rid of the concentration camp that’s in their own mind, and show them the key is always in your pocket.
When you went to Auschwitz, your mom went to one line, you and your sister went to another line.
Edith: She was with me in the middle, and we held on to her. He asked, Dr. Mengele, the Angel of Death, “Is she your sister, or is she your mother?” I never could forgive myself, and I said, “Mother.” She was sent to the other side, and I followed her. He came and grabbed me and told me, “Your mother is just going to take a shower. You’re going to see her very soon”, and promptly threw me on the other side, which meant life.
I always wondered whether my life was in Dr. Mengele’s hand. I don’t think so because I was planned to be here with you at 91, having three children, five grandchildren, and four great grandsons. That’s my best revenge to Hitler.
Shelby: All this life is the best revenge. I agree.
Edith: Living a full beautiful, passionate life, yes.
Shelby: That is so beautiful. Your mom said something to you that I thought was really powerful. Before you guys got in line, she said about what you put in your mind.
Edith: Yes, she said we don’t know where we’re going, we don’t know what’s going to happen, just remember, no one can take away from you what you put in your mind. That’s what I say any time. I was just in a Catholic school the other day. I was just amazed of those eighth graders writing me poetry, coming up with the ballerina that I’m just hanging now, and they’re just amazing. Children need good role models, and I let them know too, “Please, stay in school, because in America, the higher you go, the more doors open up for you. To get your education. Don’t play with your iPhone, don’t try to figure out what you’re going to do after school, stay in the present. Help your teacher to really have a very, very wonderful love of learning experience.”
Shelby: You went through something that was horrific. At one point, in the concentration camp, I remember the point in your book that was the hardest for me to read, was when Dr. Josef Mengele, one of the most evil Nazis of all time, asked you to dance. When you danced for him, you’re able to transport yourself somewhere else.
Edith: Yes, I closed my eyes, and I imagined that I was at the Budapest opera house, and the music was Tchaikovsky, and I was dancing the Romeo and Juliet. This is what happens when a woman comes to me and tells me, “I don’t know how to tell you that I was sexually abused because you were in Auschwitz.” I say, “You were far more in prison than I was because I knew the enemy.” Yes, that’s what happened. Someone touches you and you close your eyes and you check out, and you’re still checking out, then you are in your 30s and 40s. I hope that our conversation would wake up other women, knowing that the opposite of depression is expression, to get it out. Go to a woman’s group and share. Because I didn’t want to tell anyone I was in Auschwitz for 20 years. Thank God, I’m able to do that today and let people know that somehow, everything in life has a gift in it.
Shelby: One of my favorite passages in the book is a chapter called A Cartwheel. It’s a view into the risks Edith took to stay with her sister, Magda, at the concentration camp, and the tenacity and hopeful spirit she carried with her even in the darkest times. I asked Edith to read a section from the chapter, but she asked me to read it instead, and I wanted to share it with you.
At some point in the summer of 1944, Magda and I realized that no more Hungarian Jews are arriving at the camp. Later we’ll learn that in July, Prime Minister Horthy, tired of battling the German authorities, put the deportations on hold. He was too late. Hundreds of thousands of us had already been sent to the camps, 400,000 of us killed in two short months. By October, Horthy’s government fell to the Nazis. The 200,000 Jews still remaining in Hungary, mostly in Budapest, weren’t sent to Auschwitz. They were forced to march 200 miles to Austria. We didn’t know any of this, then. We didn’t know anything of life or the war outside.
One winter morning, we stand in yet another line. The cold bites. We are to be tattooed. I wait my turn, I roll up my sleeve, I present my arm. I’m responding automatically, making the motions required of me, so cold in Hungary that I’m almost numb. “Does anyone know I’m here?” I used to wonder that all the time. Now, the questions come at me sluggishly, as if through a dense in a constant fog. I can’t remember how I used to think. I have to remind myself to picture Erik, but if I think about him too consciously, I can’t recreate his face. I have to trick myself in the memory, catch myself unawares.
“Where is Magda?” That’s the first thing I ask when I wake, when we march to work, before we crash in a sleep. I dart my eyes around to confirm that she’s still behind me. Even if our eyes don’t meet, I know that she’s also keeping watch for me. I’ve begun saving my bread at the evening meal so we can share in the morning. The officer with a needle and ink is right in front of me now. He grabs my wrist and starts to prick, but then he shoves me aside. “I’m not going to waste ink on you”, he says. He pushes me into a different line. “This line is death”, the girl nearest me says. “This is the end.” She’s completely gray as though she’s covered in dust.
Someone ahead of us in the line is praying. In a place where the threat of death is constant, this moment still pierces me. I think suddenly about the difference between deadly and deadening. Auschwitz is both. The chimney smoke and smoke any moment could be the last one. Why care? Why invest? Yet, if this moment, this very one is my last on earth, do I have to waste it in resignation and defeat? Must I spend it as if I’m already dead?
“We never know what the lines mean”, I tell the girl nearest me. What if the unknown could make us curious instead of gut us with fear? Then I see Magda. She’s been selected for a different line. If I’m sent to die, if I’m sent to work, if they evacuate me to a different campus they’ve begun to do with the others, nothing matters except that I stay with my sister, that she stay with me. We are the few, the lucky inmates who have not yet been completely cut off from our families. It’s no exaggeration to say that I lived for my sister. It’s no exaggeration to say that my sister lives for me. There’s chaos in the yard, I don’t know what the lines mean. The only thing I know is that I must pass to whatever lies ahead with Magda. Even if what lies ahead is death.
I eye the gap of crusted over snow that separates us. Guards ring us. I don’t have a plan, time is slow and time is fast. Magda and I share a glance. I see her blue eyes, and then I’m in motion. I’m doing cartwheels, hands to earth, feet to sky, around, around. A guard stares at me. He’s right side up, he’s upside down. I expect a bullet any second. I don’t want to die, but I can’t keep myself from turning around again and again.
He doesn’t raise his gun. Is he too surprised to shoot me? Am I too dizzy to see? He winks at me. I swear I see him wink. He seems to say, this time, you win. In the few seconds that I hold his complete attention, Magda runs across the yard into my line to join me. We melt back into the crowd of girls waiting for whatever will happen next.
Edith: I only have one story. Different people will hear it and tell me that they can go home and turn everything into an opportunity, because that’s how I present Auschwitz. That Auschwitz taught me how you find power within you when nothing comes from without. The more you depend on someone to make you happy, you’re never going to be happy because you become more externally oriented. I say the same thing, Auschwitz was a classroom where I discovered the power within me that I carry today at 91, telling people how not to live in the past, because there is only one thing we cannot ever change, and that’s the past.
Shelby: How were you able to have hope the whole time? I remember there is a couple of things. You had a boyfriend, you had a sister, but there is a story about a girl in the concentration camps who believed that she would be rescued after Christmas.
Edith: Yes, she was. She was saying to us that we are going to be liberated by Christmas. Christmas came, and Christmas left, then she died. She just had this vision, and she gave herself just so much time.
Shelby: You, you had this hope of Erik?
Edith: I said to myself, if I survive today, then tomorrow I’m going to see my boyfriend and show her my eyes and my hands, because he told me I have beautiful eyes and beautiful hands. I was 16, in love. The way you talk to yourself changes your body chemistry.
I’m going to really ask everyone, when you get up in the morning, look in the mirror and say, “I love me.” That’s not narcissistic. Even honer you because God only made one of you. No one ever, in a million years, can replace you.
Shelby: I love that, there’s only one of you, and no one can ever replace you. After the war, Edith moved to Czechoslovakia where she met the man who’d later become her husband. In 1949, they moved to the US Together, and as an immigrant, she often struggled. Years later, in 1969, when she was almost 40, Edith, who says it’s never too late, and age is just a number, got her doctoral degree in psychology. Today, Dr. Edith Eger is a renowned psychologist. She’s helped thousands of people from PTSD survivors, to celebrities, to men and women of all backgrounds still with trauma find power in their choice and restore a sense of hope and peace in their life.
If people have trauma or experienced something hard, how do you encourage them to get help? Because it takes a lot of courage, and it took you a while, you said.
Edith: I think that hope will give you a way of thinking that no matter what happens, you’re going to make it. Even though I was told every day, I’m never going to get out of here alive, I was told every day that the only way will I get out of here, is a corpse. I said to myself, “I know you can throw me in a gas chamber any minute, I know that you can call me any names of the book, but you cannot murder my spirit.” I think that no one can really get to you unless you really show up for them. Some people play that kick me game, and they do it with themselves by saying, yes but, rather than yes and.
I don’t know if your mom maybe has looked at you and said, “You’re a very pretty girl, but I think you’re fat. I think I’m going to do something with your pimples.” By that time, you forget everything that was said before the but. I say give me the but and I give you an and. Yes and, furthermore, and you’re going to grow up to be an erudite, beautiful, brilliant woman of strength. Not a strong woman, but a woman of strength. That strength comes from within you.
Shelby: Can you tell me your view on comparison? Because I do think we’re in this great time in life where people are talking about trauma more, not enough, but people are talking about it, but I think people do come to you and they say you’ve become this renowned psychologist, and have used your trauma to help other people transform theirs, but I think they say, hey, exactly like what that other person said, Dr. Eger, you’ve been through something that, for one, woman, it was she was bummed about the color of her catalog that came out the wrong color yellow, and they’re afraid to tell you traumas because they compare themselves.
Edith: Right. It is never really good to compare yourself because what is trivia for you, it may be life and death to somebody else, and not to really try to change their feelings, but keep it there with them and allow them to feel any feelings without the fear of being judged. I really teach how to listen and be a compassionate listener.
Shelby: I think it’s a good lesson for all of us to remember. My mom actually works in your field, and so I was lucky she had gone through her own trauma and taught me to always see good, good in myself and good in others. I think it took her to deal with some of her own traumas to be able to teach me that.
Edith: We believe what we learn, and a lot of the times, and that’s why you don’t blame when you grow up, because there is no freedom without responsibility. It’s anarchy. Sometimes I ask people, do you want to be a baby or a big girl, or a big girl, because when we are children, we sit in the back of the car, and somebody is driving the car. I can just mess around in the back. Then I ask, do you want to be driven or do you want to be the driver? Anything that’s happened thus far, you made it. The question is not why me, the question is, what now?
Shelby: Well, you have this incredible perspective about time. You don’t think it’s too late.
Edith: Time is everything. Me time, me and your time, self-love is self-care. It’s not narcissistic.
Shelby: Okay, let’s dive into this, because to me, this is a big theme on our podcast is, this big choice that you encourage people to make, which is self-love and self-care. How do you enjoy self-love and self-care today?
Edith: Well, you just swim in it. You get up and you look at life as one day. I’m at the evening part of my life, you are still are, and you’re going through coming to mid-life very slowly, but you’re still in your 30s, so you’re not yet there. In my book, there are no problems, there are only challenges. There are no crises, there are only transitions. At this time, evening part, I want to know how I will feel in my death bed, very satisfied. You’re never sorry what you do, you never regret what you do, you regret what you don’t do or didn’t do. I will feel very satisfied that I gave people a choice, that I am never ever going to see myself as a victim. I was victimized, it’s not who I am. It’s not my identity. I’m a human being.
Shelby: You’ve chosen to write your own story.
Edith: Yes. It took a lifetime.
Shelby: Let’s talk more about this power of choice, because you’re an expert on it.
Edith: Yes. The more choices you have, the less you’re going to feel like a victim.
Shelby: How do you decide to make the right choice?
Edith: You’ve got to really want it badly, badly enough that you become your own good parent, and you become your own good cheerleader. That, yes, I am, and yes, I can, and yes I will. That, your inner dialogue really changes your body chemistry. It’s really important to think about your thinking, and pay attention what you’re paying attention to, because any behavior you pay attention to, you reinforce that behavior that you want to extinguish.
Shelby: In 2017, Edith published a book about her life called The Choice. It’s the book I read from, and so I’ll speak about two years ago. In the book, she writes about her time in Auschwitz, about being an immigrant in America, about her family and children, and her psychology practice. It’s her life’s work, and it’s full of lessons. Among them, that freedom from trauma, from grief and fear come to us when we make the choice to heal ourselves. It’s a choice we have to make personally.
How is the process of writing a book for you?
Edith: Oh my god, I beg other people. I went to my great grandson’s home for Thanksgiving. Guess what? My book is on their living room table. What do you think of that?
Shelby: I got goosebumps.
Edith: That feeling, isn’t that amazing?
Edith: Now I can die because I want to be a good role model to you and everyone else, that life is beautiful and you can make it, because if I can do it, you can do it. I came to America penniless. I didn’t have six dollars to get off the boat, and I didn’t speak a word of English. Everything was okay. Okay, okay. Everything was okay.
Look at me now. I speak English quite well, right?
Shelby: You have the best style. You know the best things all around La Jolla. You’ve figured it out. You’ve managed to live a wonderful life. You have great kids, grandkids.
Edith: I live in paradise.
Shelby: You have great grandkids. That must feel so sweet.
Edith: Oh my God. When I got pregnant, the doctor scheduled an abortion and came to the house to convince me that I’m too weak and too young. I got up. I said, “Sir,” you have to watch out when I say sir, “Sir, I want to give life. I don’t want to take away life.” Guess what happened? I had my precious Marianne, who was a 10 pounder. I could have been a horse doctor to get a second opinion. Please. My late husband, at that time, apologized to the doctor that his young wife doesn’t know how to talk to a doctor respectfully. He’s called patriotic. Isn’t it amazing?
Shelby: Good on you.
Edith: I still can see my husband following the doctor down the step, apologizing that I don’t know how to talk to a doctor.
Shelby: I love your spirit. You have a very vibrant spirit.
Edith: My spirit is just soaring.
Shelby: It is. It’s courageous and it’s infectious.
Edith: I have nothing but gratitude.
Shelby: What advice do you give to your grandkids and your great-grandkids?
Edith: I have a story about my granddaughter who was in a class that the IQ started over 140 something. Very special class. I was invited. A grandma and the teacher called my Lindsey, my little red caboose. I don’t like labels. I didn’t like my other teacher calling and giving labels to my granddaughter, and my granddaughter was ready to check out of that class, thinking that she’s really not good enough. She was a perfectionist. I could see her erasing everything 10 million times. She was about 10 years old. I don’t know how, but the first time, I spoke to Lindsey about Auschwitz in a language that was hopefully very age appropriate.
Anyway, Lindsey stayed, and she ended up at Bishop’s in La Jolla, and when it was time to write for colleges, and you have to write your autobiography, guess what was the title? When The Caboose Became An Engine. She ended up at Princeton, and graduated with honors, and wrote her thesis of me and my sister as well, and getting a PhD at UCLA, and now she’s a college professor. She was at the University of Chicago, but they moved here closer, and now she is a professor at the University at Irvine.
Shelby: That’s a great school. All of your kids and kid-in-laws are very successful. Dr. Engle won a Nobel Prize winner.
Edith: My son-in-law got a Nobel Prize.
Shelby: Nobel Prize winner, the Engle theorem.
Edith: The Robert Engle. E-N-G-L-E. You can Google him. Yes.
Shelby: Yes. Jordan’s dad. So incredible. He’s a talented photographer.
Edith: My daughter has an office on Park Avenue, and she’s a brilliant psychologist, especially with children.
Shelby: What do people come to you for advice for today?
Edith: I think most people come and want to be free. Want to be free from the prison that they lock themself in, which is in their own mind. I say in my book, the key is in your pocket. I like to call myself a guide. I think God was also a guide when I was able to change hatred into pity in Auschwitz.
Shelby: This is an adventure podcast, and I’d say you’re probably the most badass person who’s been on this show, hands down.
Shelby: You really are. What else do you like to do outside for fun today?
Edith: I love to dance. I love to see movies. I love to speak to audiences, and being introduced as someone who doesn’t have time to hate, someone who is really, truly, for life, and for celebration, and for empowering each other with our differences. If I can save lives, I have everything.
Shelby: Thank you so much. Is there one piece of advice that you just love to end with?
Edith: Just remember that God only made one of you. Many people can do what you can do, but not the way you do it. You’re unique. You’re one of a kind diamond in the rough.
Shelby: I love this.
Edith: I love you.
Shelby: Thank you so much. I love you.
Shelby: You’re amazing.
Edith: You are. Thank you for doing that.
Shelby: A few days after our conversation, I drove Edith to a talk she was giving at Nixon, an action sports-watch company in Encinitas. We talked in the car about her upcoming talk at Nixon, and also her upcoming interview with Oprah Winfrey, which is actually available to watch or listen to today. We also talked about what she loves about dancing, and she told Johnny and I together that the key to preventing disease like old-timers is an orgasm. It was pretty funny hearing a 91-year-old tell us this, but Edith’s also a sex therapist and so open about everything.
Then, during her talk at Nixon, she shared many of the gems of wisdom she talked about in our earlier interview, but there are a couple of new insights that really hit home for me. The first was about the danger of perfectionism. Something I still struggle with.
Edith: I don’t know who made up the word “supposed to”. Now, you tell me what that word means. I think it’s a stupid word. “I am supposed to.” Which God? Who said that? What do you mean supposed to? I tell you what. You want to give up some things, and that’s perfectionism, because we human beings, we make mistakes. I like you to get rid of perfectionism because if you’re a perfectionist, you want to do everything just right, which means never. You know what happens with perfectionism, it leads to procrastination. You become like Scarlett O’Hara, and you say, “I’ll think about it tomorrow.” Remember that?
I teach young people to stop procrastinating. You come home from school, you do your homework, and then you can watch TV. The best thing parents can do, to teach your children to be good parents to themselves, because the only one you will have for a lifetime is you. All other relationships will end.
Shelby: There was one other thing she said that really hit home for me. Someone asked how she can ever forgive the Nazis for the horror they caused, and how we could forgive others who cause us trauma. She grabbed a pillow from the couch she was sitting on, and she lifted it up in the air, then she dropped it. She said, “Just like that, you have to let it go. Let go of the pain and trauma. Why carry around that baggage with you? We have the choice to make our lives extraordinary and beautiful. It’s up to us.”
This podcast is produced by REI, with help from Anny Fassler and Chelsea Davis.
Thank you so much to Dr. Edith Eger, to your family, to your assistant, and for sharing your story with us all. We love your vivacious spirit, and I can’t wait to see you again.
Tune in the week after next for an episode with a different vibe. I’m talking to a social media darling and activist who uses their voice to raise up others and educate people on the importance of being wildly and unapologetically themselves. This week, I want to make the choice to live the most compassionate, loving, adventure-filled life I can. I hope you do the same.
If you get a chance, please subscribe to this podcast on Apple Podcast, Spotify, or wherever you’re listening so you don’t miss an episode, and please write a review. It takes two minutes. It means a lot. It really helps the show grow, and keeps it free. Remember, wherever you are, some of the best adventures often happen when you follow your wildest ideas.
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