The Battle of Vimy Ridge: History, Myth, Memorial and Remembrance

The Battle of Vimy Ridge was one of the costliest and most successful military engagements in Canadian history. Due to the extraordinary bravery of thousands of Canadians, the Battle of Vimy Ridge was hard-won against great odds. Today Vimy Ridge is commemorated in Canada as the defining moment when we shed the cloak of the British Empire and defined our own identity on the world stage as a victorious nation.

But.

History really is not the same as remembrance, as I discovered last June when I visited the battlefield. The Vimy Ridge memorial, built in 1936 on land donated by France to “all Canadian people,” has become enshrined in a national narrative honouring Canada’s “coming of age” and “birth” as a nation. With every new busload of Canadian tourists, British schoolchildren, curious Germans, this memorial perpetuates this narrative, while reminding us both the astounding scale of the First World War, and Canada’s role in that international conflict.

Once the feelings of overwhelming awe towards the immense bravery of all soldiers fighting in the First World War passes, and once you dig deeper into Canada’s exact reasons in 1917 for attacking this dreadful graveyard in France, and once you actually question what the hell so many young men were doing in such a devastating conflict, you begin to realise that the way we remember battles has become more important than the reality of what actually happened.

 The “Facts” that Fuel Canada’s National Narrative

Vimy Ridge was a heavily fortified seven-kilometre ridge in northern France that held a commanding view over the Allied lines. Previous attempts by the French to secure the ridge resulted in over 100,000 causalities, who lay in the open graveyard between the lines.

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Vimy Ridge on April 9, 1917. Canadian troops seen here advancing over no man’s land and through the German barbed wire whilst under fire. (Photo: Huffington Post).

The Canadian Corps spent weeks practising the attack. After the disaster at the Somme, British tactics were forced to change. Instead of relying on officers for leadership and strategy (many of whom had been slaughtered at the Somme), regular soldiers were now equipped with enough tactical details to adequately survive if their leader was killed in action.  For the first time, regular infantrymen were briefed on the terrain and maps, and encouraged to think for themselves. They were also armed with machine guns, rifle-men and grenade throwers, giving them more versatile tools to overcome obstacles.

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Prior to the Canadian attack on April 9th, 1917, the Canadian Corps had around 1,000 men working on 12 underground passageways. Each of the tunnels housed soldiers, ammunition, water, and communication lines, and most were lit by electricity.  See Valour Canada website for more details.

Elaborate tunnels in the rear lines (the longest being 1.2km in length) allowed for quick communication between rear and front line trenches. This also allowed for critical supplies to reach all the troops in the weeks leading to the attack.

But the chief reason for success was the devastating artillery barrage that isolated German trenches and forced German machine gunners to stay in their deep dug outs. A week before the attack, more than a million shells were fired at the German lines, and even targeted at the villages in the rear. The Germans called this “the week of suffering.”

The new artillery fuse (called 106) meant that shells detonated upon impact, rather than burying themselves in the ground, which meant that hard defences could be more easily destroyed. One Canadian observer recorded that the shells poured “over our heads like water from a hose, thousands and thousands a day.”

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British General Sir Julian Byng and the commander of the Canadian Expeditionary Force, warned before the attack on Vimy Ridge, “Chaps, you shall go over exactly like a railroad train, on time, or you shall be annihilated.”

On the morning of Monday, 9 April 1917 at 5.30am, four Canadian divisions, attacking together for the first time, overran the German line. Over 15,000 Canadians accompanied by one British division captured the highest part of the ridge (Hill 145) and within three days, the Canadians and British had won the ridge.

But Vimy Ridge was only victorious at a great cost. Nearly 4,000 Canadians were killed and 7,000 were injured.

The Facts Excluded from the Canadian Narrative

The Canadian War Museum website, the Vimy Foundation website, and the Veterans Affairs website of the Canadian government fail to mention German casualties or prisoners, or even recognise Britain’s involvement as anything but ancillary.

Exact figures for German casualties are unknown due to the destruction of records in the Second World War. But we know that 4,000 Germans were taken prisoner, while the Canadian Encyclopaedia estimates that 20,000 Germans were killed or wounded at Vimy Ridge.

One of the reasons for German defeat was the German Commanders’ failure to adequately use a newly introduced defensive tactic called “defence in depth.” Rather than stubbornly defending every foot of captured ground, German armies would allow attacking troops to probe into their territory just far enough to be beyond their supply lines — and then destroy them in a counterattack. The strategy was very effective, but the German defenders of Vimy were given the traditional order to “hold the line” at all costs. The German commander, Ludwig von Falkenhausen, was promptly reassigned after the defeat.

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Captured German prisoners after the Battle of Vimy Ridge, 1917. Photo credit: the National Post and Library and Archives Canada.

In the aftermath of Vimy Ridge, German soldiers were photographed smiling after being taken prisoner. This, despite the fact that Canadians had earned a grim reputation for killing those who surrendered. (For an excellent article on this, see Tim Cook’s The Politics of Surrender).  But smiling for the camera was no coincidence. A year previously, Germany had suffered through the “turnip winter”, when adults were living on just 1,200 calories a day. So, becoming a POW often meant receiving better rations. Also, the Germans had just undergone weeks of night attacks and raids on their trenches. They were obviously exhausted and relieved to be no longer fighting.

Despite Canadian proclamations of victory, Germans viewed Vimy Ridge as a draw rather than an outright defeat. Historians, such as Andrew Godefroy, admit that due to a lack of sources, it is difficult to fully reconstruct events on the German side. But he revealed that although General von Falkenhausen was assigned most of the blame for losing the ridge, other commanders including General Georg Karl Wichura and Oberstluetnant Wilhelme von Goerne, received medals for their leadership. Also, because the Canadians took the ridge but failed to break the German line, the Germany army recognized, to some degree, that Vimy Ridge had not entirely been a defeat.

Most importantly, the Battle of Vimy Ridge was strategically insignificant to the outcome of the war. Other battles, such as Amiens and Cambrai had far greater impact. As historian Andrew Godefroy writes in Vimy Ridge, a Canadian Reassessment: “To the German army the loss of a few kilometres of vital ground meant little in the grand scheme of things.” After Vimy Ridge, the repute of Canadian troops was certainly increased, especially as elite shock troops in 1918, but Vimy Ridge itself was not strategically important.

Commemorating Vimy Ridge: Let’s Build a Memorial!

After the First World War, nations devastated by conflict erected thousands of monuments (both large and small) to acknowledge those who died. France and Belgium donated sections of land to its allies for the purposes of commemoration. And Vimy Ridge was one of eight battle sites (five in France and three in Belgium) awarded to Canada.

In 1920, the newly established Canadian Battlefields Memorial Commission organized a competition for a Canadian memorial to be erected on each site. Walter Allward, an experienced sculptor and a well-known designer of memorials, won the competition in 1921. Due to Vimy Ridge’s vantage point, accessibility and significance, the Canadian Battlefields Memorial Commission decided that Allward’s memorial would be built at Vimy Ridge (although it did take 2.5 years to clear the 100 hectare land of unexploded bombs, some of which still remain there today).

After ten years of construction (it took two years to find a suitable quarry for the limestone, which, ironically, was located in Sarajevo, Yugoslavia where the assassination of Archduke Ferdinand and his wife had started the First World War), the memorial was completed in July 1936. 6,000 Canadians were given “Special Vimy” passports by the Canadian government to make the “pilgrimage” to the unveiling.

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Over 100,000 spectators attended the unveiling. His Majesty King Edward VIII and various Canadian representatives met with mothers whose sons had died. One veteran remembers: “The service lasted only an hour but never had anyone experienced one more solemn or moving” (Saburo Shinobu, Japanese Branch of the Canadian Legion).

Adorned with twenty sculptures, Allward’s memorial is topped by figures representing the universal virtues of faith, justice, peace, honour, charity, truth, knowledge and hope. The Christian symbolism is obvious and clearly references “traditional images of the Mater Dolorosa (the Virgin Mary in mourning), while the figure spread-eagled on the altar below the two pylons resembles a Crucifixion scene.”

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“Between the pylons stands a figure holding a burning torch. Entitled ‘The Spirit of Sacrifice’, it is a reference to one of the most famous poems of the Great War, ‘In Flanders Fields,’ by the Canadian Army Medical Corps officer, Lieutenant-Colonel John McCrae.” (Canada War Museum)

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Although not a part of the original design, over 11,000 names of all the Canadians who had died with no known grave are etched into the base of the monument. (Photo from Amerique Francaise)

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A maternal figure at the base of the memorial. Note the engraved names around the base.

In 1940, as German armies swept through western Europe, destroying many of the First World War monuments in its wake, Vimy Ridge was exempted. In fact, Hitler visited the monument and was so impressed that he apparently assigned Waffen SS guards to protect it. This prevented regular soldiers of the German army from defacing the monument.  As most of the Australian WWI graves and memorials had been destroyed by advancing German troops, this likely saved Vimy Ridge from a similar fate.

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Although saving the memorial was also a propaganda stunt to demonstrate Hitler’s goodwill to the conquered French people, perhaps we should all be a little more in awe of a structure that even Hitler himself wouldn’t destroy.

Although the sculpted figures need repair throughout the years, and the monument undergoes regular cleaning, even today the Vimy Ridge memorial looks brand new. Its white stones contrast the blue skies and rolling hills in the large valley below. Just a kilometer away, a new visitor’s centre offers tours to over 700,000 people a year by real Canadian guides. They take groups through the trenches, preserved as they were a hundred years ago.

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After the war, the trenches were preserved by pouring concrete into the original sandbags.

Myth Making of a Nation

While I would never minimise the great cost of human life associated to any battle, Vimy Ridge, as a cornerstone of Canadian national identity, is perpetuated by this imposing memorial and its regular commemoration. According to the Canadian Encyclopedia, the choice to build this memorial at Vimy Ridge “was a less a result of the battle’s importance than of Vimy’s extraordinary geographic location – a high vantage point with a commanding view, visible from miles around.” And, to be fair to the Canadian Battlefields Memorial Commission in 1920, it really is a glorious view.

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Canadian historian, Tim Cook, claims that Vimy Ridge was elevated above other Canadian battles, at least partly, for political and national purposes. He addresses the divergence between history and mythmaking in his new book Vimy: the Battle and the Legend (2017):

“Canada is a country – like most – that places little stock in its history, teaching it badly, embracing it little, feeding it only episodically. As Canada developed over time, we cast aside much that grounded us in the past; yet there are some ideas, myths and icons that persistently carry the weight of nationhood. Vimy is one of them.”

The meaning behind Vimy Ridge – whether a bloody sacrifice of countless young men in a war forced upon them by an outmoded commitment to Empire, or perhaps a remarkable story of miraculous nation-forging against all odds – is evolving through a process of forgetting and remembering. With every new busload of Canadian tourists, British schoolchildren, curious Germans, and bewildered Americans, Vimy Ridge is reinterpreted and reconceptualised again and again to the waves of spectators in awe of its remarkable history.

But what I asked myself, one hundred years after the Canadians had won this beautiful vantage point in France, while standing under its majestic pillars on a sunny day in June 2017:

What would we remember of Vimy Ridge if it wasn’t for this impressive memorial?

Vimy Ridge is both a lesson in history and a lesson in remembrance. While Vimy Ridge might unify the two in one immaculate feat of human creation, they are not synonymous. The Battle of Vimy Ridge was an epic victory, where men from each corner of Canada joined together for the first time in a victorious campaign against their sworn enemy. But it wasn’t entirely Canadian – it was led by a British officer and supplied by British provisions. And it wasn’t entirely a victory – it had no decisive impact on the war and the German lines remained intact. Despite those important details, remembering Vimy Ridge at this grand memorial is a testament to a country mourning the great loss of its youngest citizens.

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Remembering Food in the Concentration Camps: Interviews with Holocaust Survivors

A few months ago, I came across a second-hand copy of the Forgotten Voices of the Holocaust (Ebury Press, 2005). This is a remarkable compilation of interview excerpts from the survivors of the largest genocide in modern history. Collected by Lyn Smith over decades of work at the Imperial War Museum in London, these testimonies reveal some of the darkest and degrading experiences that victims suffered under Nazi rule and imprisonment. But many excerpts also acknowledge the instances of mutual support, goodness and acts of reciprocity that also characterised life during the Holocaust.

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As a Second World War historian, I have read abundantly on my topic, but very rarely does a book disturb me. In fact, I was so surprised by some of the themes I discovered in its pages, that I contacted a Holocaust archive in London and immediately offered to contribute to their weekly blog. (See my blog “Dignity in the Holocaust: Themes of Resistance in Oral History Testimonies” on the Weiner Library‘s website).

 

The way this book conveys survivors’ experiences of the Holocaust is compelling. Although Lyn Smith has grouped the testimonies together in mostly chronological order (and a thematic chapter on “resistance”), hardly any historical or geographic context is granted. We simply learn the survivor’s name (i.e. Anna Bergman), her/his background (ie. Czech Jewish university student) and where s/he are discussing (ie. Prague). This lack of superfluous information actually strengthens the words on the pages, they become vastly more poignant.

Some interviews reinforced many well-known facts about the Holocaust – the severe hunger, the bitter cold, the rampant disease, the brutal, nonsensical violence. And death, death all the time. But then some things surprised me, such as the uses and attitudes to food in the concentration camps.

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Maslow’s hierarchy of happiness (1954) argues that the most basic level of needs must be met before an individual will strongly desire higher level needs.

If we assume Maslow’s pyramid to be true, then the basic physical needs of a person must be met in order to feel safe, secure. Once achieved, then humans can begin to feel love and belonging, eventually reaching the top of the pyramid to become self-actualized, in whatever way he/she believes.  Without the most basic need satisfied, then people  struggle to progress, develop and grow. Food, clothing and shelter are the basic needs we all require in order to “move up” to the pyramid of human happiness.

When someone was sent to a concentration camp, food, clothing and shelter were those basic necessities that were immediately confiscated. Upon arrival, inmates were abruptly stripped naked, their heads were shaved, and their possessions were seized. One naked inmate, Zdenka Ehrlich, who had successfully passed through Dr. Mengele’s selection process at Auschwitz-Birkenau recalled:

“They put us in a huge room… Straight afterwards a woman with a whip chased us into the next room, there were mountains, but mountains of rags. Clothing that you had never seen, not even in theatrical wardrobes – Fellini would be pleased to have the imagination to put together the things we saw. Behind each mountain of these rags was a guard, a woman guard, always with a whip. We had to run in front of it, she grabbed something and threw it at you. The next pile were shoes, men’s, women’s, everything together. A pair was grabbed and flung at you. So I finished up with (the) most extraordinary outfit you can imagine: I got an olive green ball gown of light material with pearls on it and an irregular hemline – it was like something from a Chekhov or Dostoyevsky play – and a short coat which had probably belonged to a ten-year-old girl, and shoes which saved my life. They were a pair of men’s ballroom black patent shoes, huge. In this outfit I left the building and in this outfit I survived the war.”  (Zdenka Ehrlich, young Czech woman)

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Although this photo was taken in 2011, over 65 years after Auschwitz was liberated, it is evident that shoes on such terrain would have been critical to inmates’ survival (and comfort).

Such unusual experiences epitomize the chaos of the Nazis concentration camp system. Although SS guards generally reinforced strict routines, the inconsistencies mentioned above, combined with disproportionate and cruel punishments, fostered a somewhat surreal environment for victims.

When reading Forgotten Voices of the Holocaust, one of the most repetitive topics raised is food. Understandably, the severe hunger and malnutrition was not only an enormous threat to one’s life, but protecting one’s rations or gaining more food was a massive daily challenge for the inmates. The critical need to get food, eat food, steal food…many of the survivors discuss this at great length.

What did concentration camp inmates eat?

Prisoners’ rations varied between concentration camps. At Auschwitz, the largest labour and death camp, inmates were fed three meals a day. The goal of these rations was not to healthily sustain the inmates, but to exploit them for labour with the minimal provisions possible. According to the Auschwitz website:

Breakfast: Half a liter of “coffee” (imitation coffee or Ersatz coffee), which was boiled water with a grain-based coffee substitute, or “tea”—a herbal brew, unsweetened.

Lunch: About a liter of soup, the main ingredients of which were potatoes, rutabaga (turnip), and small amounts of groats, rye flour, and Avo food extract. Considered unappetizing, most newly arrived prisoners were often unable to eat it, or could do so only in disgust.

Dinner: 300 grams of black bread, served with about 25 grams of sausage, or margarine, or a tablespoon of marmalade or cheese. This bread was meant to cover the needs of the following morning as well, although the famished prisoners usually consumed the whole portion at once.

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This crude representation of Ersatz Coffee, cabbage soup, and 300g of bread exemplifies how small the rations were at Auschwitz.

This food ration at Auschwitz was extremely minimal, containing almost no protein, hardly any vitamins or fats, and often caused diarrhea. This entire ration contained roughly 800 calories to 1500 calories per day.

Dr. Rudolf Vitek, imprisoned in Auschwitz III (Monowitz) from November 1942 until February 1943, estimated that during that period a prisoner in a heavy-labor detachment had a deficit of approximately 1,100 to 1,200 calories per day. This rate of depletion meant a weight loss of 2 to 4 kilos (4.4 to 8.8 pounds) per week: “the normally nourished prisoner at Buna could make up for the deficiency by his own body for a period of three months.” (By comparison, guards received 1500 calories per day, which is equivalent to what most working adults today will consume with moderate exercise).

The chief problem was that these meagre rations, over time, destroyed the health of the inmates. They then became more susceptible to various diseases and infections. It remained the common goal of all inmates to avoid starvation. As one survivor remarked:

“Hunger and fear are the most fantastic weapons which Hitler was a master of. To be hungry slowly – not just to miss breakfast or to have the day of fast, but to really hungry, to have less and less, day by day, month by month; so that at the end you only think about one thing: to get something to eat.” (Adam Adams, Polish Jewish survivor, UK)

Survival, Commodity and Fantasy

When reading these oral history testimonies, it is clear that survivors remember food in multiple ways. Naturally it’s emphasized as the key to survival. And because of its precious value, food also became a chief commodity on the camps’ black markets (half a ration of bread for a needle and thread, for example). And finally, it also acts as an objectified dream or fantasy. I’ll let the survivors do the talking:

Food as Survival

 “Every four people had a loaf of bread and this had to be divided. We had no knives, only spoons with one side sharpened on stones for cutting. It was always very difficult to divide the bread equally – always quarrels, fighting and screaming. Suddenly I had this idea: a simple, wooden stick arrangement with strings to weigh the bread equally. Everybody used it and things became very calm and quiet. A few weeks later, two SS men came in and asked me if I had made it. I said, yes. I thought they would give me more food because it was such a very wonderful thing. But I had such a beating with a rubber cable, even to this day it still hurts. But the idea was transferred from one camp to another, all the camps used it; it was so simple, anyone could make it.” (Ignacz Rüb, Hungarian Jewish electrician, Buna-Monowitz, Auschwitz-Birkenau)

“Really, it became the law of the jungle, you couldn’t afford to be nice to others. I remember coming across three Greek Jewish brothers and they used to pinch each others’ bread ration. There were no standards; no right and wrong, you just looked after yourself if you could.” (Alfred Huberman, Polish Jewish youth, Skarzysko-Kamienna)

Food as a Commodity

“The organizing of food was the most important thing, I learned a lot from the Polish Jews who were the best organisers in the camp. There was a sort of black market where we exchanged things. I sold a slice of bread for a bowl of soup. With that bowl of soup I went somewhere else and said, “Come on, give me two slices of bread for this.” And somehow or other we organized ourselves in this way.” (Freddie Knoller, Austrian Jewish youth, Auschwitz-Birkenau)

“The cooks would dole out the soup from barrels and as you got to the bottom of the barrel, the soup got thicker; people would play these strategic games to position themselves in the line in order to get the soup at the bottom of the barrel. You then came back with your soup: was it thick or was it thin? How many pieces of meat did you find? Now some orthodox Jews would take out the pieces of meat and give them, or trade them, with somebody else; from the kosher (ritually clean) point of view it made no sense because the fact that meat had entered the soup meant it was no longer kosher.” (Kurt Klappholz, Polish Jewish youth, Blechhammer)

Food as a Fantasy

“I would take the crunched up paper from the mattress we had, and smooth it out and draw on it. And I would draw a plate of food and someone would say, ‘Oh, can you draw nice sliced bread?’ They were going crazy for food. It was always in your mind. Or an apple, I would draw that if they wanted. We were constantly thinking about food.” (Clare Parker, Hungarian Jewish child, Mauthausen)

“In Czechowice there was a man, a Czech, and he and I got to be very good friends and we would be talking about food and why we wanted to survive. And my brother and I would be making recipes. I said, ‘Well, when I survive, we’ll cut a skinny slice of bread with a huge piece of butter, and we’ll have breakfast and cook eggs and ham…’ And he would scream, ‘For Christ’s sake, stop talking about food, I can’t stand it any longer.’ But I said, ‘But we have to talk about something, a dream, something we will have when we get back from this horrible camp.’ And we did it day after day until he said, ‘I can’t take it any more, I don’t want to live.’ And he just dropped dead. And I tell you, it’s the will to live that kept you alive, it really was that fragile.” (George Hartman, Czech Jewish youth, Czechowice)

The Fate of the Muselmann:

The concentration camps created their own vernacular and vocabulary. It was often a combination of Polish, Yiddish and German. One of the terms invented at Auschwitz that spread to other camps was Muselmann which was used to describe someone on the verge of death. But it was not simply used for those who were weak or emaciated (as so many were). Instead, this term also meant that that person was hopeless, or accepting of their fate. Those who failed to tie their shoe, or wear a cap, or clean their food bowl were considered Muselmann:

“After typhoid fever, I couldn’t walk, I couldn’t hear, I was really just bones – bones and boils. I knew I was muselmann. I didn’t wash, the place where we could wash was far away and I had those ten toes with chilblains full of pus. I used to pee in the same bowl I ate from. How did I do that! I didn’t kill the lice anymore, there were too many. I was a muselmann. It would have been a blessing if I could have gone.” (Helen Stone, young Polish Jewish woman, Auschwitz-Birkenau)

These testimonies demonstrate that beyond the obvious connection between food and survival, food was also used to survive. Obviously, inmates consumed the food as nourishment for their bodies, but they also traded and bartered it as an substitute for currency in the camps. Even discussing food as a fantasy, an ultimate wish for a better future, became so essential to their survival that the absence of that hope, that dream, was to become muselmann, the precursor of death.

So what? 

Let us return to Maslow’s pyramid.  If food, clothing and shelter are the absolute basic necessities to gaining the higher level of happiness, then how these inmates survived was truly remarkable. The pain from prolonged hunger must have been overwhelming. But the fact that some Holocaust survivors could fantasise about food to such an extent as to will themselves to live. In this sense, food thus transforms from being a basic physical necessity into a meaningful representation of hope.

In the Epilogue of the Forgotten Voices of the Holocaust, one woman’s respect and adoration of food summarises many of these ideas:

“For me bread is the most important thing, still is. Bread is Holy. Do you know, if I drop bread on the floor, I pick it up and kiss it. It is like a religious Jew: if you drop a prayer book you kiss it. For me it is the bread I kiss if I drop it. I will cross the road if I see on the other pavement a piece of bread. I will pick it up and put it on the fence so that birds can have it, so that people can’t walk over the bread. Bread is Holy.” (Helen Stone, Polish Jewish survivor, UK)

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Auschwitz, 2011.