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History and Folklore
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Lili Marleen: the Song that Crossed all World War II Front Lines
(also known as Lili Marlen and Lili Marlene)

Lyrics and Score

Lili Marleen is a song that became a legend. "The biggest hit of World War II", Lili Marleen, was more than a German soldiers´ song about parting, separation and uncertain homecoming. Lili Marleen became the most popular song of World War II on both sides of the fighting front. It was also known among Istrians.

But the history of the song´s impact did not end with the war. The theme of dreaming for one's lover is universal, and it has had many interpreters around the world - among them, Lala Andersen, Marlene Dietrich, Bing Crosby, Perry Como, Anne Shelton, Suzy Solidor, and even punk bands. A Canadian regiment chose Lili Marleen as its official parade march, and in Japanese karoake bars it is still part of the standard repertoire. The song is and was a melancholic and sentimental world-wide success full of contradictions, and its fame continued far into the post-war period. In the international music business Lili Marleen is regarded as one of the most successful German songs of the 20th century, and it transcended all languages, political philosophies and economic stratas.

Ever new variations of the song have been created, but also parodies - such as that of the most famous comedian of Trieste, Angelo Cecchelin - and propagandist adaptations: Soviet leaflets appealed to German soldiers to return home to their Lili Marleen, British radio encouraged the hanging of Hitler from Lili Marleen´s lantern. Thanks to Lili Marleen the song´s composer, Norbert Schultze, got off lightly after the war although in Nazi Germany he made a career as a composer of songs like "Bomben auf Engelland", "Vorwärts nach Osten" or "Panzer rollen in Afrika vor". [More about him below.] The myth of Lili Marleen has become the subject of theatre and cabaret performances, of documentaries and movies, but even in wars after 1945 - whether in Korea, Algeria, Vietnam or Kosovo - Lili Marleen was a presence.

It even became a legend among the Istrians who lived in nearby cosmopolitan cities - Fiume and Trieste, for example - who had acccess to a radio and thus heard the song directly during the turbulent World War II years. To this day, the song harkens tearful nostalgia among those who remember the actual radio broadcasts and, conversely, extreme revulsion among those who were not a part of this phenomenon and who heard the song years later completely outside of its original context. Obviously, for the second group, the song is only a reminder of the Nazi invasion of Istria, Fiume, and Dalmatia which claimed the lives of many of our kinsmen - some in Istria and the surrounding regions, while others (especially partisan sympathizers) in German concentration camps.

Numerous legends and anecdotes enrich the history of this song which itself made history. Here are the highlights of Lili Marleen's beginnings:

  • 1915 - a young soldier named Hans Leip wrote the poem before going to the Russian front in World War I
  • 1937 - Hans Leip published the poem in a collection
  • 1938 - Norbert Schultze set the words to music
  • 1939 - Lale Andersen recorded it
  • 1941 - the German forces radio station in Belgrade started playing it every evening. From then on, being heard by both German and Allied soldiers, the song became popular with both sides of the front
  • 1943 - Nino Rastelli translated the song to Italian and Lina Termini recorded it
  • 1943 - Marlene Deitrich began to sing it, probably in both German and English (her own version, see below)
  • 1944 - J.J. Phillips and Tommie Connor translated the song to English, and Anne Sheldon recorded it

Who was Lili Marleen?

The author of the original lyrics, Hamburg writer and graphic artist Hans Leip (1893-1983), recalled that in 1915, when he was a young soldier in Berlin, he was in love with two girls, Lili and Marleen. Shortly before marching off to the Carpathian (Russian) front in World War I, he wrote a sad love-song in which the two women blend into one. Lili Marleen was not a fictitious girl, but she was also not a true person. She was a composite.

It was not until 1937 that he published the verses in a book of his poetry entitled "Die kleine Hafenorgel" (The Little Seaside Accordion), and in 1938, a 27-year-old composer pianist in Berlin, Norbert Schultze (1911-2002), set ten of these poems to music. Shultze had been educated in music theory at Cologne and Munich, then was a theatrical music director in Heidelberg. His music was initially regarded as too subtle and delicate. To generate interest in his songs, thefore, Schultze sent the scores to his artiste-friends, including the actress-singer Lale Andersen.

The first Lili Marleen

The first interpreter of the "street-lamp song"  is Lale Andersen (1905-1972). While Marlene Dietrich has been widely celebrated in America for her renditions of the song, no other performer will ever be identified with the artificial composite Lili Marleen as was this singer from Lehe near Bremerhaven.

Born Lieselotte Bunnenberg, at age 17 she married the Worpswede painter Paul Ernst Wilke. In 1931, now the mother of three children, she left her husband to make her own way in Berlin. In variety shows and theatres, she sang chansons by Bertolt Brecht and Kurt Tucholsky, and seaport and sailors' songs. During the Nazi period, this bluff North German and her seaside songs were a success. When she recorded Lili Marleen in 1939,  she gained a place for herself on the stage but was not yet a big name.

According to Lale Andersen's grand-daughter, Jackie Mileham, Shultze had wanted her to sing the song in a different style (probably as a military march), but she prevailed. The song was recorded in 1939 just before the start of the war (Eulalia Bunnenberg, b.23 March, 1905 Lehe-Bremerhaven, Germany, d. 29 Aug. 1972, Vienna, Austria).

The record failed to attract much interest and sold only 700 copies. Joseph Goebbels, the propaganda secretary of the Nationalist-Socialist party, had wanted a march and did not like the song as it was recorded. Goebbels wasn't the only one who didn't like the song. Lale Andersen did not want to sing it at first. And the radio moderator, for whom he had composed the song, also put it down. He felt that the text by Hans Leip was too lyrical. "So the composition just lay there," said Schultze.

Also according to Lale's granddaughter, the Nazis were displeased that a German singer became very popular with not only the German soldiers but also with the Allied troops, and it was for this reason that they banned Lale Andersen from singing the song in concert until the end of the war. Nonethless, Lale Andersen managed to make several other recordings of the song:

No bans or prohibitions on the Lili Marleen song or its singers, however, diminished the song's popularity. Yugoslavia had surrendered on 17 April 1941 after the German-Italian invasion. Two days later, German soldiers took over the Belgrade radio station and began using it for broadcasts to the German armed forces. The station was named station named "Soldatensender Belgrad" and was broadcasting to the occupation army in German.

Concert promotion by the British forces in Germany poster, 1946. Dieter Harmuth, Berlin.

For the first few weeks the men made do with a dusty crate of discarded records that an employee of the militrary radio station found and which came from the collection of the Reich radio station in Vienna. It included the forgotten Lili Marleen. The song was played again and again by Lieutenant Karl-Heinz Reintgen, the director of Nazi Radio Belgrade. This was the only German station where the song was played, and regularly so after the news at 10 pm; it was not played on the normal German stations destined for civilian consumption. But located on the higher frequencies of the medium wave band, the station could be received within Germany after dark, sometimes clear, sometimes crackling.

The broadcasting of the song from that station was cancelled for about half a year, in 1942 or 1943, and resumed only upon thousands of complaints from soldiers at the Eastern front. For soldiers and their loved ones, Lili Marleen has become a "bridge between the front and home". The song had by now created its own consoling reality, beyond homesickness, loneliness and fear of death. It was played at 9:55 p.m. just before sign-off, and became the signature of the broadcast. Of course, the Allies were also listening to the German broadcasts, and thus began the worldwise success of Lili Marleen.

The German Africa Corps and the British 8th Army faced each other from 1941 to 1943 in North Africa. Here for the first time, the song crossed the front lines. Contemporary witnesses, their memories gilded by the passage of time, allege that when the German forces radio station in Belgrade played Lili Marleen, the guns in North Africa were silent. The legendary aura of Lili Marleen blends in with the illusion of the "fair war" waged by Field Marshalls Rommel and Montgomery.

Werner Hoffmeister, ex-member of the German Africa Corps, in 1981 still remembered:

"It was on the Tobruk front, the beginning of May 1941. The front lines were very close together....In the evenings, you could move out of your positions, little by little, to stretch your legs....And then our Wehrmacht radio receiver, the link to home, went into action. The high point at 10:00 p.m. was the Belgrade radio programme....Lale Andersen, accompanied by a Luftwaffe orchestra, singing "Vor der Kaserne, vor dem grossen Tor..." ["Outside the barracks, by the corner light...", as Marleen Dietrich would later sing in English]. And when we were sitting around in the evenings, all of us listening in silence, there was a noise of some kind coming suddenly from the other side, about 80 metres away, and a voice calling out, "Comrades, louder please!" It was the English, and this song had long become popular with them too. In this way, we had a real pause in the fighting, evening by evening during this time no shots were fired, and right afterwards it was still quiet."

In 1945, when the Second World War was over and with the success of the song having continued unbroken and all the more so with the Allied troops in the western occupied zones, Lale Andersen was hired by the Northwest German Radio Network in Hamburg. Offers for concert-hall engagements also poured in from all over. British soldiers and veterans especially wanted to see the "original Lili Marleen whom they had known only as a voice.

Italy's Lili Marleen

Edizioni Suvini-Zerboni, 1941.

The Italian version of the song [see lyrics and score] was translated from the German by Nino Rastelli (in 1941?), was recorded in 1943 by the Italian singer Lina Termini. There are others who recorded it with and without chorus but Termini's rendition is the most famous. We have traced two recordings:

  • 1943 - Lina Termini
  • unknown - tentatively attributed to "Milly" (Carla Mignone), but it could be Lina Termini

Two other known performers of Lili Marleen in Italian were:

  • Meme Bianchi, 1942-1943
  • Vivi Gioi, 1942-1943

Lina Termini, a native of Agrigenta but from Turin by adoption, was one of the winners of the "gara nazionale per gli artisti della canzone" launched by EIAR nel 1938. She made her debut in 1939 at the age of twenty-one, with the Cinico Angelini orchestra, with the song "Quando cadrà la prima stella". During World War II, she had notable popularity thanks also to her being available to sing for the soldiers at the front and in the military hospitals. Her major successes were the Italian version of "Lilì Marlene", "Una romantica avventura", "Ma l'amore no", Alida Valli's song from the 1942 film "Stasera niente di nuovo" which starred another Istrian, Antonio Gandusio. In 1943 Lina got married and decided to abandon her singing career.

Lina Termini

 

As in the case of German soldiers before them, the song also became very popular with Italian soldiers who heard lyrics that were slightly changed from the original German text. Tony Fortuna, an Italian soldier during the war who was captured by the British army in Tobruk (North Africa) passed along to his nephew, Massimo Rosso, an unofficial variation in one stanza of the lyrics:

Instead of

Quando nel fango
debbo camminar
sotto il mio bottino
mi sento vacillar.

The words became

Quando son di ronda
sotto il nevicar
sotto il mio fardello
mi sento vacillar.

Great Britain's Lili Marleen

Lili Marleen presented a problem for the Allies. Their soldiers were singing the favorite song of the enemy, with ever increasing gusto - in German! Occasional bans on such singing had little effect. The immense popularity of the German version thereby led to a hurried English version, supposedly when a British song publisher named J.J. Phillips reprimanded a group of British soldiers for singing the verses in German. One irate soldier shouted back: "Why don't you write us some English words?". Thus, Phillips and a British songwriter Tommie Connor wrote the English version in 1944, embellishing the already sentimental German original, and this was then broadcast by the BBC for the Allied troops. The British Eighth Army adopted the song for its own.

The 1944 recording of Lili Marleen by British singer Anne Sheldon (1928-94) became an instant hit and transformed her into the British Lili Marleen, thus expanding the song's popularity into the Allied countries. Apart from this distinction for Anne Sheldon, when Glenn Miller's orchestra arrived in England in 1944, Glenn asked her if she would sing with his orchestra. Anne took this as a great compliment and did six shows with the Maestro. Among their hits was "I'll Get By". One of the shows was recorded for Anne on a number of 'V' discs, unique because they were the only live recordings made in the USA (and at overseas shows) exclusively for GIs during the recording ban from August 1942 to November 1944.

In December 1944 Glenn Miller was asked to go to Versailles for a concert. He invited Anne to join him, but her mother reminded her that she had other commitments in England, so she stayed behind. Ironically, those shows which featured Anne Sheldon and recorded by Glenn were to be his last, as his C-64 Norseman plane was lost in heavy weather over the English Channel.

That same year, Bing Crosby arrived in England to entertain the American Forces, and he asked Anne to do a show with him for the troops. On 27th August 1944, Bing and Anne recorded the''Variety Bandbox'' radio show (broadcast on 3rd September) at Queensberry All-Services Club, with comedian Tommy Handley. This show was also recorded on "V" disc. Anne continued with her very successful singing career around the world right up to the very end of her life. Her last performance was on July 27, 1994, and she died in her sleep four days later.

Eventually, both sides began broadcasting and recording Lili Marleen in both German and English versions. It was sung in military hospitals and blasted over huge speakers, along with propaganda nuggets, across the frontlines, in both directions. Another popular British singer, Vera Lynn (1917-   ), born Vera Margaret Welch (Lynn was her grandmother's name), sang Lili Marleen over the BBC to the Allied troops. She had her own radio program and became nicknamed "The Forces Sweetheart" during the war. She then perpetuated the song's fame by singing it in every NAAFI concert she gave for British BAOR (British Army of the Rhine) soldiers stationed in pre-NATO Germany, where the song was met with thunderous applause and stomping feet. She, too, continued with her very successful singing and performing career and was created a Dame of the British Empire in 1975, still fondly regarded as a legend by a large proportion of the British public.

Anne Shelton becomes the British Lili Marleen. Bound music score, c. 1950. City of Bremerhaven, Office of Cultural Affairs Cover of an American edition of the score showing Marleen Dietrich, c. 1950. Haus der Geschichte, Bonn

America's not-so-American Lili Marleen

An RCA U.S. recording, by an anonymous chorus in June 1944, made Lili Marleen No. 13 on the record charts that year. It hit the U.S. charts again in 1968, the German charts again in 1981 and the Japanese charts in 1986. The song is said to have been translated into more than 48 languages. [Some of the translations and additional recordings can be found on The Official Lili Marleen Page at http://ingeb.org/garb/lmarleen.html.]

Americans associate Lili Marleen (usually spelled "Marlene" in English) not with Lale Andersen but with Marlene Dietrich (1901-1992) who began singing the song  in 1943.

Maria Magdalene Dietrich was born in Berlin, the second child of Lieutenant Louis Erich Otto Dietrich and Wilhelmina Elisabeth Josephine Felsing.

She had her first leading movie role in 1929, and departed for America in April 2, 1930, the day after Der Blaue Engel (The Blue Angel) was released. Her first American film, Morocco, premiered that November. In 1935, Adolf Hitler demanded that the famous German actress return to the Fatherland. Dietrich, an ardent anti-Nazi, refused. As a result, all her films were banned in Germany. Dietrich became a naturalized United States citizen in 1939 (or 1937?) and devoted most of her energy during World War II to entertaining Allied troops.

Her major claim to fame during World War II was her work with the USO. There is no doubt that she made a major contribution to the morale of the troops in 1944-45. During the Africa and Italy campaigns, she withstood much privation in order to stay with the troops at the front, where she not only entertained but helped coordinate hospital and mess details. In the French and German campaigns in 1944-45, she often rode with Patton at the front.

She featured "The Girl under the Lantern" in her public appearances, on radio and, as she later recalled: "three long years in North-Africa, Sicily, Italy, in Alaska, Greenland, Iceland, in England". She  wrote her own English version to endear the song to the American troops of the day as she toured the front with the USO. Listen to her German rendition.

J.J. Phillips / Tommy Connors Lili Marleen

Underneath the lantern by the barrack gate,
Darling I remember the way you used to wait,
'Twas there that you whispered tenderly,
That you loved me, you'd always be,
My Lili of the lamplight, My own Lili Marleen.

Time would come for roll call, time for us to part,
Darling I'd caress you and press you to my heart,
And there 'neath that far off lantern light,
I'd hold you tight, we'd kiss "good-night,"  
My Lili of the lamplight,
My own Lili Marleen.

Orders came for sailing somewhere over there,
All confined to barracks was more than I could bear;
I knew you were waiting in the street, I heard your feet,
but could not meet,
My Lili of the lamplight,
My own Lili Marleen.

Resting in a billet just behind the line,
Even tho'we're parted your lips are close to mine;
You wait where that lantern softly gleams,
Your sweet face seems to haunt my dreams,
My Lili of the lamplight,
My own Lili Marleen.

When we are marching in the mud and cold,
And when my pack seems more than I can hold,
My love for you renews my might,
I'm warm again, my pack is light,
It's you Lili Marleen, It's you Lili Marleen...

Marlene Dietrich's Lili Marleen

Outside the barracks by the corner light
I'll always stand and wait for you at night
We will create a world for two
I'll wait for you the whole night through
For you, Lili Marleen
For you, Lili Marleen

Bugler tonight, don't play the Call To Arms
I want another evening with her charms
Then we will say goodbye and part
I'll always keep you in my heart
With me, Lili Marleen
With me, Lili Marleen

Give me a rose to show how much you care Tied to the stem, a lock of golden hair
Surely tomorrow you'll feel blue
But then will come a love that's new
For you, Lili Marleen
For you, Lili Marleen

When we are marching in the mud and cold
And when my pack seems more than I can hold
My love for you renews my might
I'm warm again, my pack is light
It's you, Lili Marleen
It's you, Lili Marleen

My love for you renews my might
I'm warm again, my pack is light
It's you, Lili Marleen
It's you, Lili Marleen

Marleen Dietrich's vehement denouncement of the Nazi regime, and her participation in Radio broadcasts aimed at Germany got the desired result: she got under the skin of the Nazis. For her work, the U.S., French and (eventually) Israeli governments awarded her medals.

Cinema's Lili Marleen

There other made about or with the title Lili Marleen - for example in the U.K. in 1950 - but Fassbender's film Lili Marleen starring Gianfranco Giannini and Hanny Schygulla sought in 1980-81 to ride the crest of the song's worldwide success by making Hanna Schygulla the modern Lili Marleen. Although the film was designed for international success, it was only partly able to make good on this claim, in part because Hanna distanced herself from her role. Like Lale Andersen, she saw the danger of dissolving into the artificial Lili Marleen figure.

The film is based on Lale Anderson autobiography called Lili Marleen. It is about her love for the Jewish composer Rolf Liebermann. Rainer Werner Fassbinder was commissioned by the veteran Munich producer Luggi Waldleitner to direct the 10-million-mark melodrama. It was the first time that the conservative Waldleitner worked with a director associated with the New German Cinema.

A 1981 Yugoslavian poster for the 1980 German drama, Lili Marlen. Starring Hanna Schygulla, Giancarlo Giannini, Mel Ferrer, Karl-Heinz von Hassel and directed by Rainer Werner Fassbinder. Based on Lale Andersen's autobiography, Lili Marleen.

Synopsis
The film Lili Marleen is the story of Wilie, who, in 1938, is a young and undiscovered chanteus in love with Romert, a Jewish musician who works for a clandestine organization. The war separated them, she rises to fame in Nazi Germany, and becomes the Fuher's pet. Andrew Sarris finds elements of Minelli, Sirk, and Edwards thrown in this movie from a modernist prespective. "I'm trying to show what it was in the Third Reich that fascinated her: the symbols, applause, fame. And from this perspective I am able to understand why she chose celebrity." (RWF) A thoroughly dazzling experience. 120 min.

* * *

Zurigo, 1938. Willie Guntenberg, giovane cantante di cabaret in cerca di successo, sentimentalmente legata all'ebreo Robert Mendelsson, il cui padre aiuta i correligionari a espatriare dalla Germania, incontra il generale tedesco Henkel, che le promette, se la ragazza torna in patria, di farle far carriera. L'occasione di mantenere la parola gli si presenta ben presto poiché il padre di Robert, scoperta la relazione del figlio con un'ariana, per di più tedesca, fa sì che a Willie venga proibito dalle autorità l'ingresso in Svizzera. Willie esordisce, nel locale in cui Henkel le ha trovato occupazione, con la canzone Lilì Marleen, composta per lei dal suo amico musicista Hans Taschner. Mediocre cantante, Willie non ha molto successo; questo arriva, però, quando la sua canzone, incisa su disco, viene trasmessa da "Radio Belgrado", l'emittente nazista destinata ai soldati tedeschi. Se Goebbels condanna Lilì Marleen, definendola "una caramella col sapore di una danza macabra", Hitler, invece, vuole conoscere Willie e le fa dono di un appartamento, in cui la giovane si trasferisce con Hans. Un giorno, Robert si rifà vivo e, per incontrarlo, Willie rifiuta un invito di Henkel, che la fa pedinare. Robert viene arrestato dalla Gestapo e per esser certi che la ragazza non ne abbia colpa, gli amici del giovane ebreo chiedono a Willie di fornirgli notizie sui campi di sterminio nazisti in Polonia. Le SS scoprono che la ragazza collabora con la Resistenza, ma in grazia della sua popolarità si limitano a vietare la sua canzone; Hans viene spedito a combattere sul Fronte Orientale. Durante un incontro organizzato dai suoi carcerieri Robert rivede Willie, ma i due debbono fingere di non conoscersi; si riparleranno per telefono quando Robert, grazie ad uno scambio organizzato dal padre, avrà ottenuta la libertà. Si ritroveranno, infine, a guerra finita, ma sarà troppo tardi, poiché Robert, diventato un famoso direttore d'orchestra, avrà sposato una sua compagna di infanzia, Marika.

What became of the composer?

When Norbert Schultze (1911-2002) wrote the music for Lili Marleen, the propaganda secretary of the Nationalist-Socialist party, Joseph Goebbels, made a futile attempt to replace Schultze's melancholy melody with a march rhythm. The composer was anything but a clandestine defense-forces-subverter, however. He also composed operas, film scores, and music for propaganda films such as "Bomben auf Engelland" (Bombs for England), "Vorwärts nach Osten", "Panzer rollen in Afrika vor" (Tanks roll into Africa), and the exhortation film "Kolberg," and subsequent marches and military songs. He had no qualms about setting such lines as "Führer befiehl, wir folgen dir" (Command us, great leader, and we will follow), from "Von Finnland bis zum Schwarzen Meer" (From Finland to the Black Sea). He also wrote the music for the the Luftwaffe's unofficial anthem "Bomben auf Engelland". "It was well done... I was adaptable," it would later be said about Schultze's music during his short career in Nazi Germany.

When World War II ended in 1945, Schultze found himself discredited for his work in German films and was banned by the Allies from working in his profession for three years. Nonetheless, he was allowed to play Lili Marleen in American officers' clubs. During the ban, he worked in construction and as a gardener, later apologizing for supporting the Nazi regime. In 1948, he resumed his career in music and became a world-renown and prolific composer. [See IMDb.com - Norbert Schultze]

When Schultze died in 2002, the overwhelming majority of obituaries in the Western press focused on the old chanson, Lili Marleen, the song that marked his career and relatively short period of work in Nazi Germany. Most obituaries omitted the fact that Schultze worked on almost three hundred film and television projects and remains one of the most prolific composers in the history of cinema. See the Internet Movie Data Base

Why has the song been and still remains so popular?

The last word on this goes to Lale Anderson: "Can the wind explain why it became a storm?"

Sources:

  • The Official Lili Marleen Page (includes German text and other vintage recordings of the song) - http://ingeb.org/garb/lmarleen.html
  • Lili Marleen, A Hit Makes History - http://www.hdg.de/Final/eng/page2791.htm
  • Text on Marleen Dietrich - http://www.Marleen.com/
  • Added text and photograph - courtesy of Massimo Russo of Vicenza, Italia (Jan. 4, 2005)
  • Lale Andersen's granddaughter, Jackie Mileham - Yahoo groups "timewitnesses" - http://www.youth.net/memories/1999/0274.html
  • Poster, Lili Marleen - http://www.efilmposters.com/cart/index.htm?items/1812.htm~main (no longer online)
  • CD Cover - http://www.amazon.de
  • 1942 record image - Amazon.com
  • Marleen Dietrich lyrics in French and English - http://lyricsplayground.com
  • Movie synopsis - http://www.findthefun.com/movies/m00/m0007872.htm 
  • Sentimental, canzoni italiane di una volta - Lina Termini - http://www.sentimental.it/
  • Anne Sheldon - biography - http://www.anne-shelton.co.uk/biography.htm
  • Lala Andersen photo and Album cover (Belgrade) - http://www.lale-andersen.de/index1.htm
  • Catalogo film: Lili Marleen - http://www.municipio.re.it/cinema/catfilm.nsf/0/BB67DA5660B849B9C1256E82003DB15F?opendocument
  • Lina Termini - http://www.sentimental.it/JSentimental_schede/JSentimental_schede_txt/JSentimental_termini.html (no longer online)

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Created: Wednesday, June 11, 2003; Last updated: Monday, November 12, 2012
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