How Mennonites Reckon with our History in the Holocaust

Lisa Schirch

Bethel College should be applauded for taking the leadership to organize the “Mennonites and the Holocaust” conference March 16-17, 2018. Because of a generous grant from Israel/Palestine Partners in Peacemaking initiative of MCUSA, I was able to attend the conference.  Across the street from Bethel College’s campus, the Kauffman Museum portrays a history of Mennonites that illustrates the type of commonly told positive narrative of our beliefs, pacifism, martyrdom, humanitarian work and community. While there are stories of Mennonites opposing the Nazis and hiding Jews in this history, the recently revealed story of Mennonites and the Holocaust feels like a betrayal of everything I’ve been taught over the last fifty years of attending and working for Mennonite institutions. There is a terrible chapter in our history that has been intentionally silenced and absent from my education. Records of Mennonite history are like Swiss cheese: full of holes that leave out our participation in the holocaust. It is important for the church to reflect on how we reckon with this history and what this history requires us to do.

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Jerusalem at Sunrise

Beyond Academic Discussions

This is not just an abstract, academic conversation among historians who compete to document the facts of this history. Many people in the audience at the conference were experiencing intense emotions because of the shocking revelations about Mennonite complicity and participation in the Holocaust.

I grew up in the Mennonite community of Bluffton, Ohio, where I never heard anything anti-semitic. I was encouraged to read Jewish literature as a kid and was taught to have nothing but respect for Judaism. I was taught to commit to “Never Again” and took up a career in peacebuilding to prevent genocide. On the other hand, I never heard any Mennonite discuss broader church responsibility for the anti-semitism or the Holocaust. In hindsight, this is problematic. Christians are generally unaware of the long history of Christian persecution of Jews.

Last fall, I led Eastern Mennonite University’s study abroad program to Israel and Palestine where we focused on Israeli and Palestinian peacebuilding efforts. My husband is Jewish, and we are raising our children to be both Jewish and Mennonite. We know at least fifteen other Jewish-Mennonite families. For us, this is not just history. I was flooded with emotion hearing about Mennonites participating in massacres of Jewish families or Mennonites taking Jewish land. 

My first thought was this: ethnic Mennonites went from participating in the Holocaust, to helping Palestinian refugees, to denouncing Israeli occupation. Where in this story did ethnic Mennonites help Jewish refugees or stand up for Jewish rights at the same scale? How dare Mennonites act self-righteous in their relentlessly critical stance toward Israel when these Mennonites literally pushed Jews out of their homes and some of those Jews fled to Palestine, where my Palestinian friends were pushed out of their homes. This is a sick and twisted history where Mennonite victims hurt Jewish victims who hurt Palestinian victims. And of these three groups, Jews suffered the most.

The role of Mennonites in the Holocaust has direct impacts on Mennonite-Jewish families, the integrity of Mennonite peacebuilding efforts in Israel and Palestine, and our collective voice on issues of peace and justice.

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Synagogue Bimah in Migdal, beside the Galilee, where Jesus studied. The bimah is the Seed of Life symbol, a symbol used to represent the sacredness of life in many religions.

Emotional Intelligence and Personal Sharing

During the first few panels of the conference, members of the audience shared personal stories. These were a necessary part of the audience digesting and processing the information provided by researchers. But it was not without consequence.

A Mennonite holocaust denier, Bruce Leichty, attended parts of the conference. Leichty is a California-based lawyer known for representing the Holocaust deniers Ernst Zundel and his Mennonite wife Ingrid Rimland Zundel. Leichty has passed out anti-semitic literature at the past several MCUSA gatherings. At the introduction of the conference, the organizers told the audience there was someone attending the conference who they were watching. But many were not in the room or did not understand what was being said. When Leichty began to ask an offensive question during the conference, the organizers removed him by calling campus security, but did not inform the audience of who the man was or why he was being removed. The lack of communication confused many in the audience.

Minutes earlier, a Jewish participant in the audience shared about her discomfort at the emotionally inappropriate discussion of these topics. I can’t imagine how difficult it was for her to stand up in a room where she was alone in representing the Jewish people to a group of Mennonites. She noted the lack of acknowledgment that the stories being told were about people like her and included her relatives. She expressed offence at the laughter and lighthearted comments that were tone-deaf to the seriousness of the stories being told. For example, one panelist mentioned there were “fifty shades of Mennonite collaboration” which was met with laughter. She asked, “you’re laughing at the number of ways your people were involved in the genocide against my people?” I felt pain and embarrassment over the behavior of “my people.” Perhaps Mennonites are so allergic to grief that some choose to laugh inappropriately instead? This was so awkward and uncomfortable. But what came next made it worse, not better.

Panel moderators immediately told the audience we were no longer allowed to share personally. They informed us we were only allowed to write down our questions on slips of paper and submit these to the moderators. Coming immediately after the sharing of a Jewish woman, while a number of us in the audience were in tears, it was hard to understand the logic. No one explained this decision.

A trauma expert, facilitator or pastor could have helped the conference audience recognize and make space for the personal impacts we might experience during the conference. We could have acknowledged that people in the room would feel a range of emotions. We might have been reminded that laughter can be therapeutic but that we need to be careful to understand that inappropriate laughter can also be harmful.

The body and brain are not separate. I have attended many academic conferences that also include elements that address emotion and spirituality. It is not either/or. A conference can be both academic and address the intense emotional significance of a subject.

It is not possible or desirable to have an academic conference on a topic involving discussion of Mennonite complicity in the genocide of six million Jews and other groups without the expression of emotion. This insistence that the conference ONLY be academic and heady, without allowing other people to participate in shaping elements to support emotional, spiritual and personal responses was harmful. Because several conference attendees had mentioned this need for a grief room, candle or prayers to the conference organizers before and during the conference with no response. It appeared as if the organizers themselves were unable to imagine or acknowledge the emotion that might emerge from the academic discussions, overwhelmed when audience members shared their personal responses, and felt deeply uncomfortable with giving up some control of the conference and allowing others to help facilitate aspects of the program.

For a conference about Mennonite collaboration with the Nazis, it felt in form like Mennonites are still infected with some lingering patriarchal, authoritarian mindsets. There was only one person of color involved as a panel moderator. White men were in charge. No emotion was allowed. Participants were restricted in how they participated. Offers to help facilitate grief circles were seemingly ignored. There was no collective accountability or statement of responsibility. The tone and form of the conference felt offensive given the weight of the facts presented.

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Statue of Mother Mary standing on Jewish Covenant representing Supercessionist Theology

Ramifications for Mennonite Theology, History, and Institutions Today

For decades, Mennonite historians and theologians have searched for a coherent statement of our history and theology. History impacts theology. While the Associated Mennonite Biblical Seminary (AMBS) is planning a theology conference to address this history in 2020, it feels strange to try to completely separate out a history conference from a theology conference or to have to wait two more years to take church action on this history. Mennonite complicity with the Holocaust requires action in the present. This is not just an academic historical topic – this history disrupts Mennonite narratives about ourselves, our history, our theology, and our current struggle with racism in the church. Mennonite Nazi connections and theologies of racial superiority continue to have impact today. 

The role of Mennonites and the Holocaust requires an acknowledgement and a statement to Jewish groups that we are undergoing a process of accountability and repentance and invite their participation in how we best do that.  I am curious to understand the rationale for not inviting Jewish participants to attend these conferences where we are wrestling with how we are accountable.

The Bethel conference included papers about German and Dutch Mennonite theology, Some challenged Nazi theology. Some justified Nazi theology. But these scholarly panels made no reference to how the story of Mennonites and the Holocaust seriously disrupts today’s narrative of Mennonite theology.

  • Some Mennonite theologians took part in Nazi racial science, opened church records, and asserted with Nazis that “morals pass through blood.” This is seemingly in direct opposition to Anabaptist beliefs about adult baptism.
  • Some Mennonites in the Netherlands, Germany, Poland, Ukraine and elsewhere rejected pacifism and joined the military to defend national interests. This directly challenges the narrative of Anabaptist nonviolence.
  • Just as West Germany went through a process of self-reflection and intentional de-Nazification, so too does the Mennonite Church need an explicit de-Nazification effort to address the lingering anti-semitism that informs our history and church culture.
  • Mennonite-born White Nationalist leader Ben Klassen is one of the two main figures of the white nationalist movement in North America.  Ben Klassen grew up in a Mennonite colony in Ukraine and read Mein Kampf there. He credits Mennonite theology for his white supremacy.  Regrettably, Klassen is not an aberration. Some Mennonites have reinforced the ideology of white supremacy in unique ways in US and Canadian history. White nationalism is a serious threat to Muslims, Jews, First Nations, African Americans, Latinos and all people of color and non-Christians in North America today. The white supremacists in Charlottesville last summer were carrying the words of Mennonite-born Ben Klassen. In sharing the history of Mennonite roles in the Holocaust with friends on Facebook, the strongest response has been from African American friends who repeatedly reported that they were “not at all surprised.” Racism and anti-semitism stem from the same superiority narrative and belief that “morals pass through blood.” Friends recounted how they didn’t get jobs at Mennonite institutions even though they were clearly more qualified than the “ethnic Mennonites” who were hired. Our current work on racism needs to be informed now by this history.
  • The Mennonite Central Committee (MCC) story has been told in a way that has suppressed the fact that Russian Mennonites were both victims and perpetrators. At the conference, we heard that MCC storyteller Peter Dyck told stories that intentionally deceived not only immigration agents, but also the Mennonite church at large. MCC has hidden the fact that some Russian Mennonites were Nazi leaders and collaborators. The whole story of MCC needs to be retold. MCC needs to reckon with its founding, its relationship to Jews, and its programming in Israel and Palestine which to date has focused almost entirely on the Palestinian narrative without acknowledging Jewish connection to the land and need for control over their safety following centuries of persecution. MCC is holding a 100-year anniversary conference in 2020. Hopefully, this awful history can be addressed, and real action can take place to be accountable for both these historic wrongs and the glaring absence of attention to Jewish connections to the land of Israel just as Palestinians are connected to the land of Palestine, and the need for safety for both Jews and Palestinians.
  • Who will be held to account for suppressing this awful history? Some scholars in the audience at the conference shared that they had tried to raise this history with Mennonite institutions thirty to forty years ago. Church leaders intentionally silenced these voices, diminished the Mennonite role in the Holocaust, and continued to leave out this history. Even today, I’ve heard a dozen Mennonite scholars assert that Ben Goossen’s historical survey of this history in his book Chosen Nation: Mennonites and Germany in a Global Era is an “exaggeration” or “not footnoted carefully.” When I ask for specifics, it turns out they haven’t yet read the book. But they are clearly eager to downplay the significance of this history (which, as a fellow scholar, I think is well footnoted). This failure to take responsibility and to illustrate accountability and repentance is familiar to those of us who have worked on the history of sexual abuse in the Mennonite church.  Mennonite leaders practice denial and suppression of any facts about Mennonites that are not flattering. They give speeches over and over about Mennonite values, our humility, our history of persecution, our work for reconciliation and justice. But they leave out any truthful acknowledgement of our failings.  They seem to think they can keep these terrible histories down by ignoring and suppressing them.  But truth always has a way of coming out. And the church is more likely to suffer lack of integrity by the failure of Mennonite leadership to confront these problems than it will if it admits the failures of the past.
  • Mennonites and Jews have a unique history. For centuries before the holocaust, Jews and Mennonites were persecuted together. European states applied special taxes, restrictions on public office, and allowed Mennonites and Jews only to live in certain areas. Helen Stolzfus is a Mennonite friend also married to a Jewish man, and also raising her children as both Mennonite and Jewish. Helen gave a reading of a play she and her husband wrote about their discussions of this painful history of Mennonite roles in the long history of anti-semitism. In the play, her Mennonite ancestors and her husband’s Jewish ancestors talk to each other. I know fifteen or so other Mennonite-Jewish families, at least. I don’t know that many Mennonites married to any other groups, not Mennonite Catholics, or Quakers, or Muslims. So why do Mennonites and Jews intermarry so often? And what more can we learn about the history of this, for Mennonite friends have also found they have Jewish blood. Mennonites also need to look into this broader history between Mennonites and Jews.
  • Finally, Mennonites pride themselves as being “authentic” Christians who attempt to return to the teachings of the early church, before the Council of Nicaea and before Christianity became the state religion of the Roman Empire. Of course, Jesus and the early church were Jewish. Jesus was very clear he was an observant Jew and was not trying to start a new religion. While traveling though Galilee last fall with my students from EMU, we visited the synagogues where Jesus studied. We learned many new things about Jesus, seeing him through the eyes of our Israeli and Palestinian guides. If Mennonites actually want to practice an authentic way of following Jesus, we are going to need to learn more about Judaism.

Mennonite history classes, books and museums need to tell this newly-revealed story of Mennonites and the Holocaust. The positive narrative of Mennonites needs to include the angels and demons in our histories. We can’t wait another few years to address Mennonite history and theology. It will take a lifetime for me to recover a positive sense of identity after learning all of this. And Mennonites have some serious work to do in taking responsibility for those Mennonites who did these terrible things. We urgently need to begin talking about the ramifications of this history now.

As a witness to this conference and this history, I feel shame, grief, and immense sadness. This history disrupts my world, my identity, and my relationships.

11 thoughts on “How Mennonites Reckon with our History in the Holocaust

  1. Thank you Lisa Schirch. I was not at the conference but of all the summaries and responses I have read, yours comes closest to expressing how I feel and there is some small comfort in that. I have been at a loss for words. Even just reading bits and pieces of what surfaced at the conference I found myself thinking: the horror, the horror.

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  2. Lisa, this is gripping and game-changing. A representative from our network of churches was there, relating his personal experience of the conference. There can be no distinction for Mennonites here (“Oh, these were ‘Russian Mennonites’ and not the North American diaspora …” etc.). We all need to engage in some deep lament and soul-searching …

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  3. I suppose as historians who have studied the Holocaust, the Third Reich, and Mennonite involvement, it can sometimes be easy to forget the rawness of our first encounter. I am guessing for many at the conference, this weekend was just that. Although they are not typically part of academic conferences, venues for prayer and/or grief processing may have been helpful for this one, given its unique nature.

    I fully support the way the question and answer portions of the sessions were handled, however. The question and answer was intended to give an opportunity for people to ask questions of the panel. It became very apparent the first day that quite a few people, across the board, were using the sessions to make statements, some of which were very counter to the spirit of the conference.

    We were all disturbed, of course, by the presence of at least one Holocaust denier at the conference, who attempted to use the Q&A to announce a non-sanctioned, parallel session for Friday evening.

    Perhaps less obviously appalling, but disturbing nevertheless, were some of the people who used the Q&A as a platform for commentary to say a) Mennonites were not disproportionately involved and that we need not “pile on the guilt” for Mennonites, or b) that the only reason MCUSA or Mennonites in general should be interested in the theme is to give us license to criticize the occupation policies and activities of Israel.

    As to the former, “piling on the guilt” is not the purpose of academic research, nor was it the purpose of the conference. Rather, it is an endeavor to work toward an understanding of what happened and how it happened. This often results in myths being exposed and debunked, to be sure.

    As to the latter, the occupation policies and activities of Israel is an entirely separate matter. We should be interested in the history of the Holocaust, and Mennonite involvement therein, in its own right. It absolutely should challenge our assumptions and myths about ourselves, especially our fondness for the Mennonite game and other aspects of nationalistic pride that are part of the tapestry of Mennonite identity.

    I was quite pleased and encouraged to see that there are quite a few historians actively researching Mennonites and the Holocaust, and I need to find a way to re-involve myself in the field. It was also wonderful to learn that this is one of several conferences on Mennonites and the Holocaust, with theology and literature conferences to follow. Hopefully increased dialogue will follow.

    I hope this is only the first of several historiographic conferences on the topic. There is much room for development and growth in this area, especially, as Doris Bergen stated in her closing remarks, for integrating Mennonite sources and accounts with those of their Jewish, Ukrainian, and/or Polish neighbors. It would be especially interesting to see non-Mennonites take on more of this work.

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    • I was not at the conference but I do know that similar conferences at other academic institutions have been attended by “lay” people and in many cases Holocaust survivors. So these are not dispassionate events. Antisemitism in all its ugly forms can be studied and documented but academic researchers cannot disassociate from its real life consequences.
      The Holocaust was the ugliest manifestation of Jew hating the world has known but antisemitism is alive and well today so the people attending the conference who may have raised this by questioning MCUSA Israel policies should have been given “licence” to do so. The Holocaust deniers and minimizes not so much. There is a difference between free speech and hate speech.

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    • James, Thanks for your reply. A few thoughts:

      1) First, this was not my first encounter. I read Ben Goossen’s book in entirety last June. I have been following the research presented at Mennonite World Conference and in Mennonite press for the last couple of years. The “rawness” of my response comes in seeing how the church is and is not addressing these facts about Mennonite participation and even leadership in the Nazi regime. The Kaufman Museum is just one example. They have a beautiful display of our positive history and had a small “pop-up” display of the Nazi flag and other Mennonite memorabilia from the Nazi era. Why isn’t that part of Mennonite history in our Mennonite history textbooks or in our museums? It is not just a footnote. This history is a major disruption to the positive narrative we have about our theology and identity – and the church needs to address this history with the seriousness it deserves. That means MCC and every Mennonite institution should have delegated high level leadership to attend the conference. That did not happen.

      2) I think Mennonites who do not have Jewish friends and family can more easily distance themselves from the signficance of the Holocaust. So perhaps I am more raw because I can imagine my own family in these scenarios. And as I noted elsewhere, the story of the Mennonite woman who choose to die with her Jewish husband and children instead of hiding in the Mennonite community was particularly emotional for me.

      3) In your justification for why the conference organizers shut down personal sharing, you cite examples of the inappropriate responses from audience members. True. However, in shutting down audience sharing right after a Jewish woman shared, and right before I myself wanted to stand up and share a question and response, the organizers also punished the rest of the group. Without any explanation and without any guidance or facilitation about what types of questions were appropriate or inappropriate, the announcement felt more like a kick in the gut when some of us were already feeling sick.

      4) Your assertion that Mennonite policies and statements about Israel are “an entirely separate matter” seems to lack understanding of the situation from a Jewish perspective. This lack of knowing Jewish people, understanding Jewish perspectives is absolutely tied to this history. So this attitude that there is some objective, detached, unemotional way for historians to tell this story in isolation from the significant ramifications it has in the real world is exactly the point I was trying to address in the article.

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  4. Thank you, Lisa. I was at the conference and you give an accurate account of what happened. I too was at a loss with my emotions. Our minds and hearts aren’t disconnected. The trauma was thick in the room. And yes, we must come clean. We must be honest about our complicity, confess our sins and work to make amends. Thank you for your words.

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  5. Thank you, Lisa. Thankfully this history is being uncovered by historians. Hopefully, as a denomination, we’ll be responsible and sensitive with handling this knowledge.

    In wondering, ‘How did Mennonites possibly become persuaded to participate in the Holocaust?’ it sounds like nationalism/patriotism was a major influence that clouded people’s judgments.

    During the anthem debate at Goshen College, when questions arose about the contradiction between promoting nationalism and our institutional/religious value of global citizenship, a frequent response was that its fine to begin sporting events with the national anthem because nationalism wasn’t a real temptation for us. It sounded like the “morals pass through blood” argument: because of who Mennonites are and what Goshen College is, we are not like others for whom nationalism is a dangerous, violent form of tribalism for which others pay the price. The history of Mennonites in the Holocaust is one lesson that teaches us otherwise.

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  6. Somewhare in this conversation Mennonites appear to have lost sight of the work of Frank H. Epp (1929-1986) who wrote not only on Mennonite/Nazi connections, but also on the Middle Eastern conflict between Palestinians and Israelis.
    Frank wrote his PhD on the support for the Nazi regime found in the pages of Canadian German-language newspapers during the 1930s. He oonce told me he was thinking of writing-up his thesis into a book entitled “When God was German”!
    Frank’s writings on the Middle East involved him making a number of trips to the region where he conducted interviews with officials and ordinary people. The trips resulted in a number of studies, not always popular with those whose dominated the region – Whose land is Palestine?: The Middle East problem in historical perspective (1970), and later works, The Palestinians: Portrait of People in Conflict and The Israelis: Portrait of a People in Conflict (both 1980).
    The connection between his early research into the sympathies of some North American for the Nazi regime and his later work on the Middle East is a subject still in need of investigation. But in the rush to say that all Mennonites avoided the complex issues involved in their past and its connection to current problems elsewhere in the world, Frank’s work should not be forgotten.

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    • James Urry, Yes, I am aware of Frank Epp’s work and I reference this in my article when I refer to the previous Mennonite historians who have tried to bring this history to the attention of the church. I recently spoke with two of Frank Epp’s family members about the suppression he felt from church leaders who were not happy to have this history revealed. Yet Epp’s writing on Palestine and Israel is problematic, and you should also recognize that the Jewish community in Toronto strongly denounced Epp himself for antisemitism because of his writings.
      There have been other Mennonite scholars over the last 30-40 years who have also brought aspects of this history to the attention of church leaders – they too were excluded and ignored. Ben Goossen wrote an article about church suppression of this topic. You can read about that here: https://scholar.harvard.edu/files/goossen/files/goossen_ending_the_silence_2017_pg_10-12.pdf
      As I note in this article, despite these other attempts to bring this history forward, most Mennonites do not know anything about this history. Mennonite museums, textbooks, history classes do not give a full account of Mennonites and Nazism. Mennonites are uninformed, in denial, addressing their own shame by hiding the truth, afraid for their institutions. So yes, we should give Frank Epp credit for raising this issue long ago. But the documents and records scholars have now go far more in detail about the level of Mennonite leadership actively involved in Nazi racial science, racist theology, Nazi leadership, and actual killing. And the level of deception we have been told about MCC’s origins is now something that must be urgently addressed.

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  7. Before we blame our ancestors for actions they deemed to be desperate acts of self-defense when no other option seemed left on the table, we may want to take a moment to remember all they endured. The never-ending threats and realities of brutal rape, torture, exportation to the gulags and all manner of atrocities is mind-numbing to behold, as the largest slaughter of innocents in human history took place with many of our direct relatives as some of the foremost targets.
    The Holodomor and the atrocities that followed the Bolshevik revolution still go unmentioned, while other atrocities spawn multi-billion-dollar industries, and are familiar to virtually every man woman and child on earth. This is an incredible injustice… and while I’m all for self-reflection, and holding ourselves to a higher standard, it doesn’t sit well with me to think of our dishonoring our predecessors with such harsh judgment without taking into account totality of context. These issues aren’t black and white. It pains my heart to see how completely the blame-narrative has been embraced.
    Speaking personally, I don’t feel in a position to judge.
    Much love to all of you, regardless.

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    • Dear Justin, I don’t think you have read any of this history. The Russian Mennonite story is definitely unique, but that is not the bulk of the Mennonite collaboration with the Nazis. In Germany, the Netherlands, and Poland, Mennonites could and did leave before the rise of Hitler. The ones who stayed chose enthusiastically to help Hitler prove that Mennonites were the purest Aryans, the participated in writing a racial theology where Germans were God’s superior chosen people and others deserved to die, they participated in the SS. These Mennonites had other choices. In the Ukraine, Mennonite colonies certainly were traumatized and experienced rape and brutality, as you say. We all do know that story. It is told in Mennonite history books and museums. But there are many aspects of the Russian Mennonite story that have not been told, including the former relationships between these Russian Mennonites and Russian peasants, who were also seen as inferior and sometimes treated unfairly. So the Bolshevik revolution was brutal, but it did not come out of nowhere. Russian Mennonites were under no compulsion to take part in the massacre of Jews, or to take their clothes, furniture and land. If you want to critique this history, first please read it so you are informed and can respond accurately about the facts.

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