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Holocaust Survivor’s Falafel is Tribute to His Survival

January 26, 2021 | by Adam Ross

Every Jan. 18th, the anniversary of his darkest day, David ‘Dugo’ Leitner eats a falafel as a tribute to his mother’s love and that he’ll never go hungry again.

David ‘Dugo’ Leitner was born in 1930, in the town of Nyíregyháza, some 200 kilometers from Budapest in Hungary, the second oldest of four children. In March 1944, amid the Nazis’ frenzied Jewish persecution, he and his family were deported to a ghetto a few weeks after Passover, and then three weeks later to Auschwitz. They arrived on the holiday of Shavuot.

“I was 14 years old when I arrived,” he told “I was with 30 children from my Talmud Torah (school class), my mother and sisters were separated and taken away and I never saw them again.” Dugo, his brother and father passed the first selection. His father was sent to forced labor eventually perishing at the Buchenwald concentration camp, while he and his brother endured over eight months in the camp.

David Dugo Leitner

On January 18 1945 as Soviet forces approached the Auschwitz concentration camp complex, the SS forced Dugo and 60,000 other prisoners to march westwards in the freezing conditions. Thousands had been killed in the camps in the days before, and during the marches, SS guards shot anyone who fell behind or could not continue. Around 15,000 prisoners perished on the way.

“It was freezing cold, wearing a thin shirt and a pair of pants with one leg three quarter length, while the other reached my knees. I couldn’t open my eyes, I was almost a block of ice. We walked for three days without stopping. People were falling all around me and the march just continued.”

Amid the agony and the hunger, his thoughts turned to the memory of his mother’s home cooking.

“You couldn’t sleep,” Dugo explained, since falling asleep would have meant death. “At one point, I did fall asleep and I dreamt about my home and I cried like I had never cried before.”

He dreamed of bilkelah, small sweet bread buns his mother used to make for him each day for his lunch at school, and also of her promise that the family would one day move to the Land of Israel.

“My mother always told me about the Land of Israel and how good it was there, and that one day soon we would go to live there.”

“She used to say that in the Land of Israel bilkelah grew on trees. ‘David, if you’re ever hungry you can just pick a bilkelah from the tree.’ In my dream I asked my mother, ‘Please mother, give me just one bilkelah now,’ and her voice returned to me in the dream. ‘Dovid, I can’t give you now. Only when you get to Israel, when you reach Jerusalem.”’

The dream gave him strength and kept him alive. He reached the Mauthausen camp on January 30 and was liberated, one of only a group of 324 prisoners, with many escaping or dying on the way. Dugo’s brother also survived the war.

“Here it’s called falafel”

Dugo and his brother moved to Israel in 1949. “When I arrived, the first thing I wanted to do was go to Jerusalem.” Looking around the city, he chanced upon the Mahane Yehuda market and froze as he passed a falafel stand. The food reminded him of the bilkelah his mother would make him.

“I saw them frying these reddish brown balls in oil, and memories of my mother and the death march came back to me. ‘Dovid, I can’t give you now, only when you get to Israel, when you reach Jerusalem. Remember what I told you about bilkelah, here it’s called falafel.’”

As he ate the falafel, every mouthful reminded him of the miracle of his survival. When he finished, he ordered another portion.

Ever since, every January 18th, the anniversary of the darkest day of his life, Dugo eats a double portion of falafel, as a tribute that he will never go hungry again. It became his personal tribute to his survival, while holding tightly to the memory of his mother’s love.

A father and son eat falafel in solidarity with Dugo. The sign reads, #OperationDugo Am Yisrael Chai

#Operation Dugo

Every year, as Leitner left his home to eat this double portion of falafel, his family understood it was a very personal time for him. One of his two daughters Zehava Kor said. “All those years, dad always went alone to have falafel to mark the day. We knew January 18 meant a lot to him and he needed to be alone and get in touch with himself.”

Once Dugo's great-grandchildren asked to join him and word of his tradition became more known. Testimony House, a small Holocaust education institution in Nir Galim – a moshav near Ashdod which David and Sarah Leitner had helped to establish posted about his falafel custom on social media in 2016, and more followers joined. In 2019, President Reuven Rivlin invited Leitner to his official residence to have falafel with him.

Dugo and his family with President Reuven Rivlin last year.

This year, even amid the pandemic thousands of people joined Dugo in his annual tradition. Social media was flooded with pictures of people all over the world eating falafel in solidarity with him. The Israeli Embassy gave out hundreds of falafel portions on the streets of Warsaw.

“It’s amazing that so many people have joined me in my tradition,” Dugo says. “If my mother would have known I made it to Israel, she would have said, ‘Baruch Hashem, (Thank God) you survived, I succeeded in protecting you! I wish you peace’.”

With thanks to Jroots for their help with this article.

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