Holocaust survivor turns falafel into image of Jewish resilience

(JTA) — On January 18, 1945, the Nazis at Auschwitz pressured David Leitner and about 66,000 different camp prisoners to march by way of the snow. Underfed, exhausted and carrying nothing however his camp uniform, Leitner, solely 14 on the time, started to fantasize about his mom’s bilkalach — small golden buns of bread made in his native Hungary and throughout Central Europe.

Many of the prisoners died within the demise march, however Leitner, identified by his nickname Dugo, survived and immigrated to Israel shortly after the Holocaust.


Throughout his first go to to the Mahane Yehuda market in Jerusalem, when he first encountered falafel, reminiscences from that fateful time got here again to him.

“The fried balls instantly took me again to the march — and my mom’s kitchen — and I had two parts one after one other,” Leitner, now 89, advised the Srugim web site in 2018.


Since then, Leitner has made it a convention to eat two falafel parts every January 18 to have a good time his survival. In recent times, his story has develop into well-known in Israel, the place 1000’s honor Leitner — and the chickpea-based dish that lots of his countrymen contemplate to be quintessentially Israeli — by having at the least one portion of falafel on what they name Dugo Day.


This yr, Israel’s International Ministry took Dugo Day overseas for the primary time, because the embassies in London and Warsaw provided locals free falafel and an opportunity to study Leitner’s story.

In Warsaw, the Israeli Embassy teamed with the BeKef Israeli restaurant, the place 350 parts got free to patrons who posed with an indication studying “#OperationDugo” (in Polish). The motion generated curiosity from Polish tv crews and different media, and even a shout-out from the celeb dancer Michal Pirog. In London, the Israeli Embassy donated 100 falafel parts to a homeless shelter.

In Israel, 1000’s of individuals, together with former training minister Rafi Peretz, shared photos of themselves on social media having fun with falafel with the #OperationDugo hashtag (in Hebrew).


Early on, the falafel ritual was a personal affair for Leitner. He by no means inspired his spouse or two daughters to affix him, considered one of his daughters advised Srugim.

“All these years, dad at all times went alone to have falafel to mark the day,” Zehava Kor mentioned. “We knew January 18 meant loads to him and he wanted to be alone and have falafel and get in contact with himself.”

That started to vary as Leitner aged — his great-grandchildren started becoming a member of him lately. From there, phrase of the ritual reached the Testimony Home, a small Holocaust training establishment in Nir Galim, a moshav, or cooperative village, close to Ashdod whose founders embrace Leitner and his spouse, Sarah. The establishment shared Leitner’s story on social media in 2016, making it so well-known that in 2019, President Reuven Rivlin invited Leitner to the residence to have falafel with him.


A falafel sandwich able to be eaten, a part of the pantheon of Israeli meals. Falafel in Israel is normally served in pita bread. (Daniel Dreifuss /FLASH90)


Leitner wasn’t positive initially that he appreciated the celebrity, his daughter mentioned.

“He felt he was placing lots of people out, he was embarrassed by the entire thing,” Kor mentioned.

Leitner loosened up, nonetheless, as he noticed how Israelis embraced the customized — dozens would be a part of him on January 18 on the falafel eatery in Nir Galim. In 2018, he posed on the falafel stand with an indication studying “The Folks of Israel is[sic] alive and nicely, completely satisfied and loving falafel.”


An brisk man with an everlasting humorousness, Leitner inspired college students whom he joined on academic journeys to demise camps in Poland to not be afraid to snigger whereas on the journey.

“I inform them, we didn’t come right here to cry. With out humor, I’d have by no means made it,” he advised Srugim. “I imply, I’m already an orphan. Do I have to be [a] unhappy one, as nicely?”

However Leitner’s testimonies about his survival at Auschwitz give an concept of the horrors he endured there. With 20 different boys, he was assigned to scrub latrines throughout a number of camps that made up the Auschwitz-Birkenau advanced.


“After we’d go away our camp within the morning, the well-known Birkenau band would play. And every morning we discovered a number of folks, solely Jews, hung on the exit. Generally three Jews on one hook,” he mentioned in a single testimony for the Moreshet commemoration group.

Ultimately, Leitner was chosen for the fuel chambers.

“They grabbed me and put me on a transport sure for the crematorium. Escape was unattainable,” he recalled. “They tied me up. I used to be wild with worry, they locked me up in a shack.”


In 1944, on the Jewish vacation of Simchat Torah, Leitner mentioned he was taken with lots of of different kids to the crematorium.

“We cried Shema Israel all the way in which, crying for mom, father,” he mentioned.

Sooner or later, the youngsters have been stripped bare in what they thought was preparation for his or her homicide in fuel chambers. However they have been allowed to placed on their garments and stay one other day, till the demise marches started when the Pink Military approached Auschwitz.


In his testimonies, Leitner typically speaks about feeling hungry.

“Ten folks received a pot with soup, we every have been allowed one gulp. Generally the one ready in line would seize the pot from the earlier particular person mid-slurp,” he mentioned. “However once I was holding the pot, no drive was sturdy sufficient to take it away from me. I slurped till I almost choked.

“However I survived. I’m right here, I’m alive and I’m telling the story.”


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