In merit of a refuah sheleima for Mindal Mariam bas Risal

I am sure everyone here has read many a Holocaust memoir. Some stories understandably sound rather similar to the next. However, there is one memoir that begins with the following rather atypical warning:

“Courageous readers can go ahead and read the terrible story of what happened to me when I was a boy. Whoever doesn’t have the courage can read a little bit and then close the book, go to the kitchen and take some ice cream out of the freezer.”

Yes, this is the introduction to a Holocaust memoir, written by Avraham David Leitner, nicknamed, Dugo.

Due to a strange circumstance, Dugo, had two separate numbers tattooed on his arm. He describes it as a 2-for-1 special…

In 1944, crammed into a cattle car, on their way to a concentration camp, the then 14-year-old, turned to the man next to him and asked if he could have his ticket. He almost got beaten for that one.

He describes himself in the cattle car: “My shoulder was up inside Father’s shoulder, and Shmuel was pushed up against his other side. Mother was stuck to him, and Rachel and Esther and Ethel were stuck to her, and Nathan was in the middle of us all. But the main thing was that we were together. And – that I did not have to go to cheder.”

You get the picture, right?

Dugo was a street-smart trouble-maker who grew up in Hungary. He describes his rebbe in cheder wanting to give him a good old-school beating, cornering him into the back of a classroom, and then, with nowhere to go, jumping out the second-floor window to escape.

Those skills served him well when he came to Auschwitz. He was sent to the ‘wrong’ line, but he realized it wasn’t good for him, and so he slipped into the line with the adults. Mengel saw him and pushed him back to the other line. He waited and as soon as he got a chance, he slipped back with the adults, and in doing so saved his life.

Recognizing that he had to be working and working hard to stay alive, he and some friends offered themselves as sewage cleaners. They were given a nickname which I can’t say out loud. He describes it as the best thing that could have happened to him. Because it was such a terrible job, they got extra food.

At one point, he was taken into the infamous showers, but right before they closed the doors, a Nazi asked for 50 strong men to come forward to help with a particular job. Of course, Dugo, despite his age and size stepped up, and in doing so, saved his life.

On January 18, 1945, as the Soviets came close to Auschwitz, the death march began. Writes Dugo, “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.”

There was no food and he was starving and completely sleep-deprived. At one point, he describes himself sleep walking and dreaming as he trudged along. “I dreamt about my home and I cried like I had never cried before.”

He dreamed of bilkelah, a type of sweet bread that his mother used to make for him.

“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.”’

That dream kept him alive.

Though most of his family perished, he and his brother, Shmuel survived. In 1949, he moved to Israel. The first thing he did was go to Yerushalayim. While there, he passed a falafel stand. And I quote: “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.’”

He bought himself a falafel and every bite tasted like freedom. He bought himself another falafel. And then, he decided that every January 18th, he would commemorate the death march and the vision of his mother by buying falafel.

He moved to and became one of the founders of Moshav Nir Galim, a few minute drive from Yeshivat Kerem B’Yavneh. He met his wife, had two children, 10 grandchildren, and tens of great-grandchildren.  

But every year, on January 18th, he would make his way to a falafel stand and buy two falafels. “Never again,” he would say, “will I go hungry.”

Over the years, people heard about Dugo and his strange minhag. And they started copying him. Thousands of people in Israel would go every January 18th and buy falafel in his honor. They’d post pictures of themselves eating falafel with the hashtag #OperationDugo. In 2019, then Israeli President Rivlin invited him to the presidents’ home for falafel.

He never lost his sense of humor or his positive energy. Three years ago, at a gathering in Auschwitz to commemorate 75 years since liberation, at the end of an exceptionally solemn service, someone yelled, “Am Yisrael Chai!”

It was Dugo, of course. He felt like the event was important but lacked a yiddishe Neshama, some Jewish soul, so he felt compelled to pierce the silence with, ‘Am Yisrael chai.’

The subtitle of his book, which summed up his attitude to life is, Wasn’t it enough that I was an orphan – did I have to be sad as well?

You see, Dugo made a choice, an impossible choice, one that was almost superhuman. He chose to focus on the positive. Not on the fact that he lost his family in the war, but that he had a new family in Israel. Not on the fact that he went through so much hardship, but on the fact that he survived. Not on the fact that he went hungry for so long, but that now he could eat falafel.

This Shabbos is called Shabbos Nachamu, literally the Shabbos of comfort. It’s a festive Shabbos; it’s meant to be uplifting and joyous- we remind ourselves of the Messianic era and how G-d promises us that we will one day be redeemed. If you were to go to the Catskills, there are huge Jewish concerts taking place all celebrating how great things are and how great things will be.

It’s beautiful but also bizarre.

We just spent a day on the floor, crying, bemoaning our fate. And now, we just stand up, dust ourselves off, and sing and dance?! Are we expected to be sad over the lack of a Bais Hamikdash or celebrate the fact that a new one is on its way?

Rav Samson Raphael Hirsch suggests that the answer can be found in the name of this Shabbos – Nachamu. We often translate Nechama as comfort. But he explains the real translation is to turn or to shift one’s attention.

When we go to be Menachem aveil, to “comfort” a mourner, we are not taking away the pain of their loss, we are sharing stories of their loved one, we’re showing them how we care about them, and in doing so, we are turning their attention ever so slightly away from focusing on the pain onto a different perspective that they weren’t paying attention to, but was always there.

Yes, it’s tragic that we live in exile. That we still have so much in-fighting, illness, corruption, you name it. And on Tisha B’av we pay attention to all that is broken. But on Shabbos Nachamu, we turn our gaze, we look at a different perspective – one that was always there, but we weren’t giving it any attention.

This past Wednesday, on Erev Tisha B’av, Dugo passed away at the age of 93. He was an embodiment not only of Shabbos Nachamu but of the Jewish spirit; to face death in the eyes and to sing, to bear untold tragedy and to smile, to go through the Holocaust… and eat falafel. May his memory be for a blessing. Am Yisrael Chai!