Forty kings, presidents, prime ministers, and their emissaries, plus over 500 foreign journalists, are scheduled to attend the International Holocaust Forum in Jerusalem marking 75 years since the liberation of Auschwitz.
One Holocaust survivor has already commemorated the historical event in a different way. Every January 18, on the day that David “Dugo” Leitner was liberated from Auschwitz in 1945, he eats a falafel. This year he ate his victory falafel with his family and IDF Chief of Staff Aviv Kochavi who assured him that Tzahal would never let a Holocaust happen again.
The lively, 90-year-old survivor, who now lives in the religious moshav of Ner Galim, recently spoke with The Jewish Press:
The Jewish Press: Can you speak a bit about your experience in the Holocaust?
Leitner: When I speak to young people, I tell them everyone has a name that their parents give them, but in Hungary, when I was their age, the Germans gave me another name – “B14671,” which was tattooed on my arm.
Until I was 14, I had a normal Jewish childhood in Hungary, going to cheder and Talmud Torah. When the Germans arrived, we were forced to leave our home and live in a ghetto until the trains came to take us away. We didn’t know where we were going, but there was a coldness about the Nazis which frightened everyone.
My father told me to always remember Psalm 20, “A Psalm for David,” because my name was David. He told me to recite it whenever I was in trouble, and my mother told me to pray that Mashiach appear.
We reached Birkenau in a transport of 3,000 Jews. At the selection, Mengele separated the men from the women. That was the last time I saw my mother. I was taken to a camp with 4,000 teenagers.
Over the weeks, we saw thousands of children taken away from the ramp where the trains arrived and marched straight to the crematorium. No one ever walked out of those buildings.
I worked with a group that cleaned out the sewers between the different camps. It wasn’t pleasant, up to your knees in excrement, filling up buckets and dumping them into large containers, but we were given extra food. Work, I realized was the key to survival.
While I worked, I sung. Between Crematoriums 4 and 5, there was a field where thousands of old and young people sat waiting to be murdered. I kept singing and praying that Mashiach would come.
Did you see Mengele again?
Often. He was like G-d, deciding who would live and who would die. He would hammer a nail into a board at a certain height. To make sure young people could serve the Reich as strong camp workers, he would stand before a line-up of children and march them by the board. If someone wasn’t tall enough to reach the nail, he was sent to the crematorium.
I filled up my shoes with stones to be taller and passed the test.
So you survived by working?
No. My turn came as well. Five-hundred young people were rounded up. I was among them. They marched us from Block 11 to Crematorium 5. I recited Psalm 20. I begged Hashem to send Mashiach.
They made us all strip and shut us into the gas chamber. We waited. Then we heard Mengele shouting and the door opened. Mengele needed 50 workers. I was selected from among the doomed. As they returned our uniforms to us and led us out from the building, we could hear the terrifying screams of our comrades inside.
You remember things so clearly?
As if it were happening now in front of me. This you can’t forget. I remember everything. For years I tried to wipe the memories from my mind, to begin life anew. I came to Israel, I served in the army, I fell in love and married, I had children and grandchildren, worked, and went to concerts, attended parties, joked with family and friends, and laughed at the jokes of others.
Without a sense of humor, you could die. Me depressed? No way. On the outside, I lived a normal life, but on the inside, a volcano rages. Only by telling my story, so that it won’t be forgotten, can I find a bit of comfort and sense of victory over the darkness.
Here comes the obvious question: Why do you eat a pita filled with falafel every year on anniversary of your liberation from Auschwitz?
During the Death March, after three wintry days and nights of marching through freezing forests, with the smallest scraps of bread for food and snow for water, Jews who collapsed were left to die.
Weak and trembling, I forced myself to keep walking, but exhaustion overcame me, and I collapsed too. I could hear footsteps and the shouts of German soldiers, but then I heard nothing at all until the voice of my mother called out to me in a dream and brought me back to life, urging me:
“David, David, don’t stop now. Don’t you want to eat the little round bread rolls in Zion? The round bilklech rolls are waiting. Eretz Yisrael is waiting. Get up, my son and live.”
I shook off my exhaustion and forced myself to my feet. When finally, after hospitals and transit camps, I reached Israel, on my first visit to Yerushalayim, strolling around, I found myself in the Machane Yehuda market beside a falafel stand, staring at a pile of round pita bread.
Instantly I recalled my Death March dream and my mother’s voice. That’ why I eat falafel on the day of my liberation. Am Yisrael chai!”