The solemn moment of silence after Kaddish was pierced by a bellowing scream. “Am Yisrael Chai,” screamed Dugo, the charismatic and charming Holocaust survivor whose wartime story is generating headlines today.
Sadly, Dugo — or David Leitner to use his full name — is in the news because he passed away on July 27, aged 93. As a Holocaust educator, I cherish the time I can spend with survivors, and feel an intense sense of loss at Dugo’s death. He was a commanding personality, always at the center of a crowd and always cracking a joke.
The vignette I just recounted took place three years ago in Poland, at a very proper and formal ceremony to mark 75 years since the liberation of Auschwitz.
He thought the event was respectful, but lacked feeling — or as he would call it, “yiddishe neshama,” Jewish soul. He appreciated the cast of kings, presidents, and prime ministers attending the ceremony but it was all too sterile for him, lacking in emotion, and failing to acknowledge how the Jewish people has bounced back from the atrocity of the Holocaust. “Am Yisrael Chai” means “The People of Israel Lives.”
From spending time with Dugo, I got a picture of him as he was as a child, pre-war. Cheeky, mischievous, and confident. As he screamed, I realized he hadn’t changed one bit.
David (Dugo) Leitner was born in Nyíregyháza, Hungary in 1930, but by age 14 his childhood was stolen as he was deported to Auschwitz together with his entire family. They say that there is no explanation for who survived and who did not, but you couldn’t be blamed for thinking that Dugo’s intuition and charisma must have played its part. Who else would inspire people to commemorate his survival of the Holocaust with a sandwich? But that’s what he did; eating falafel with Israel’s presidents was to become an annual demonstration of Dugo’s personal victory.
Maybe it wasn’t an old man of 89 screaming in that tent outside of Birkenau. It felt like it was actually the 9-year-old David with his childhood nickname of “Dugo” who had broken the silence, with the same cheeky confidence that once had him jump out of his first-floor classroom fleeing from a cheder teacher ready to beat him.
While other people grew old, Dugo seemed to grow young, and despite everything there was humor and joy wherever he went. There was something about this unusual hero that made him stand out among an already exceptional subset of human beings, those miraculous individuals we call Holocaust survivors.
Dugo became a national treasure in recent years as thousands across Israel and beyond joined him on the 18th of January to mark the anniversary of his departure from Auschwitz on the death march in 1945. His choice of falafel is the key to understanding just how special he was. Growing up his mother promised him that the Land of Israel was blessed with bread rolls (bilkale) that grew on trees.
When he got to Jerusalem and saw the falafel in the market after the war he was reminded of his mother’s promise. He vowed that the hunger he experienced then would be his “never again” and from that day onwards, on the 18th of January he ate not one, but two portions of falafel. Social media and the efforts of the Testimony House Museum in his hometown of Nir Galim near Ashdod shared his personal custom far and wide causing falafel shops around Israel to prepare for their busiest day of the year as part of “Operation Dugo.”
My kids thought of Dugo as an extra grandparent and were very lucky to have him in their lives. They would proudly color in posters and WhatsApp him their falafel selfies each year when Dugo Day came around. People of all ages were drawn to him because he was so warm and inviting. His daughter, Zehava, wrote his biography for adults, and also made a special children’s book about people with numbers on their arms, Dugo’s wisdom was to be accessible to all.
My kids loved the fact his story was an excuse to eat falafel (and it will remain so in our family and many others). He always saw the bright side of things. Even though he experienced tragedy during the Holocaust, he chose to focus on the good.
Dugo was the eternal optimist, with an ability to reframe any situation. While we are all familiar with harrowing testimony of cattle cars during the Holocaust, for Dugo he chose to reframe the entire experience. He recounted how he joked to the people squashed up against him in the Spring of 1944:
“Can I have your tickets, please?” One of them was ready to hit me. But Father intervened, and said above the heads of the crowd, “What do you want from the kid, what does he know about where we’re headed!”
Dugo chose to see the train ride from his hometown of Nyíregyháza not as the beginning of the end, but as the end of the beginning. It was a chapter that belonged to the warmth of home rather than the murderous destruction of Auschwitz. Inside the cramped conditions, he said:
“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 didn’t have to go to cheder.”
People jumped on board with Operation Dugo not because of the activity but because genuine people with extraordinary gifts inspire others to follow them. Dugo was a magnetic individual who refused to be defined by what happened to him:
“Wasn’t it enough that I was an orphan? Did I have to be sad as well?”
Dugo passed away on Tisha B’Av, the saddest day of the Jewish calendar. It seems fitting that Dugo wouldn’t want to add any more sadness to the year. It’s as if he was destined to leave us on an already sad day.
Jewish tradition recounts that after the destruction of the Temple, a group of rabbis climbed Mount Scopus and while overlooking the destruction they began to weep. Among them was Rabbi Akiva who laughed while they wept. When challenged, he, like Dugo, reframed the entire scene. The foxes walking through the ruined Temple were not for him the end of the destruction, but they were already the beginning of the future redemption. As Rabbi Akiva shed a new light on what was in front of their eyes they told him “Akiva, you have comforted us, Akiva you have comforted us”.
Dugo’s sharp wit, optimism and hope allowed him to constantly shine a new light on the world we inhabit. He was our modern-day Rabbi Akiva, always looking to find the good and the joy. He would enthusiastically sing Hatikva, which feels like it could have been written for him, a song of love for a land that he helped to rebuild with his bare hands.
He could not be satisfied with the depressing vision of the prophet Ezekiel in which “avda tikvateinu,” “our hope is lost,” and instead, he built for himself a life in a land where in the words of the Hatikva, “od lo avda tikvateinu” “our hope is not lost.”
I was lucky enough to stand with Dugo outside Auschwitz together with 120 survivors, and, true to form, as Hatikva ended, you could hear the cheeky schoolboy proclaim like only he could, “Am Yisrael Chai!”
A light has been extinguished for the Jewish people, but if we could ask Dugo what we should do, he would be telling us to focus on the good, perceive the light, and start to write the next chapter of the book that he has passed on to us.