July 19, 2024
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Westchester Celebrates Operation Dugo

On January 18, Westchester County’s Jewish community participated with Jews around the world in Operation Dugo. Every year, on this day, Holocaust survivor David “Dugo” Leitner invites everyone to eat falafel with him and hold up a sign that says “Am Yisrael Chai.” Both locations of Falafel Place, in White Plains and Yonkers, are an integral part of the project.

Born in Nyieregyhaza, Hungary in 1930, Dugo was just 14 when the Nazis invaded his hometown. He and his family were sent to Auschwitz-Birkenau, where Dugo was tattooed with two numbers, B12042 and B14671. The first was erased, but never went away. Dugo was assigned sewage duty and narrowly escaped the gas chamber numerous times.

On January 18, 1945, Dugo, along with 60,000 other Auschwitz prisoners, was forced on the infamous Death March to Mauthausen. Exhausted, freezing and starving, he dreamt of bilkelach, or mini challah rolls. His mother always told him that one day they would live in Israel, where bilkelach grew on trees. Miraculously, Dugo survived the war and immigrated to Israel in 1949. On his first visit to the Machane Yehuda market in Jerusalem, he encountered a local delicacy that reminded him of the bilkelach of his youth—falafel balls. Since then, Dugo has been eating falafel every year on January 18, the anniversary of the Death March, to celebrate life and the miracle of his survival.

“The project itself is more of an awareness project,” explained Shachar Liran-Hanan, Westchester’s shlicha from the Jewish Agency for Israel. “By people coming and having falafel that day, and reading or hearing the story of Dugo, that itself achieves the goal. It’s a symbolic kind of joining together with Dugo and celebrating his personal victory and the survival of the people of Israel.”

Liran-Hanan continued: “It has become more and more widespread. In the last five years, it has become very popular in Israel, and now, many people are joining him around the world. The idea of bringing the story of Dugo to Westchester came with the opportunity to discuss the topic of the Holocaust in many other ways. We are all used to learning about the Holocaust in school and in ceremonies around Yom HaShoah. I think this is a different way to discuss the topic, not only within the Jewish community but with a much wider community and in a much lighter, easier way to grasp.

“My job is to bring a taste of Israel into the local Jewish communities,” explained Liran-Hanan. “And by the way, it’s not only for the Jewish community. Through this collaboration that we built with Falafel Place, every customer that day received a 25% discount. Materials around their restaurants exposed customers to Dugo’s story.” Liran-Hanan recalled that when she approached the Falafel Place, “they were so happy to help and get involved. They were so kind to offer such a generous discount.” Falafel Place recently received kosher certification for their Yonkers and White Plains stores.

Many local Hebrew schools and synagogues also worked with the shlichut and ordered falafel. The Leffell School of White Plains and Hartsdale participated with programming and activities around the story of Dugo. Even Westchester County Executive George Latimer stopped in to partake.

A New Rochelle resident and mother of five young kids, Michal Arkovitz remembered how touching it was to see pictures of last year’s Operation Dugo with Israelis, both Jews and non-Jews, as well as people all over the world. “They are celebrating a celebration of life, which I think is the main message that I’m connecting to. His message is the victory of life and he celebrates it in a unique way. He finds a way to celebrate both revenge and the victory of his journey.”

Arkovitz added: “As a mom of young kids, it is an easier way to connect my children and identify with the story of the Holocaust, without having to show them graphic pictures. It is a story about how these little rolls were actually falafel. It’s such a beautiful Israeli connection to this Israeli food.”

By Judy Berger

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