Every year on January 18th, Dugo Leitner would sit down to eat falafel as a symbol of his survival. Soon, the personal ritual turned into a movement known as ‘Operation Dugo’.

Here’s the story. David “Dugo” Leitner was born in Hungary in 1930 to orthodox Jewish parents, Meir and Golda Leah. The day after Passover in 1944, Germans invaded Hungary and forced the Jewish population into the ghetto. Just a few weeks later, they were sent to the Auschwitz-Birkenau concentration camp, at which point Dugo was separated from his family. On January 18, 1945, he was forced to go on a death march along with 60,000 other prisoners to Mauthausen and Gunskirchen. It was during the march that Dugo daydreamed of his mother’s homemade bilkalach, traditional challah rolls, a hopeful thought which helped him survive, while most of the prisoners were not as fortunate.

Dugo was liberated in May 1945 and moved to Israel in 1949. It was then where he first discovered falafel at the Mahane Yehudah market in Jerusalem. Something about it reminded him of his mother’s bilkalach and that haunting death march. This is where his personal tradition was born. Every January 18th, Dugo would eat his falafel. Operation Dugo emerged over the last decade and serves as an initiative for others to share in Dugo’s milestone. Participants are encouraged to photograph themselves eating falafel while holding up a sign that says: “Operation Dugo – Am Yisrael Chai (The People of Israel Live)”.

The operation has been a success. Year after year, and with the help of social media, the movement, which started in Israel, has gone global. After surviving the Holocaust, Dugo lived in Israel for the remainder of his life. He passed away in July 2023 at the age of 94 and leaves behind his wife Sarah, 2 daughters, grandchildren, and great-grandchildren along with a legacy of falafel and survival. On January 18th, I will eat falafel for Dugo; please join me.