President Reuven Rivlin shared a poignant falafel lunch with 88-year-old Holocaust survivor and falafel aficionado David “Dugo” Leitner on Thursday.
Leitner’s story has inspired thousands in Israel and around the world to take up the custom of eating falafel on January 18 each year, the anniversary of the start of the 1944 death march from Auschwitz during the Holocaust.
As he told Rivlin on Thursday, the 14-year-old Leitner marched exhausted and starving, and dreaming of “bilkelach,” or miniature challah rolls.
“I was walking with my eyes shut. I couldn’t open them because of the heavy snow. During the march I fell asleep and dreamed of my mother. She always told me that we would go and live in Israel, and that in Israel ‘bilkelach’ grew on the trees,” Leitner said.
Leitner would go on to survive the war and move to Israel, where on his first visit to the Mahane Yehuda market in Jerusalem he first encountered the local delicacy that reminded him of the “bilkelach,” the falafel ball.
Leitner has been eating falafel on January 18 ever since, in celebration of his survival.
“Your custom of eating falafel each year really touched us. Ever since I heard your story, I have been hoping to sit and eat falafel together with you,” Rivlin told him.