Holocaust survivor Stephanie Fortuno, 77, sounded the country-wide Holocaust Remembrance Day siren at 10 am on Monday in memory of the six million Jews murdered by the Nazis.
Ms Stephanie Fortuno, who survived the bitter Nazi era as a young girl in Poland, arrived at the Home Front Command’s war room, which is run by her son Yoni Fortuno, to press the button on Monday morning which sounded across the country.
Fortuno’s father was a factory owner, and her mother was an accountant. When the Nazis invaded Poland during World War II, she was hidden in the home of one of her father’s factory workers, where she stayed until the host family could no longer hide her.
In the meantime, her father was taken to a concentration camp where he eventually met his death. Her mother was arrested by the Gestapo on her way to visit the home where Stephanie was hiding – and then disappeared, leaving young Stephanie on her own.
Stephanie’s uncle, who was a partisan, took her under his wing and found another Polish family who would hide her until the end of the war.
For three years, Stephanie hid in a closet in the family’s home, which was located just opposite the local Gestapo headquarters. Two years after the war, when Stephanie was 7 years old, she was sent from Poland to England. She was adopted at age 9 by a couple who raised her until her marriage at age 21.
“People endangered their lives to help me, ignoring the risks involved. I owe them my life,” Stephanie said.
Yoni Fortuno said, “The fact that my mother sounded the siren is a kind of closure for me. I am the commander of a unit in charge of activating sirens during air strikes when there is a danger to Israeli civilians. The siren today was not a siren of war – it was a siren of unity, a siren of remembrance.”
Meanwhile Education Minister Naftali Bennett led more than 10,000 marchers from Auschwitz to Birkenau (approximately three kilometres) to commemorate the six million Jews who perished under the Nazi persecution. The March of the Living has taken place each year since 1988 with more than 250,000 participants from 52 countries.
Whilst marching, Minister Bennett held a Torah scroll that was restored after being partially destroyed by the Nazis. It was written before the First World War broke out and served the Transylvanian Jewish community until Romanian Jewry was wiped out by the Nazis.
After it sat for decades beneath the ruins of the Bucharest synagogue, it was brought to Israel, restored and now serves synagogues in Judea and Samaria.
Naftali Bennett explained how the Torah scroll is itself a survivor of the Nazis and said “while standing together with dozens of Holocaust survivors, hundreds of IDF soldiers, the families of terror victims and injured IDF soldiers, and thousands of Jewish youth from around the world – is itself proof of Israel’s spiritual greatness and the fact that we are an eternal people.”
“In this Torah scroll, which I am holding now,” Bennett continued, “The blood of your brethren is screaming to me from the earth. This is what I feel now, when I hold this Torah scroll – a scroll which saw so many horrors, which saw the worst period in Jewish history. Yet, this scroll survived and merited to arrive in Israel. Today, standing in Auschwitz, we must remember that we have received our greatest gift, the gift of the State of Israel.”