After Sixty Years, Pilots Finally Get Their Wings

Hugo Marom covered the small blue box with his hand and opened it slowly and reverentially. Inside lay gold wings, the pilot's wings of the Czech Air Force. "It's always exciting when someone remembers you," he said.

Marom and 16 others received their pilots' wings at the Israel Air Force House in Herzliya yesterday - for courses they completed 60 years ago at Czech Air Force bases. The ceremony was attended by Czech Defense Minister Vlasta Parkanova - who, along with the Czech Air Force commander, decided the time had come to grand these pilots their wings - and the Czech Republic's ambassador to Israel, Michael Zantovsky. Israeli officials in attendance included Deputy Defense Minister Matan Vilnai and several former IAF commanders, among them former chief of staff Dan Halutz.

Marom was born in Czechoslovakia to the Meisel family, whose family tree shows that they spent 1,000 years in the country. "My father used to say that we were more Czech than the Czechs," he said with a smile.

Marom's life was saved when he was sent out of Czechoslovakia to Great Britain as part of the Kindertransport in 1939. He returned to his homeland after World War II and was offered a spot in a pilots' course for Czech Jews in 1948; those who completed the course were supposed to be sent to help the fledgling Jewish state fight for its existence.

"From the age of 11 I wanted to be a pilot, so the offer captivated me and I fought to be a pilot," said Marom. "Unfortunately today, the state is forced to fight in order to find young people who are prepared to be inducted."

After completing the course, Marom moved to Israel and became one of the first members of the IAF. He was the first commander of the flight school and made the rank of major - the most veteran major in the air force, he said - and retired from the IAF in 1954. He served for 10 years as the chief test pilot for the Defense Ministry and Israel Aerospace Industries, and went on to plan airports around the world as a private consultant. He planned airports in the United States and Paraguay, and is working on Israel's second international airport, which is slated to go up off the coast of Tel Aviv after the Sde Dov airport shuts down.

"It's the closing of a circle for me," said Marom. "Unfortunately, out of the 22 members of the first course, only five of us remain."

One of Marom's classmates was Avraham Hershlom, whose assistance and financial support helped make the ceremony possible. Hershlom was born in Poland, fled Auschwitz at age 16 and then fled Buchenwald after that, eventually finding his way to Prague and the pilots' course.

During the ceremony, the Israel Air Force House showed an exhibit about what was then called "Israel Confidential" - the code name given to the operation in which Czechoslovakia, with the approval of the Soviet Union, provided aid to Israel during the War of Independence.