311_old man in red shirt.
(photo credit: Courtesy)
When the Czech Republic recently celebrated 65 years since the end of World War II, Hugo Marom was one of nine Israeli/Czech war veterans invited to Prague to be honored by the prime minister and other high officials of the country of their birth.
“We received medals and laid a wreath on the grave of the Unknown Soldier,” says the 82-year-old aviation expert who came here in 1949 and still goes to his office in Tel Aviv every day. He runs a company which designs airports.
Today Marom is recognized as an expert on Israel/Czech relations and has frequently been called on to interpret or act as liaison for visiting Czech dignitaries. But even he did not know a fact that he learned while visiting Prague in April: out of 350,000 Czech soldiers and airmen who fought with the Allies, 250,000 were Jews.Life Before Aliya
When he and his brother were aged 10 and eight they were among the lucky children who were sent to England as part of the Kindertransport, organized by the English stockbroker Nicholas Winton to rescue Czech children not included in the other rescue schemes.
“My brother and I said good-bye to our parents and never saw them again,” recalls Marom. He attended school in Wales and later the RAF air-training school before returning to Brno to begin engineering studies after the war ended.
“It was December 1947 and I had a visit from a Hagana representative who had heard about my involvement with the RAF,” recalls Marom. “They wanted me to find Jewish boys at university with me who would be willing to be trained as pilots by the Czechs, who were selling planes to the Jews in Palestine and also offering to train them.”
But Hugo could not find any suitable candidates, as the Jews who returned from the camps were in no condition to train as pilots. However he agreed to come himself, together with his wife, Marta, herself a camp survivor who joined the Czech army too and whom he met on Yom Kippur 1945. He also managed to find a few others who went on to have glittering careers in the IAF.
“By the way,” says Marom. “Do you know why the Czechs were so helpful to us during the War of Independence, supplying arms and training the soldiers in their use? The main reason was that it was their way of getting back at the British who had sold them out at Munich. They also wanted to curry favor with the Russians and have the people we trained presenting a positive view of the communist system. The money was the least important reason.”
After six months of training, he was ready to set off for Israel flying one of the last three Spitfires which the Czechs were supplying.
“Unfortunately relations had soured because of the repercussions of the Slansky trial and the delivery was stopped. We traveled by train and boat and arrived in February 1949, two weeks before the end of the war.”Settling In
“We were sent to the light aircraft squadron and I served for over a year in Beersheba.
Then the Israel Air Force decided to give extra training to us Czech pilots so we could fly the modern aircraft now in use, and we attended a new flying school in Kfar Syrkin. In August 1950 we were presented with our Israeli wings by [David] Ben-Gurion.”
Eventually Marom became the commander of the night fighter squadron and
the country’s first test pilot. The couple moved to Tzahala in 1951 and
their two daughters were born there. One daughter died tragically, but
the other is a well-known sculptor, Evie Polig. His grandson flies
F-16s, carrying on the family tradition.Daily Life
Besides working by now for the Defense Ministry, Marom was building up a
reputation as the person to ask for if any Czech dignitaries visited.
“After the fall of communism, I was offered the post of Israel’s first
ambassador to Prague, but I preferred to stay in my profession of
airport planner,” he says. “Meanwhile, the Czech government started a
flirtation with Israel. The way it found to talk to Israel was through
the Czech expatriate community here, numbering only a few hundred. For
me it started in about 1989 with a visit from the managing director of
the Czech military museum, one of the best in Europe. He knew no
English, so my wife and I were asked to entertain him and organize the
exhibits he wanted for his museum, like the Russian-built tanks used
against us in the Six Day War.”
On another occasion he helped a Czech write his doctoral dissertation on
the help given by his country to the establishment of the IAF, showing
him where to find the appropriate documents.
In 1964 he established his own company specializing in aviation design
and consults to airport designers all over the world.
Will he ever retire?
“I want to die here in this seat,” says Hugo with a determined grin.