Former IAF Commander Maj.-Gen. (ret.) Amikam Norkin and German Air Force Inspector Lt.-Gen. Ingo Gerhartz were presented with the Ernst Cramer medal on Monday evening for their work fostering Israel-Germany ties.
The Ernst Cramer medal was presented to Norkin and Gerhartz by the German-Israeli Association in Berlin. The award, which was also presented to former president Shimon Peres in 2014, is given to individuals who work to bring the two countries closer.
Ernst Cramer was imprisoned in Buchenwald concentration camp in 1938 before he fled to the US in 1939. He returned to Germany in 1945 as an American soldier and later became a leading figure in reconciliation efforts between Germany and Israel.
Cramer was editor of the Welt am Sonntag newspaper from 1981-1995, deputy editor-in-chief of Die Welt and then chairman of the board of the Axel Springer Foundation until his death in 2010.
The relationship between the two chiefs began when Gerhartz made his first visit to Israel two weeks after he took command of the German Air Force, Norkin told The Jerusalem Post from Berlin ahead of the ceremony.“Everything is because of the leadership of Gen. Gerhartz,” he said.
“We immediately found that we shared a common vision regarding relationships, and with his leadership, we built a plan that included training, exercises, visits, drills [and more],” Norkin said. “I think, in the last four years, we built a very wide and strong base for Maj. -Gen. [Tomer] Bar, who replaced me.”
Gerhartz said: “It was my duty to visit Norkin, and it was important for me that my first visit as air chief was to Israel. We have this historical obligation and duty because of our history. We have to be more than partners; we have to be friends."
And friends they became.
“When I went to Israel, we immediately kicked it off, and we had this shared vision... though the momentum has to come from the leaders, and we have to bring the people together,” Gerhartz said. “It’s always, at the end of the day, about the people.
When I went to Israel, we immediately kicked it off, and we had this shared visionLt.-Gen. Ingo Gerhartz
Gerhartz, who began his tenure in 2018, came to Israel two weeks after he became chief of the air force. He visited Israel several more times to strengthen the relationship between the two air forces.
The activities of both air forces, under Norkin and Gerhartz, included having the Israeli and German pilots fly wing-to-wing over concentration camps and the Knesset and conducting joint drills and training of German pilots on Israeli Heron TP drones.
There also have been organized family visits of German pilots to Israel, among other activities.Norkin said when he began to foster ties with the German Air Force, he approached Israeli leaders and Holocaust survivors who served as pilots in the IAF.
While Norkin wondered if it was “too early” after the Holocaust, “they all supported me in that we should build our relationship without forgetting the past.”
Receiving the medal was a “moment of excitement and honor,” he said at the ceremony.
Almost half of the pilots in the IAF’s early decades were Holocaust survivors who did not share their past but instead fought and led operations, Norkin told the attendees.
The support by the former pilots “is a significant statement for us: that those who survived and built the country of Israel give their blessings and reinforce the joint activities between the air forces,” he said.
Although the two countries have had relations for decades, “like other issues in Israel, the military builds the bridge, and the nation walks across that bridge,” Norkin said.
At the ceremony, Gerhartz said receiving the award as a member of the German military and alongside Norkin “leaves me speechless and touches me deeply.”
It was “all about the people,” he said, adding that the relationship “is not about our common systems we fly; not about our common exercises. It is about our soldiers.”
“When Israeli fighter jets touched German soil in summer 2020 for the first time ever, I felt a new chapter in our nations’ history – a new chapter in the partnership of our two air forces turning to a new chapter of true friendship,” Gerhartz said.
It was not the first time the two men were awarded medals for their work in fostering ties between the two countries. Last October, IDF Chief of Staff Lt.-Gen. Aviv Kohavi presented Gerhartz with a medal of honor and appreciation, and German Ambassador to Israel Susanne Wasum-Rainer awarded Norkin the Order of Merit of the Federal Republic of Germany, the highest decoration that can be awarded by the German president.
“Norkin got the highest medal in Germany, and I got one from the chief of staff. I took that personally,” Gerhartz said. “We worked together, and now, with the Ernst Cramer medal that stands for German-Israel cooperation, it’s more for the people of our air forces. It proves that if you bring people together, that’s the future, and Germany will always stand with Israel.”
Though Norkin retired from the IDF in April, he and Gerhartz have vowed to continue their joint work to strengthen the connection between the two countries. The relationship forged through their time as commanders has expanded into a close friendship, one that both men say “is for life.”