NEW YORK (Dec. 31)
Thirty-seven Jews from Albania, Eastern Europe’s last remaining Communist stronghold, arrived in Italy last week and are awaiting resettlement in the United States.
The emigres, all members of one family, are among the first in what is expected to be a mass migration of the country’s tiny Jewish community, estimated to number anywhere between 500 and 1,000 people, according to officials involved.
Officials said a few families are already Israel, but it is unclear when they arrived as part of “Operation Flying Carpet,” as the emigration of Albanian Jews is being called.
The departure of Jews from Albania, whose people remained in virtual isolation for decades under the Stalinist rule of Enver Hoxha, comes as the country is taking tentative steps toward establishing an open system.
The new Communist leadership has agreed to allow opposition parties in this country of 3.3 million, and the total ban on religion reportedly has been eased. The majority of Albanians are Moslems.
“For 45 years, there was no Jewish community life nor synagogue, and they could not celebrate their holidays in public,” said an official connected with the emigration.
“But the males said they were all circumcised, demonstrating as a fact they haven’t forgotten their Judaism,” the official said.
MENORAH BURIED FOR YEARS
One Albanian man, when asked by an Italian customs official about the large menorah he had in his bag, reportedly said, “Why are you asking me about this? I had to keep it buried in my yard for years.”
The extended family of 37 was flown from the Albanian capital of Tirana to Rome, where their migration processing is being handled by HIAS, the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society, said Karl Zukerman, its executive vice president. The American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee is handling the costs incurred during their stay in Italy, he said.
Exit visas for the Jews were obtained after months of quiet negotiations between Israel and Albania with the help of the Italian government, said an official connected with the emigration. In general, a family member traveled to nearby Athens or Rome and then returned to Albania with Israeli visas for the whole family.
Several Albanian Jews visited Israel as tourists last summer, and it is apparently in the wake of their reports back that larger numbers of Jews have decided to make aliyah.
Albanian Jews with relatives in the United States will be allowed to join their families here, while the others are expected to settle in Israel, officials said.
Most Albanian Jews originally come from Greece, and many fled to Albania during World War II to escape the Nazis.
(JTA correspondent David Landau in Jerusalem contributed to this report.)