When travel became legal in summer 1990, members of Albania’s small Jewish community—largely protected during World War Two—began actively planning for a long-desired emigration to Israel. Some of them had already met with Israeli officials to discuss shuttling Jews out of the country. They worked with Israel’s Jewish Agency, which helped get Jews from around the world to Israel. The more secretive Israeli Liaison Bureau assisted Jews from communist states.
The Israelis devised “Operation Flying Carpet” to transfer Albanian Jews, usually via Italy or Greece, because Israel and Albania did not have diplomatic relations until August 1991. As it had done with other governments, the Israelis agreed to pay the government for every Jew allowed to leave—this time $2,000 per person.
Media leaks had destroyed Jewish Agency attempts to evacuate Ethiopian Jews in 1985, so the agency kept its Albanian plans secret. Albanian Jews also feared that Ramiz Alia would change his mind if word leaked. The older members of the community recalled a similar plan to leave Albania in 1952, which Enver Hoxha blocked at the last minute, cancelling the exit visas in their passports.[i]
The first group left Tirana in mid-December 1990. Over the next five months, about 270 people arrived in Israel with help from the Greek and Italian governments. Thirty-seven Albanian Jews went to the United States. “The Jewish diaspora of Albania no longer exists,” the head of the Jewish Agency declared in April 1991 from Tel Aviv.[ii] The claim was false: fifty-two Albanian Jews, many of them married to non-Jewish Albanians, decided to stay in the country of their birth.
[i] See “Secret Operation Whisked Last Jews from Albania to Israel,” by Tom Hundley, Chicago Tribune, April 14, 1991, and “Homecoming of Albanian Jews Completed,” by Bill Hutman, Jerusalem Post, April 12, 1991.
[ii] “From Forgotten Land to Promised Land: Albanian Immigrants Arrive,” by Allyn Fisher, Associated Press, April 11, 1991.