Every day, a guide at Independence Hall on Tel Aviv's Rothschild Street tells the story of the declaration of the State of Israel. None of those attending the lecture would venture to guess, however, that educator Prof. Felicita Jakoel hails from a country that, until the early nineties, was the most isolated nation on earth: Albania.
The Jewish Agency for Israel played a crucial role in Felicia's extraordinary journey, which transpired shortly after the fall of the Albanian "Iron Curtain," and the Aliyah and klita (immigrant absorption) of all of the tiny Albanian Jewish community.
This is a tale of Felicita's own Exodus.
Departure from Albania:
"For the first time, in July 1991, I received an Albanian passport. Our relatives in Athens, Greece invited me and for the first time in my life I went abroad. Cultural shock following the encounter with the West, the free world, so far from the communist world in which we lived as a family, have influenced me greatly. But during the visit I didn't forget to ask my cousin to set me up a meeting with an official at the Israeli Embassy in Athens," she tells The Agency.
"For me it was a dream that had never come true and I said to myself: I must at least give it a try.'"
But, she succeeded "relatively easily," she recalls, in arranging a tete a tete with the Israeli ambassador in Athens at the time, Moshe Gilboa.
Preparing for Aliyah:
"During the meeting it became clear to me that information about the Jewish community in Albania was inaccurate. It was unknown how many Jews lived there and they were surprised to encounter a Jew from there," Felicia says.
After many questions, at the end of the session a secret meeting was arranged for Felicia with Jewish Agency officials in Tel Aviv.
"The trip was so exciting! I visited Masada, Jerusalem, the Dead Sea…" she says, savoring the memories of the trek.
"I saw on TV the thousands of Albanian refugees who boarded ships leaving Albania," she says, noting that "It was clear that the walls of the Albanian 'Iron Curtain' were falling," and recalls what one of the Agency official told me:
"If you all get out of Albania, we, the Jewish Agency, will wait for you, and help you; we will pay for flights and lodging in hotels, absorption centers, and do everything possible to ensure your absorption into Israeli society," he said.
Zion House, Tirana, Albania:
"We were lucky where we grew up, my sister and I, in a Zionist home, and were free in terms of what was said inside the house - but outside we had to keep everything secret. My father, Prof. Joseph Jakoel, was born in Greece, like my mother and family.
"There was no disaster that befell Jewish people, since its inception, that did not include us," Felicita says, enumerating the horrors, including the murder of her father's sister in the Holocaust.
"His family lost all its assets with the rise of the Communist regime of Enver Hoxha in Albania," she adds.
"My grandfather was sent to prison because he was not ready to reveal where the family's gold was hidden – my father came from a wealthy family and was left penniless – so he was a sworn anti - Communist and Zionist, something he never revealed publically," concluding that her father "was a very wise man who worked and risked himself so his daughters could be free."
When she recalled her clandestine trip to Israel to meet with Agency officials to her family, her father prepared a meticulous list of the Jews in Albania, "since, after all, Jews in Albania, were, in one way or another, close to each other."
In November 1991, when her father's illness worsened, the family was able to obtain an exit visa for medical treatment in Greece.
"Taking the opportunity to smuggle out the list that my father made, when we I arrived in Athens, I handed it to the Israeli Embassy in Greece," says says.
Meanwhile, in Albania, the Jews prepare for the exodus via Greece:
"We received instructions to ask for exit visas, leave, and that upon landing, the Agency would assist in the process of immigration and absorption. The Jews went to the Embassy of Greece to receive a visa to enter Athens – there was a massive queue of Albanians – and I'll never forget this sentence: when the Jews came and asked for visas, a consulate official told each of them: 'the Greek government recognizes the decision of the Jews to leave Albania.'''
Jews with visas flew to Greece or Italy. There, in Athens and Rome, Agency officials were waiting. They housed them in a hotel, and put them on planes to Israel, after which they were distributed to four absorption centers throughout Israel: Kiryat Yam, Beer-Sheva, Ashdod, and Carmiel.
"We came to Israel, thanks to our father, who was an intellectual giant and a 'crazy' Zionist in communist Albania," she says. "But without the Jewish Agency for Israel it would have been difficult to make it to Israel, and be absorbed.
"The promise the leadership of the Agency made me on my first visit (in Tel Aviv) was kept," she says with resolve.
"I would like to raise two free people and not slaves," Felicia recalls her father saying, adding that, "He was an intellectual with whom the relationship between freedom and risking life were second nature to him."
Felicita's father died about a year after the family's Aliyah to Israel, a period of mass immigration from the former Soviet Union.
The Jewish Agency for Israel has aided the Aliyah of hundreds of thousands of Jews since the end of 1990.
To share the story of the massive "Operation Exodus," with Jewish communities around the world, Jewish Federations organized lecturers to share their personal Aliyah stories, with Felicita soon becoming one of the most sought-after speakers.
Today, decades later, Felicita goes to work with her ten-year-old daughter.
"Fate brought me to work where the State of Israel was declared, Independence Hall," she concludes with conviction.
"If my father had known where I was working, telling hundreds of young men and women how David Ben-Gurion declared the establishment of the state, he would have been filled with satisfaction," Felicita says. "This place is a museum, and the fact that a state was established at a cultural center would have filled him with satisfaction."