Monday, April 9, 2012
"Who Do You Think You Are?" - Rita Wilson
I very much enjoyed the Rita Wilson episode of "Who Do You Think You Are?" Not only was Wilson totally honest about the fact that she was not doing any of the research, she appeared to be very engaged and interested in the information that was discovered. The introduction discussed how Wilson is a "passionate Greek" and close to her family. She knew about her mother's (Dorothy Wilson) side of the family. Her father, however, had not talked about his family. (This is getting to be a habit; the previous three episodes all had one side of the family that was known and one "mystery" side.) He died in 2009. She knew he had been born in Greece and had moved to Bulgaria, and that he was born in the late 1920's, but other information was sketchy. He had spoken about being in a "work camp" of some sort and escaping from it.
Wilson talked about how when most people research their family trees they are starting with their grandparents or further back, yet she needed to find information about the recent past. America had been the dream for her parents. Her father was a Muslim in the Ottoman Empire. There was a comment about how people in his village had been told they had to change religion, but it was not clear if her father's family was Muslim before this or only became Muslim when this was mandated. Her father's original name was Hassan Ibrahimoff, which he changed to Allan Wilson in the United States.
Wilson began her search herself on Ancestry.com. (I wonder if that's one of the criteria to be accepted as a celebrity on the program -- your family has to have a record on Ancestry. Maybe if you have a really compelling story and there's no record, they'll add one?) She found her parents' marriage record from June 10, 1951. Her father had stated that he was born in Oreon (now known as Oraio), Xanthi, Greece. Wilson recalled how in 1972 she and her brother had driven through Greece and had gone through the village. This was now the first stop for her research.
In Oraio she met with interpreter Deniz Hacihalil. (The on-screen credit said "translator", which is incorrect. Translators work with written material, interpreters with spoken words. Hacihalil, by the way, is Turkish.) Wilson asked if the house where her father was born was still standing, so of course it was. Hacihalil took her to the building, which did not appear to be inhabited. Drying tobacco leaves, boxes, and some onions and garlic were in various rooms, but otherwise the house looked empty. Near the end of Wilson's wandering through the house something was said about it now being used for storage. Even though there wasn't much to see, it was moving for Wilson because she knew nothing of her father's childhood.
Wilson asked Hacihalil about her father's move to Bulgaria and whether there were any family members still in the area who might know something. The two women went to the (nearby?) home of some cousins, who described Wilson's grandfather and showed a photo of him. They did not have a photo of her father, however. They told her that her grandfather had been a funny man. She asked how old her father had been when he moved to Bulgaria. The cousins did not answer directly but said that Hassan and his brother Falik had gone to Smolyan, so off to Smolyan Wilson went.
In Smolyan Wilson met Dr. Vania Stoyanova from the Bulgarian Academy of Sciences. Stoyanova had a family register that covered the years 1927-1934, in which she had found the Ibrahimoff family. It showed Khalil Ibrahimoff and his children: Hassan, born 1920, and his brothers and sisters. We were showed a family tree graphic with all the siblings. Stoyanova said she had nothing else until September 15, 1941, when Hassan was drafted into the Bulgarian army. Bulgaria had allied with Germany, and in 1941 had invaded the Xanthi region of Greece, so Hassan had invaded his own birthplace. Stoyanova then showed translated documents which explained how Hassan had been dismissed from the 4th Battalion (on July 20) and sentenced to 3 years, 8 months imprisonment. Wilson, of course, wanted to know what he had done. Stoyanova produced his parole document, which stated he had stolen 28 siphon bottles and 5 levs, a very small amount of money. Even though this seemed a very minor crime, the army had strict discipline and had imposed a fairly long sentence. Hassan had worked in prison and was paroled at 2 years, 1 month, and 10 days. Wilson commented that this was not a labor camp, as her father had talked about. Stoyanova took out another family register, this one from 1935-1946. Hassan had asked for permission to resettle in Plovdiv, about 60 miles from Smolyan. Wilson asked if she might have any relatives still in Smolyan and said it would be great to meet someone. (Did I hear some foreshadowing?)
Plovdiv on the trail of the new information. She wanted to find out why her father had come there and was wondering if he had ever actually been in a labor camp. She met with ethnographer Meglena Zlatkova of Plovdiv University. They appeared to be in an archive of some sort. Zlatkova showed Wilson a marriage record (#905) for Hassan and Alice Agop Markaryan from October 26, 1945. October 26 is coincidentally also Wilson's birthdate. Zlatkova then showed a record (#3737) for the birth of Emil Hasanov Ibrahimoff on December 26, 1945. Wilson was stunned, because she had never heard that her father had been married before or had had any other children. She wanted to know if her half-brother or Alice were still alive. Unfortunately, Alice died December 29, 1945 of eclampsia gravidarum (seizures during pregnancy). Little Emil followed soon after; he died April 1, 1946. Zlatkova said that he had probably been very weak because of his mother's difficult pregnancy. Wilson was taken by the fact that her son was born on December 26. She said her father must have had great inner strength and resiliency to come through all of that and yet five years later be in the U.S.
Zlatkova suggested that Wilson go to Sofia to talk with historian Daniela Koleva, of the Department of History and Theory of Culture at Sofia University. Wilson mentioned that Koleva had been sending for documents. Koleva had information from the Secret Files Commission about labor camps. In 1944 the USSR had invaded Bulgaria, and the Bulgarian Communist Party had engineered a coup d'état. One hundred labor camps had been created. Koleva also had Hassan's secret file; he actually had been in a labor camp. She explained that everyone who had been interned had a file. Some statements from his file were that he had "led a wild lifestyle" and was "one of the most important target" the government had. At this time you couldn't trust anyone, and many people spied on their neighbors. Though it was not commented about on air, I noticed that many names had been redacted from the translations shown to Wilson. I wish the archives' policy had been explained, so that we would have had some context for why the names were deleted.
Koleva also had documents pertaining to Hassan's interrogation and imprisonment. More names were redacted. Hassan was said to have had friends in the Turkish consulate in Plovdiv. He had tried to escape to Turkey but had been caught, and then was labeled a traitor to the fatherland. He had arrived at a labor camp on October 18, 1946 and then was transferred to other camps, including a mining camp. The camps had harsh labor conditions and inmates were tortured. A translated record about a former inmate in Bogdanov discussed how dangerous the camps were and how some people were shot and killed for attempting to leave. Wilson asked, "Can you tell me how he escaped?" right before a cut to commercials, so I anticipated that the information had been found.
An informer had reported about the escape of Hassan and some other men on May 8 (of 1947?). They had emptied a wagon and gone for coal. They hid for five minutes and then left. Searchers did not find them. They figured it was worth it to try to escape because they had nothing to lose. Twenty-six years later, in 1973, Hassan was still considered an "enemy of the state", shown in another translated document. If he had gone back to Bulgaria, he could have been arrested.
After learning about her father's labor camp experiences, Wilson returned to Smolyan, where Meglena Zlatkova had found Hassan's 90-year-old half-brother Ferhat. (We had seen his name earlier in the family tree graphic, but there was no indication at that time that any of the children were not full siblings. There was obviously more interesting family information here, but not that the episode was sharing.) Denny Jicheva was the interpreter this time. Wilson was overjoyed to meet Ferhat, who looked like a tired old man, but he appeared to be happy to meet Wilson. She wanted to know what Hassan was like when he was still in Oraia. He remembered being happy to see Hassan in the Bogdanov camp, where he had been interned also. When Hassan escaped, they interrogated Ferhat. Ferhat had wanted to go also but felt he couldn't because he had a wife and two children.
Ferhat had saved a letter that Hassan had written to his family on January 11, 1950 from the United States. He gave the letter to Wilson. Hassan said he came to America on May 4, 1949 as a stoker on a ship. He had well paid work and was going to school at night to learn English. He was working on the American dream.
The wrap-up segment was Wilson and her brother Chris, who had flown to Bulgaria. She shared all the information she had learned about their father. At the close of the episode she said, "Wherever you are, dad, I love you."
This was an interesting episode, and the producers must have been thrilled to find such good historical material to work with. Wilson's father was one of the many millions who suffered during World War II, and he was fortunate to have escaped and made a better life. I'm sure Wilson considers herself lucky to have had the opportunity to learn so much about her father and his family, albeit after he had passed away.