Rita Wilson’s episode of Who Do You Think You Are? was full of surprises. She knew that both parents were born in Greece and that her father had gone to Bulgaria at some point. Commercials and previews suggested plenty of surprises in store for her on her journey.
This was another episode that focused mainly on a single person in someone’s ancestry. Unlike the first WDYTYA episode that did this, the others have been met with more enthusiasm and received more praise from genealogists, including this one.
Not Much To Discuss With The Family
While Rita was shown visiting with her family, they only showed one quick part where she was discussing her father with them. Instead they focused on what she already knew and the beginning of the research.
In typical fashion, she knew more about her mother’s side of the family than her father’s. There always seems to be one parent who doesn’t discuss the family history, which makes it that much more of a mystery that needs to be solved. From birth until age 20 when he arrived in the US, her father’s life history was sketchy and incomplete.
Rita explained that when she thought of family history, she though of grandparents and further back in time, but in this case, she had more recent past to uncover. She knew his original name of Assan Halil Ibrahimoff and searched Ancestry on her iPad. She ended up in the Ibrahimoff Family Tree and found his marriage certificate from 1951. Pausing the video, I noticed that they had blurred her mother’s maiden name in every shot.
As an extra note, when I search the site now, that tree doesn’t show up, but Assan does show up in the Hanks family tree. After all, Ancestry doesn’t have scans of 1951 New York marriage records, so it had to be put there for her to find. Since it’s no longer there, I have a feeling it was created just for the episode.
Reading from the record, Rita noted that it was the first marriage for both and that her father was born in Oreon, Xanthe, Greece.
Onward to places that I’d likely mispronounce, Rita went to her father’s birth place to learn more. Rita recalled a driving trip with her brother and parents in 1972 where they may have driven by the village, but she didn’t remember it.
As she walked down the street to meet her guide and translator, Deniz Hacihalil, Rita’s voiceover mentioned that she was meeting someone who had “done a little research for me”. Yeah, for precision in voiceovers. Arriving at the house where her father was born, she was already getting emotional. It was an interesting tour, as the house was used for storage and apparently to dry tobacco leaves.
The next stop was to meet her father’s cousins. They shared a picture of her grandfather and had trouble confirming the next part of the story, of who went to Bulgaria and when.
North to Smolyan, Bulgaria
At the Smolyan Municipality, Rita met with historian Dr. Vania Stoyanova to learn more. Vania had a family register for 1927-1934.
The Cyrillic was tricky to read but listed Halil Halilov Ibrahimov born 1876, Halil 1929, Faik 1930, Isen 1906, Fatna Isenov 1908, Ferhad 1919, Hasan 1921, Habiye 1927. There was at least one more name on the page but I couldn’t see it. Vania skipped over what looked to me like Fatna, who it appears was Isen’s wife. Rita recapped what she knew, still stating that he was born in 1920 instead of 1921 as it showed on this record and on Ancestry. They cut to the chart and used some strange spellings for some of them. What standards are they using to transliterate the Cyrillic? Also, I think the showing the name as Rabiye was wrong, as it looked like an X which has been transliterated to an H in this episode, and it sounded like Vania pronounced that letter also.
The next record she had was a military record in 1941. The history lesson was shocking, that he was drafted by the Bulgarian army to occupy Xanthi, his homeland. Rita asked how long he was in the army, and Vania was ready with the next document, a letter stating that Hassan was sentenced to 3 years and 8 months in prison. The document of his parole revealed that he was made an example for a minor crime, and was pardoned after 2 years, 1 month, and 10 days in Plovdiv prison.
The next volume of the family register in Smolyan, he was listed and crossed off after returning to Plovdiv in 1945.
Driving to her next destination, in a voiceover, Rita asked Vania if she could find any of her father’s living relatives still alive in Smolyan. In this case, I will excuse the assumption that nothing was done ahead of time. I’m sure they went ahead and did that long before Rita arrived, but it’s entirely likely that she really did ask.
Confused by the time spent in prison and knowing that her father said he’d spent time in a labor camp, she wondered whether his story was really true.
Farther North To Plovdiv
At the Plovdiv Municipality, ethnographer Meglena Zlatkova was “asked to do some research”. This episode started out with a more honest voiceover, but they’ve gone downhill since. Maybe I should stop nitpicking all of these comments, since they are always the same. I’ll just point out the rare, completely true ones.
Meglena had the census for her father, which listed Alis, born in 1929, his wife. This revelation was a shock for Rita. If she could read Cyrillic and understood the records, she might have noticed where something (likely, the word married) was crossed off and said vdovetz, which means widower, and the third listing of a son, Emil, born in 1945.
“Do we know when he married her? …Are you going to tell me the whole story?” Rita started to ask more questions, but realized Meglena was reaching for more books.
The marriage certificate came with a translation for her to read, where they Americanized the spelling of her name to Alice. They were married 26 October 1945, which was Rita’s birthday.
“I can only imagine what’s coming next.” I wonder what she was imagining. Had she noticed the third listing on the census page?
The next document also came with a translation, a birth certificate for Emil, born 26 December 1945. From this document, we got more details that were not read aloud when they showed the entire page. Alice was born Armenian, religion Gregorian, and 16 years old. It stated that Hassan was a stoker, of nationality Bulgarian (not Greek?), religion Muslim (which Rita had stated earlier), and 24 years old.
Rita asked if she was still alive. After the break, the next document was the death record for Alice on 29 December 1945. One last document showed the death of Emil on 1 April 1946.
Five years later, Hassan was in the US and married again. Rita was still on a quest for those missing five years to find out if there ever really was a work camp. Meglena suggested she go to Sofia, the capital of Bulgaria.
The Secret Files Commission
I love how Rita introduced the building like she was saying the name within quotes. She met Dr. Daniela Koleva there to learn more.
“If we turn to his secret file…”, Daniela began. I wonder if that’s where I have to find information on some of my people.
At this point, Rita learned that her father was in a labor camp, and that wasn’t just a euphemism for his earlier prison term. By the document Rita read aloud, Hassan lived a wild life, which was not to be tolerated by the communist government. Another document stated that Hassan became friends with the Secretary of the Turkish Consulate in Plovdiv, who arranged for him to escape to Turkey. He got as far as the border before being caught, detained, and then sent to the labor camp for trying to leave the country. He ended up in two different labor camps before escaping. They had also found the report from the guard when her father escaped. Was it also in his secret file? Probably. I loved Rita’s excitement to read how her father escaped.
Hassan became an enemy of the state and was still listed as such in a book from 1973.
Back to Smolyan, Rita met her father’s half brother, 96 years old, who was still living there. Just to add another surprise, Ferhad found himself in the same labor camp as Hassan, and explained that he couldn’t leave with her father because he had a family. He also had a letter that had been kept for years, written by Hassan in 1950, the year after he arrived in the US. In the letter, he mentioned that he was a stoker on the ship, which was also listed as his profession on Emil’s birth certificate.
An earlier document showed that Ferhad was born two years before Hassan, but there was almost no mention of the previous generation, explaining that their father was married twice or why.
The Family Reunion Grows
To end the episode with sharing the journey with family, her brother, Chris, flew to Bulgaria to meet Ferhad and learn about her journey.
I thought it was funny how Rita kept trying ask questions just as each person she met with was handing her the documents with the answers. I guess it showed that she was asking the right questions as she went, because that was what was researched.
I know that Ancestry is the sponsor of the show, and they get quite a few commercials, but do they really have to fake information just to inject themselves into every episode? That kind of perpetuates the false idea that everything is online. According to the show, you start at Ancestry and find something, then travel the world to learn the rest. I have no problem with them searching on Ancestry to find the census records and all the other documents they have, because they do have a lot, but I don’t like when a family tree is placed online just for the celebrity to find something, like a 1951 New York marriage certificate. That is not on Ancestry; it’s not even indexed by ItalianGen.
Genealogy research is about the details. I just want this show to be more honest in the details too.
This is the seventh article in the Who Do You Think You Are?Nitpicker’s Version for Season 3.
The URL for this article is http://idogenealogy.com/blog/2012/05/06/wdytya-3×07-nitpickers/.