When the guest list was announced, I raised an eyebrow in curiosity when I saw that Rita Wilson was one of the celebrity guests. I know that Wilson is an actress and has appeared on stage and screen, but because of her marriage to Tom Hanks, she is eternally overshadowed by her husband’s fame. The conceit of Who Do You Think You Are is that the guests are “some of America’s most beloved celebrities,” and I am not sure that Rita Wilson really qualifies for that title.
Having said that, this past week I was extremely excited about her episode. The promotional teaser looked amazing, and Wilson, being of Greek/Ottoman/Bulgarian heritage (her birth name is Margarita Ibrahimoff), brings a new geographic sphere to the show. This episode was unique in the Who Do You Think You Are canon, because the search was entirely unlike any other in the show’s run. I have written before about the two types of episodes in this series: the general “trace the family tree” episode and the specific “follow one ancestor” episode. Both types of episodes have their benefits, but the common theme that both share is that the celebrity knows almost nothing about that family or the individual in question. Wilson however knew the man whose history she was researching; it was her beloved and recently-deceased father, Allan. Because she knew him well and loved him so much, each fact she learned about him was not about discovering a picture of him but rather reconciling the one she already had with facts he never told her. Is it any wonder that she was emotional throughout her entire journey?*
Allan Wilson was born Hassan Halilov Ibrahimoff in Oraion, Xanthi, Greece. Wilson found the name of his birth town on her parents’ marriage certificate which she located online. (This was this week’s Ancestry plug. One might ask why Wilson’s mother didn’t have it, but I suspect it had more to do with getting the plug in as all the research in this week’s episode is outside the scope of Ancestry’s holdings.) I looked for the certificate, but I could not find it online; it’s a bait and switch that Ancestry did with the Martin Sheen episode too. I did find the information from Rita Wilson’s birth certificate though which lists her first name as “Margarit.”
When Hassan Halilov was born, Oraio was still a part of the Ottoman Empire, and, as you can probably tell from the name, the ibrahimoffs were a Muslim family–another first for the show. In Oraio that Wilson began her journey. A guide took her to the house where her father was born, a home that now used as a storage house, and is otherwise vacant. Wilson wanted to know why her father moved to Bulgaria, and her guide introduced her to her father’s cousins. Truth be told, I could not understand what exactly they were trying to tell Wilson; it seemed a bit contradictory. The cousins did show her a picture of her grandfather Halil Ibrahimoff, and told her that he was a funny man. Wilson learned that her grandfather moved his family to Smolyan, Bulgaria, a town near the Greek border.
In Smolyan, Wilson learned from an archivist that the Ibrahimoff family moved to Smolyan somewhere between 1927 and 1934 (when Wilson’s father was between 7 and 14). Wilson also learned that her father was drafted into the Bulgarian artillery in 1941 at the age of 20 because Xanthi, the province where he was born, was, in 1941, a part of Bulgaria (all persons born in Xanthi were retroactively considered Bulgarian, including Wilson’s father.) It also meant that he fought for the Axis alongside the Nazis and Italian Fascist regime. Wilson’s father however, was dismissed shortly into his service and sentenced to over three-and-a-half years in prison because of petty theft; he took 28 siphon bottles and five levs, an incredibly small sum. The army wanted to make an example by punishing the petty crimes disproportionately harsh. Wilson’s father had told Wilson that he had been imprisoned in a labor camp when he was young, and Wilson wondered if labor camp was a euphemism for prison.
Wilson’s father was paroled after just over two years and he returned to Smolyan briefly but then moved out to Plodiv, and it was there that Wilson got the shock of her life–her father had been married before and had a child. The marriage, to a woman named Alice Markayan, took place on October 26, 1945, 11 years to the day before Wilson’s birth. The son of that marriage, Emil Hassanov was born on December 26, 1945. Three days later Alice died. Four months after that, Emil followed.
Is it any wonder that Allan Wilson never spoke about his past? There was already so much pain, and more to come. I imagine Bulgaria was a nightmare from which he could not wake up. But 66 years after Emil died, his younger half-sister finally discovers his existence. I was reminded of something similar in my family. My great-grandfather immigrated to the United States in 1911. He married my great-grandmother in 1919 and their first child was born nine months afterwards. When I found my great-grandfather’s World War I draft card, I got a similar shock to what Wilson found. My great-grandfather was asked is he had any dependents, and he answered that he had an 8-year-old child in Russia. This is the only time I, my mother, or my uncles ever heard about this child, and he never mentioned the child again on any records. I think this is something that he also kept from his own children. It is possible that the draft card was mistaken, but between the Nazis and an archives fire in Ukraine, I am not sure I will know the truth.
There was a five year gap between the death of Alice and Emil and Wilson’s father’s marriage to her mother Dorothy. Wilson traveled to Sofia where she discovered that her father told her the truth about the labor camp, a Soviet-style gulag with harsh conditions and the constant specter of murder. Wilson was shown her father’s secret file, something that no doubt would only have been possible following the fall of the Bulgarian Communist regime. Like in other Communist countries, most notably East Germany, the authorities got neighbors and friends to spy on suspect targets, and Wilson’s father was one of those suspected. He was arrested for trying to flee to Turkey, declared a traitor, and sentenced to two different mining camps.
Although the punishment for trying to escape was death, Wilson’s father did manage to flee in the night, and on May 4, 1949, he landed in the United States. In 1973, 26 years after the escape, he was declared an enemy of the state. Had he ever returned to Bulgaria, he would have been rearrested.
After learning the truth about her father’s life, Wilson gets one final shock, her father’s older half-brother Fairhat was still alive (at age 96) and residing in Smolyan. The family reunion between Wilson and her uncle was a tearjerker, for them and for me. It turned out that Fairhat was sent to the same labor camp as his brother, but Fairhat could not escape because he had a wife and two children. After Wilson’s father escaped, Fairhat was interrogated and beaten. He was however, eventually released.
In 1950, Hassan Halilov sent Fairhat and their father a beautiful letter from the United States about his progress, how happy he was there, and his hope for the future. This appears to be the last communication that he ever had with his family, and Fairhat kept the letter in case one of his brother’s children even found him. Her brother was flown out to Bulgaria to meet his uncle and the show ended with the two Wilson siblings in tears to the (incredibly out of place) stains of “Leavin’ on a Jet Plane” as sung by Rita Wilson.
What an episode! It was almost something out of fiction. After a patchy start, the show has finally found its ground, and the last two weeks demonstrated spectacular quality. I hope that Edie Falco’s story is equally as interesting.
There have been some complaints about how the celebrities have stopped pretending to do the work, and that is true to an extent, but that is not a fair criticism of Rita Wilson’s episode. It all happened in Greece and Bulgaria and in languages that Wilson did not speak. Hiring experts is the only way that she could have learned about her father’s early life.
I have yet to see the new PBS genealogy show, the newest Henry Louis Gates project, but I will get on that as soon as I can. I’m curious to see how the two compare. I cannot imagine that Skip Gates’s show pack’s anywhere near the emotional punch of tonight’s Who Do You Think You Are, but I hope to be mistaken.
* This episode may be the likeliest to make me cry. Part of that is the emotional content, but in large part it is because of how much it parallels my own family research. I mention above about my great-grandfather’s possible child, but there is another story that struck me. In a deleted scene available on the website, Wilson discovers the Oraion birth registry (of males) which has the births of her father, his older brothers (including Fairhat, who we meet during the course of the episode) and her great-grandfather. Missing from the registry is her grandfather Halil, although the researcher who showed Wilson the book identified someone he thought was Halil, an entry that is listed as “the one whose finger is cut,” meaning he was probably missing a finger. My great-great-grandfather Abraham was missing his right index finger like Halil. I never realized his finger was missing until I stared a few old pictures of him for very long periods of time. I wonder if the missing finger was accidental or deliberate. In Czarist Russia, Jews who were not allowed to live outside the Pale of Settlement were nevertheless conscripted into the army and navy, which was a form of cultural murder and worse, a very real possibility of actual death. To avoid that fate, there arose men called cripplers, hired thugs who mutilated Jewish boys to ensure that they would be unfit to serve. I wonder if that was what happened to Abraham.