Monday, April 9, 2012

"Who Do You Think You Are?" - Rita Wilson

Well, I thought I was going to get caught up this week, but then I realized it was Passover and I was hosting my annual seder, and then I had to recover from hosting the seder, and there went my schedule again.  Maybe next week ....

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  (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?)

Wilson of course now traveled to 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 targets" 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.


  1. I would have liked to see more clarification about Alice and Emil and those 1945 dates. Was Hassan really Emil's father or did he meet a nice young lady in trouble and they married? If he was the father, why did they wait until Alice was so far along in the pregnancy to marry? Maybe Rita wasn't interested in these details...always seems like I'm the one who wants to know more :-)

  2. Thanks for mentioning how close those dates were. I had noticed, but I forgot to comment on it. It's possible there are no documents to answer those questions. There are always questions about what we don't get to see, aren't there?

    Alice's family name seems to be Armenian; most Armenians are Christian. We know Hassan was Muslim. Perhaps that was a factor in the timing of the marriage decision?

  3. Is there any evidence the Ottoman Turks "forced" people to change their faith? The Ottoman empire had people of many faiths within its boundries. How many people are aware the Ottoman Sultan sent ships to Spain to rescue Jews and Muslims from the inquisition? The decendents of those people are still in Istanbul and are operating synagogues today. Finally, if Rita Wilson's father comes from a city with an islamic population and his family are all speaking Turkish even today, is it safe to say Rita Wilson is half Turkish on her father's side?

  4. Did we see any evidence on the program? No. I don't know if evidence is out there. I used the terminology that was in the show. I am aware that the Ottoman Empire had people of many faiths and that they were welcome.

    I did not understand the language in which Wilson's father's family was speaking. Are you saying it was Turkish and not Greek?

  5. As a Turkish-American I can tell without a doubt it was Turkish. As further evidenced by the fact they brought a Turkish interpreter Deniz Hacihalil.That is the perplexing thing about it. The Greeks and Turks had one of the largest population swaps in history after WWI. On the show her relatives were speaking Turkish in a village with a mosque. The show failed to mention why all her relatives speak Turkish while living in Greece all these years.

  6. Thank you for the information! I do not speak Greek or Turkish and had no idea what language it was, but of course thought Greek because of the way it was presented. I did not automatically assume the interpreter was speaking Turkish, because many interpreters are fluent in multiple languages for marketability.

    I agree, that definitely does make you wonder why her relatives are speaking Turkish if the family has lived in Greece all this time. That's an awfully long holdout.

  7. Hello I just like to say that this is a really good blog about Rita Wilson's Who do you think you are episode.
    Just to add to the last 2 comments - at the beginning of the film Rita's relatives in Oreon speak in turkish and her father's name Hassan is a turkish name without question. But his last name Ibrahomoff or Ibrahimov is Bulgarian. The majority of Bulgarian names end in "ov"/"ev". However Bulgarians who converted to islam because they were forced to by the turks are known as Bulgarian muslims or Pomaks. So her father could be regarded as a Pomak or a Bulgarian muslim. I really don't think her father's side is greek at all because there is no evidence to suggest so. For example her father moved to Smolyan, Bulgaria and her uncle lives in Bulgaria. This is an ethnic map of this part of the Balkans created by a German-English geographer and cartographer from 1880 -

    Xanthi and other Aegean regions were annexed by Greece from Bulgaria in 1920 after World War 1 because Bulgaria was with the Germans and they lost the war. As Rita says in the video her father was born in 1920 so just because he was technically born in Greece does not make him ethnically Greek, because if Greece had lost the war the lands would have remained Bulgarian and now we would be saying that Hassan was born in Bulgaria. However looking at the ethnic map there were arguably more Bulgarians living in the Xanthi region than Greeks and turks so in World War 2 the Bulgarians tried to 'free' those lands but most films including this one would say the Bulgarians 'occupied' the lands. Germany lost World War 1 hence the reason why Bulgaria lost the war too and these lands were given to Greece.
    All in all “Who do you think you are” is a fascinating programme.

    1. Correct, it was Bulgarian land at that time and Pomaks are Bulgarians forced to muslims.

    2. Thank you for the additional supportive comment.

  8. Thank you for the information about the Turkish and Muslim backgrounds in Xanthi. This seems to help clarify some of the questions about why the family still speaks Turkish after so many decades. And thanks for the link to the fascinating map!

    You mentioned that the Turks forced the Bulgarians to convert to Islam, which was also brought up in the program. Can you give more information about that? As someone else commented, the Ottoman Empire had people of many ethnicities and religions. I'm not clear on why they would have forced religious conversions.

  9. Well I suppose when countries conquered other countries they expected the defeated party to pay them taxes and tributes but the turks were much worse. They wanted to islamise the defeated countries and assimilate the native population with their own.
    I cannot speak for the other Balkan countries and whether they experienced the same hardship but I would assume so. Islimising the Bulgarians was a process of De-Bulgarising them (if that makes sense). Forcing islam upon generations after generations of Bulgarians resulted in many of them becoming muslims, forgetting their national celebrations and Christian traditions and losing their mother tongue which ultimately caused their assimilation to the Turkish ethnos and culture.

    I suppose the identity of people and their ethnicity is very much dependant on their religion, language and customs. If someone is forced to change their religion, language and traditions and then their offspring are brought up in this altered environment then they would ultimately lose their roots. I guess the ottoman empire had this in mind so the more people were ‘changed’ the more stable and secure their rule became over the Balkans.
    One of the most devastating taxes the Christians in the Balkans had to pay to the ottoman empire was what was known as “devshirme”. I would assume this is the Turkish word for it but in the Balkans the people referred to it as “Blood tax”. It involved the ottoman empire taking the brightest and most physically fit Christian boys away from their families and bringing them up as muslims. They were given the opportunity to come up through the military and social ranks and do well for themselves. However as one can imagine it was very distressing for the families from which the boys were taken away.

    Also lots of churches were destroyed by the turks and turned into mosques in order to prevent the Christian population of preserving their faith. For example the famous Hagia Sophia building in Istanbul had been a Greek Cathedral before the turks sieged the city. Then it was converted into a mosque.

    The Pantheon in Athens, Greece was turned into a mosque too.

    The Holy Forty Martyrs Church in Veliko Tarnovo, Bulgaria was also turned into a mosque in the 18th century.,_Veliko_Tarnovo

    I hope that answers you question, at least partially :) i love history.

  10. Thank you for the additional information and the helpful links. I find it interesting that for devshirme they specifically did not want boys who had already learned to speak Turkish.

  11. Hi, I was just wondering why her mother's surname before marrying was blurred out in the episode? Very curious about it.

    1. It's been a while since I saw the episode, so I don't remember her name being blurred out. Where in the episode was this? I know they gave us her surname at some point, because I have the information.

  12. Her father was a Pomak. Pomaks live in Northern Greece, and southern Bulgaria, as an indigenous Moslem, Slavic-speaking population. Their language is a Slavic dialect, related to modern Bulgarian and Macedonian languages.

    In Greece, they're educated in Turkish and Greek, and in Bulgaria, mostly in Bulgarian, sometimes in Turkish.
    In Bulgaria, they self-identify as Pomaks, Turks or Bulgarians, while in Greece, they identify as both Pomaks and Turks, ethnically.

    They are not ethnic Greeks, but Pomaks who live in Northern Greece (Thrace) are Greek citizens, as the border was drawn right across their ancestral lands.

    There is no clear evidence that these people were converted to Islam by force, but because Bulgarian (Christian) nationalists don't seem to be able to accept the possibility of a voluntary conversion to Islam, that theory seems to have been accepted even by some Pomaks (of all their ancestors having been converted to Islam by force, during centuries of Ottoman rule).
    During the last 100 plus years, the Bulgarians have attempted to convert them to Orthodoxy by force, with very little success.

    This is a beautiful documentary about this people of the Rhodopes amd Thrace.

    Most Pomaks and their descendants today, live in Turkey, where they have found refuge for over a century, after surviving several waves of ethnic cleansing, massacres, ethnic engineering, etc. The last one occurred in the 1980=s, when Bulgaria's communist rulers attempted to make them more "Christian-like", by forcing them to adopted Christian names, etc.

    Their ancestry is a mix of Thracian, Gothic, Celtic, Slavic, and perhaps some Turkic as well.

    Here is a documentary about Pomaks, with English subtitles..

    1. Thank you for the additional information. History is even more fascinating the more you learn.

  13. the ottoman empire didn't like Christians that's why they had the armenian genocide Armenians residing in turkey Ottoman empire same thing for the Syrians in Syria and Greeks from Greece the Turks wanted to take their country to become Islamic

  14. how is rita Wilson Greek because he was born in Greece it doesn't make sense
    understand he had a Greek nationality it doesn't make her a Greek her nationality is Americsn
    her dad was Turkish unless he was Greek and his parents were not allowed to use a Greek name due to the Turks

    1. She feels Greek because of her ancestry on her father's side. People can become attached to different things from their heritage.

  15. Willson is Greek on her mother's side, which is not explored in this episode. The critical part is that when her parents met, the maternal side dominated. It's possible that her father converted to Christiansim (this is never explained) or at least Willson grew up in Greek-Orthodox culture and she is even interested in it.
    We also don't know WHEN and HOW her parents met or what language they spoke.

    1. Wilson's mother is ethnic Greek but was born in what is now Albania, and she grew up Greek Orthodox. We don't know if Hassan converted to Christianity, stayed Muslim, or perhaps didn't practice any religion.

      In the episode Wilson found her parents' marriage record from June 10, 1951 on Ancestry. What's interesting is that I can't find it now. I don't know if it's poorly indexed or just isn't online anymore. But Hassan was said to have immigrated in 1950, so they either knew each other from Europe or married very quickly after having met here.

      As for the language, is it possible that having been born in an area that was part of Greece at the time and living there for a while that Hassan would have learned Greek?

  16. Janice,

    Nice blog, but you have information that is not complete and some is inaccurate. ie Albania was and is a very mixed country. I have a friend in Istanbul who's parents are both immigrants from Albania. Further, villages in Northern Greece/Southern Bulgaria can be either Muslim or
    Christian. Additionally intermarriage was not uncommon as we see from the first wife of Wilson's father. The children would typically take the religion of the father. The commentary on forced conversions is naïve at best. Spanish Jews were saved by the Ottoman Empire at the time of the Inquisition (where conversion happened or you died) and also during WWII when Jews from Salonika found safe harbor in Turkey.

    1. I said that Wilson's mother was an ethnic Greek born in Albania, but nothing else about Albania. I understand that many areas in that region are very mixed.

      We don't know for sure about the background of Hassan's first wife. While the name seems to be Armenian, it isn't guaranteed that she was.

      I'm still wondering where the program got the information about forced conversions. It doesn't make much sense based on my limited knowledge, and several people who have posted, including you, have also disagreed with the contention.

    2. Thanks for the response. I just did some research about Albania and was shocked that 59% of the population notates as Muslim. I thought that much of the Muslim population had left, but it seems otherwise. I believe that the forced conversion concept was from a statement made by Rita Wilson herself when she visited the home village of her father and saw that it was 100% Muslim and heard the "call to prayer" as she walked the streets.
      It is my opinion that she had and probably still has difficulty reconciling half of her background being Muslim and Turkish since she is so adamant about being an Orthodox Christian.
      My guess is that she felt better believing that her father's family had previously been Christian and then were forced to convert to being Muslims. She would be shocked to walk the streets of Istanbul and see many women who look just like her. The genetic differences between her parents are most likely minimal.
      One just happened to be born a Christian and the other a Muslim. I would recommend a couple of books regarding parts of the region's history. 1. Twice a Stranger, that documents the population exchange following the Turkish defeat of the Greek invasion of the country. (I have elder friends in Istanbul whose mother and grandfather left eastern Greece in 1923 and came to Istanbul. They had to leave behind family and land holding.
      Neither of them spoke Turkish, but rather spoke French and Greek. The same were true of Greek Christians in Turkey. Few spoke Greek, but rather spoke Ottoman and Turkish)
      2. Birds Without Wings. It is a chronicle of a Turkish village at the end of the 19th century and ending with the population exchange. The village had Muslims, Christians and Jews.
      Intermarriage was rather common. The common language was Ottoman. The Greek invasion tore the village apart and forced the separation of families based on their religion at a given moment in time.

    3. I forgot to relate a humorous genealogy story that is somewhat related. I have a Nebraska friend whose father was Jewish.
      (descendant of a Jewish Nebraska clothier) He married a Catholic woman and the kids were all raised Catholic. After the TV show roots, my friend and her sibs wanted to trace their Catholic mom's roots. To their shock and surprise, her mom
      was actually a Ashkenazi Jew as her family had been forced to convert during the Inquisition. For some of them it was a hard pill to swallow.

    4. Thanks for the additional references. I have read previously about the population exchange, which was similar to what happened in India after partition. People on both sides had to leave where their families had lived for generations. The division there was also based on religion.

      I really should watch the episode again to figure out where the comment about forced conversions comes in. At this point I just don't remember. You may be right that it was from Wilson.

      As more people do family history research, stories such as the one you mentioned about the Catholic mother are coming to light. Well known examples are Madeleine Albright and John Kerry. A reverse of that type of story is a researcher I knew who was Jewish. He researched his family back over many generations and was shocked to find that one of his family lines started out Catholic.

  17. I really enjoyed this post! I had drifted away from the "Ancestry" shows, partly because of the focus on celebrities and on Colonial American/British/Western European roots. But this episode, which I happened to catch as a rerun, was refreshing. I'm of half-Slovenian descent, married to an Ashkenazi Jewish husband, and will soon have a Kosovo-Albanian daughter-in-law, so the Eastern European/Balkan focus really intrigued me. More complex than many of these shows. Finding your thoughtful blog post (followed by all the discussion) helped deepen my understanding. Thank you!

    1. You're welcome! I'm glad to hear that the information and discussion were helpful and were relevant beyond merely the TV program.

  18. Hi Janice,
    Great blog you've got there. I have been interested in the history of the region for quite some time now, celebrate some relatively old books on the subject, have had the chance to listen to both Turkish and Bulgarian scholars on the subject of islamisation etc. I am willing to accept the idea that forced islamisation happened in each of the conquered lands with the main idea to set the example, to show guts. The Ottomans did not need new muslim brothers as those were exactly that - brothers who do not pay taxes like enslaved peoples : ) There was no mixing, befriending, culture exchange, the locals remained just peasants, attached to their lands and paying taxes (more than 20 types of taxes). Over time the Ottomans realised that the easiest way to run those territories was to allow local customs and laws for petty crimes, domestic disputes or non-muslim matters, everything that concerned sultan's money was a federal matter. The pomaks are largely considered to be slavs who converted to islam. Some of them did that by force relatively early in the process, some - out of fear, some - because they saw it fashionable. Most of the ethnic turks left the Bulgarian lands at some point after the Russo-Turkish war, some immediately, some later. Those who never left were either muslim slavs or just regular turks, whose family tree was not that clear - for them those lands constituted home. I mean, 500 years is enough to complete a successful emigration and naturalisation : ) In that sense those are all local people, whose motherland is Bulgaria, or Greece, or whatever.. : )

    1. Thank you for the compliment! And thanks for the additional background information on the area. It is a complicated history, and the more information people post, the better educated I feel.


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