March 30, 2012 06:40 PM by Candace Young
Last week on NBC‘s Who Do You Think You Are?, Helen Hunt found out some incredible things about her father’s ancestors. Tonight, Rita Wilson, who has been in over 60 television shows and films, and who is married to Tom Hanks, will explore her Greek ancestry by looking into her late father’s history. Keep reading for highlights…
This week on Who Do You Think You Are? Rita Wilson travels to Bulgaria and Greece to delve into the history of her late father, and also learns a secret he took to his grave. Rita’s dad was a Muslim who was born in Greece, moved to Bulgaria, and came to America in 1960. He spoke little of his life before America, but said he was in a labor camp of some sort at one point.
Rita travels to Greece to begin her journey in the town of Oraio, where her father was born. She meets with a researcher who takes her to the house where her father was born. Rita is overcome with emotion. She is able to go in and look around – they are drying tobacco inside and onions hang from the walls. She marvels at how unknown her father’s childhood was to her.
Rita meets her father’s cousins and asks about her grandfather. She gets to see a photograph of him and hears that he was really funny. She gets different confusing answers when she asks about her father going to Bulgaria.
In Bulgaria, she meets with a researcher who shows her a registry of the family arriving there between 1927 and 1934 when her father was still a boy. Her father appears again later in military records – he was an artillery man when he was 20. Rita had no idea he’d been in the army and is stunned to hear that he was forced into the Bulgarian army to occupy his homeland, Greece.
Further investigation reveals that he was removed from service and sentenced to strict, confined imprisonment in jail. His parole papers indicate that he was jailed for three years for stealing plastic bottles and a dollar! He was pardoned after two years because he worked in jail.
Rita learns that he moved to Plovdiv, Bulgaria in 1945 and heads there. She meets with a professor who shows her that her father is listed in the census – along with a wife, Alice! Rita is floored. She also learns that they had a child, Emil, who was born just two months after they married!
She asks about Alice and Emil and learns the terrible news that Alice died three days after giving birth to Emil. She then learns that Emil died at just four months of age. Rita cries and says it must have been so painful – her father never told them about this part of his life.
It was another five years before her father came to America. Rita sets out to fill in the blanks on those years – particularly whether or not he was in a labor camp.
She learns that there were labor camps modeled after the Soviet versions, but they weren’t extermination camps. Her father was caught trying to leave the country, labeled a traitor, and sent to the labor camp in 1946. From there he was sent to two mining camps where the conditions were extremely harsh.
The professor is able to show Rita a soldier’s account of her father’s escape from the labor camp, after which he became an ‘enemy of the state’ in Bulgaria. He was still listed as an ‘enemy of the state’ in 1973 when Rita was about 15 years old!
Rita learns that her father’s half-brother has been found elsewhere in Bulgaria. She travels to meet her uncle for the first time. It’s a tearful reunion. He tells Rita how happy he is to meet her and jokes that he lived to age 96 so that he could have this moment. They talk, and she learns he was also in the same labor camp as her father. He was interrogated after her father escaped.
The translator gives Rita a letter her father sent to his brother’s family after he made it to America, which they saved for her. It says he came to the United States on May 4 1949. He talks about taking classes, the high-paying jobs, and girls! Rita’s brother, Chris, flies in to meet their uncle and hear about their father’s life.
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Photo credit: Nikki Nelson/Wenn.com, Ivan Nikolov/Wenn.com