Last night's episode of Who Do You Think You Are? featured actress Rita Wilson. The show focused on the life of her father (shown with Rita in the photo to the left) who passed away only a couple of years ago. He apparently never talked much about his life as a young man and Rita found out why. He had suffered hardships and atrocities that he obviously wished to forget. However, Rita learned more about him than she had ever imagined possible.
Rita Wilson traveled to Bulgaria and Greece to find records and even to meet relatives. Since she does not read Greek or Bulgarian, all the work and translations had been performed by local experts before her arrival. She visited various archives where translated documents were waiting for her.
She started her journey in the Greek town of Oraio, where she visited the house where her father was born. and meets her father’s cousins. In Bulgaria, she met with a researcher who showed 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 a soldier in World War II when he was 20. Rita had no idea he’d been in the army nor that he was forced into the Bulgarian army to occupy his homeland, Greece.
She then learned he was given a discharge (Americans would call it a dishonorable discharge) and sentenced to strict, confined imprisonment in jail for three years for stealing plastic bottles and a bit of money, equivalent to less than a dollar in U.S. money. He was pardoned after two years because he worked in jail.
He moved to Plovdiv, Bulgaria in 1945 where Rita met with a professor who shows her that her father is listed in the census – along with a wife, Alice. This was news, as Rita never knew of a previous wife. As it turns out, the couple had a child but mother and child both died shortly after the child's birth.
The father was sent to labor camp in 1946 and then later to mining camps for forced labor. Five years later, Rita's father came to America. Details of his travels are not known, except that he wrote about being a stoker (the person who shovels coal into the boilers) on a ship.
Perhaps the most heart-warming part of the story is when Rita meets her own uncle, her father's half-brother. The two had grown up together. She had previously never known the man existed. At the age of 96, he tells her much about her father and then surprises her by saying he was also in the same labor camp as her father. He was interrogated after her father escaped. He also 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!
One has to wonder how many other people escaped death, tyranny, and horrible living conditions to come to the United States, then have never told their descendants or anyone else the full stories of their own lives.
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