Thursday, April 5, 2012

It's all Greek to me!

On March 30, 2012, we got a look at the some of the conditions that drove many immigrants to America. Rita Wilson traced her father's family back to Greece and Bulgaria on the recent episode of Who Do You Think You Are. Her father was born  Hassan Halil Ibrahimoff in the northern part of Greece and later moved with his brothers to Bulgaria. In 1941 he was drafted into the Bulgarian army and later sent to prison. After the USSR invaded Bulgaria in 1944, he was sent to a labor camp. The notoriously harsh conditions in the camp drove him to escape to Turkey and eventually make his way to America where he became a citizen in 1960 and changed his name to Allan Wilson.

Allan never talked about his life in Bulgaria, perhaps in an effort to forget what he went through in Europe. America was the promise of a new life for many immigrants who crossed the ocean to get here. You have to admire these brave people who came to America for a chance at a new life. The letter from Allan Wilson to his brother told of great opportunities, free education, and high paid jobs, something he apparently had never experienced before.

Whenever you have a group of family researchers together and the discussion turns to Who Do You Think You Are, someone will inevitably bring up the fact that the celebrities on the show do not do their own research. In the case of Rita Wilson, I think it would have been extremely difficult for her to do her own research.  Eastern European research can be difficult due to the history of the region. Basically it is a bunch of countries that fight a lot! Power grabs, wars, invasions all contribute to the question of who actually has the records you are looking for. And that is assuming the records survived the destruction associated with these conflicts. Rita Wilson learned that the area where her father's family lived endured 5 wars between 1912 and 1944 resulting in many documents being destroyed. So it is understandable the Rita would need a translator, guide and local historian to help her find her family. Otherwise this episode would have been much longer and not quite as interesting.

If the European situation seems difficult to understand, think of the United States. It started out as 13 colonies with a common enemy and, as I always have said, nothing brings people together like a common enemy. After the Revolutionary War America began to expand and new states were created from the original thirteen. As pioneers moved westward new territories were formed, some changing shape several times until the forty-eight states were formed. At the same time, within the states, counties were formed. As time passed these counties were divided into smaller counties. So the United States has some of the same genealogy problems as Europe -- only without the invasions and power grabs. Fortunately most of the U. S. state and county records are written in English and it is relatively easy to locate the parent county. (Red Book: American State, County & Town Sources, from Ancestry Publishing, is a great source for this information.)

If you are thinking of returning to the mother country in hopes of finding long lost relatives, I would recommend that you brush up on local history, learn to speak the language, and do as much preparatory research as possible before you purchase your plane ticket. A great free source for European research is Family Search.(  Another free source is The WorldGenWeb Project although the information available can vary according to the country. ( also has a World Explorer Membership, but it is definitely a little pricey.Most importantly, as with any genealogy research trip, you need to know who you are looking for, where to find them, and when they were there.

 Don't forget, Friday, April 6, 2012, 8/7central. Who Do You Think You Are. Edie Falco traces her family and a mysterious Mr. Brown.

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