Who do you think you are?
Zoë Wanamaker

Zoë Wanamaker

Zoë Wanamaker was born in New York, but when she was three her father, American actor Sam Wanamaker, fled to the UK to escape the anti-communist McCarthy witch-hunts. Hoping to better understand her father's decision, Zoë heads to Washington DC where she visits the FBI headquarters. Here, under the Freedom of Information Act, Zoë gains access to her father's FBI file, an extraordinary document that reveals the level of scrutiny Sam was under and the very real risk of imprisonment he faced.

Wanting to explore the roots of her father's left-wing politics, Zoë next looks into the life of her father's father Maurice Wanamaker, an émigré Russian Jew. Zoë is moved to discover that, soon after his arrival in Chicago, Maurice suffered a series of personal tragedies and hardships that almost destroyed his American dream.

Finally, Zoë travels to Nikolaev in Ukraine where she discovers the original form of her unusual surname and the reason why her family left for America.


    • 1. At 10:57pm on 23 Feb 2009, britishnubianperson wrote:

      I've only watched a couple of these programmes but every one I've watched has had me glued to the screen. Zoe must be so proud to learn so much about not only where but when (the era's of persecution in both Russia and the U.S) she came from. Watching the programme tonight reminded me of two sayings
      1 A person with no past has no future and
      2 From struggle comes strength

      The family resemblance was amazing to see and again Zoe should be proud as this is part of her heritage. It was a pleasure to see how her father and Grandfather campaigned for worthy causes that helped shape the society in which they lived.

      In today's age of want and materialism I am glad to say that I am truly inspired by what I watched tonight.

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    • 2. At 11:40pm on 23 Feb 2009, GrumpyOldDoc wrote:

      Beautiful programme. Yes, it's an odd word to use for a Grumpy Old Man but it was thought provoking, emotional and yes. beautiful. Congratulations.

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    • 3. At 00:42am on 24 Feb 2009, U13844198 wrote:

      I am absolutely astounded that Zoe Wanamaker still wants and has an American Passport, especially after all the hassle her father and other ancestors had to endure while still in that Country (country of the free, aye right)well at that time anyway,I suppose the fact she's an 'actor', (why not an actress??????????) has a lot to do with this fact, green card, etc., etc., I have always been and will continue to be an admirer and fan of Zoe, whatever her choice of country,just quite sad it's not Britain considering she's been a resident from the age of 3.

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    • 4. At 09:02am on 24 Feb 2009, Steven Thomas wrote:

      Much, MUCH better than the other episodes this series. Well done to all concerned on an often moving yet unsentimental programme.

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    • 5. At 09:17am on 24 Feb 2009, ourturry wrote:

      It was interesting to see the surname drift as officials changed the name through migration each time it was written. I think the original name would have been German/Yiddish Wattemacher (still exists) who is someone who makes wadding and therefore connected to the textile/clothing sector, like Zoe's grandfather.

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    • 6. At 09:44am on 24 Feb 2009, U13844321 wrote:

      This was interesting from a family history perspective but extremely biased politically.

      Sam Wanamaker decided that he admired the soviet system in the early 40s. This is not like many naive people on the British left who decided likewise in the late 20s/early 30s but far worse.

      By the early 40s, Stalin and the Soviet system that Wanamaker admired were well on their way to murdering 20 million people. The collectivisation of the farms (1929-31) had been followed by the murder of the Kulaks, and vast famines. These had then continued through the great purge of 1934-9. During this period, whole races were in effect transported to the gulag system. This is all well documented and understood by historians. But none of this was mentioned. There was merely a reference to 'disregard for the indiividual'.

      As for the Mcarthy period, you neglected to mention that the hysteria was down in the main to soviet agents walking out of the Pentagon with the recipe for making the bomb.

      Instead, you of any of this, you tried to simply paint a picture of an everyday liberal who beleived in civil rights etc.

      Had the guy been a Nazi during the 40s, I doubt you would have been so sympathetic (quite rightly so). Or indeed made the program.

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    • 7. At 10:08am on 24 Feb 2009, MaggieL wrote:

      I entirely disagree with those who thought this was a good programme. The first series of WDYTYA was dedicated to researching family trees and was absolutely riveting. Since then each series has deteriorated and this latest programme was the worst yet. All genealogists know that discussing a family tree with people who aren't intimately involved in it can be very boring. The first series managed to avoid that trap but this series, and the last one, have committed every genealogical crime. Also, in place of facts and evidence we are invited to believe lots of "might haves", "could haves" and "perhaps".
      The idea that Zoe Wannamaker had never discussed with her father anything about him or his family history was absolutely ludicrous. This was a programme that wanted to tell us about some not very interesting history and used Zoe Wannamaker to hang it on.
      Please give the programme back to the people who made the first series and take it away from the people who are abusing the format for crude propaganda purposes.

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    • 8. At 12:16pm on 24 Feb 2009, U13844595 wrote:

      Very interesting programme. It follows the trails of many Jews who fled the pogroms from Eastern Europe and Russia. What people should realise about the great interest in Communism by the Jews who lived in the USA in the 1950s was not the political affiliation with Russia but the ideals of Marxism which they believed was what Communism was all about. My father was Jewish from Polish descent. His father was a tailor, mother a wig maker, living in Whitechapel in the early 1900s. His father (my grandfather) was drafted into the army of intervention during the time of the Russian Revolution - this army was formed from British immigrants, mostly Jewish. He had to leave his wife and 5 children to fight against the revolution, but defected and joined the revolution because he believed in the Marxist ideals of a fair society. Having joined the "other side" he was labelled a defector. His wife (my grandmother) was left to fend for herself with her 5 children and was shortly afterwards run over by a bus near the hospital in Mile End Road and did not recover, leaving her children to be placed in a Jewish Orphanage in Norwood.

      I found Zoe Wanamaker's family background most interesting, but wondered who her mother was????? Why no mention about her.

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    • 9. At 1:18pm on 24 Feb 2009, U13844709 wrote:

      the programme was absolutly wonderful informative and has a special conection to my own background,,,, particually as my grandparents came from same place in russia, i cannot thank you enough

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    • 10. At 3:31pm on 24 Feb 2009, U13835749 wrote:

      Having complained bitterly about the quality of the first three programmes in this series and last week's in particular, I would just like to say that last night's episode on Zoe Wanamaker was much more enjoyable. Like a comment above I did find it extraordinary that she knew nothing about her father's history. I now look forward to seeing the episode on Kevin Whateley in the hope that you are 'saving the best till last'.

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    • 11. At 02:44am on 25 Feb 2009, U13846206 wrote:

      I live in the United States. I was pleased to learn about your series and especially about Zoe Wanamakers family. We have much in common as my grandfather was Nathan Watenmaker and my mother was
      Sam's cousin. We have long known about this history but never in such detail. I would love to know more , as would my siblings and cousins. Since Zoe's uncle died, we do not have a way of staying in touch. Please passthis along if possible.
      Evette Zells

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    • 12. At 11:18am on 25 Feb 2009, U13846430 wrote:

      So cold war began when the Americans started regarding the Russians in 1947 as next enemy ( Zoe Wanamaker 23/2/09 ), and here was I thinking it was the Russians cutting off road & rail links to Berlin ! You also failed to mention the war in Korea at time of anti-cummunist hearings, rather more of a hot war. This not just any history this is BBC history.
      As an additonal comment there have been too many people of Jewish descent from Russia where the chances of going very far back in time are slim. With Jerry Springer you only got back too his grandfather !

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    • 13. At 3:41pm on 25 Feb 2009, U13846838 wrote:

      I found this very intresting as my grandparents came from Nikolaev. Does anyone know who I can contact to find out about their archives. My grandparents left in the late 1890s and I actually have their passports.

      I also think that the programme was very one sided and that although they are interesting they are padded out quite a bit with unnecessary comments and travel details

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    • 14. At 4:55pm on 25 Feb 2009, U13847004 wrote:

      This comment was removed because the moderators found it broke the House Rules.

    • 15. At 10:43am on 26 Feb 2009, sporophyte wrote:

      This was a brilliant programme, easily the best in the present series. Thank you for tracing Zoe Wanamaker's roots right back to Russia. I doubt however if an ordinary person with some Jewish roots (in my case a recently discovered connection on my mother's side) would be able to find out so much.

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    • 16. At 2:58pm on 03 Mar 2009, U13856383 wrote:

      I should like this to be passed on to Zoe Wannamaker.

      It may interest you to know that when I was watching you on "Who do you think you are?" I saw that your father had shared a playbill with Maurice Carnovsky. Maurice Carnovsky is part of my family tree. Did you know that his widow lived to about 100. I never met Maurice Carnovsky, but I came across him when Jacob Karno researched our family He managed to track bac to 1760, to an inn keeper, Yankel of Karnovo who had two sons. Maurice was descended from one brother and my family is descended from the other.
      The prefix "sky" means from the place of.
      another show biz connection we have is that the grandfather of the family researcher employed Louis Armstrong and he lent him the money to buy a cornethe had seen in a shop window. The rest as they say is history. I took my daughter to Lithuania a few years ago, we had an amazing and very interesting time.
      One final family thing; you may know of my sister in law, Ros Steen, she is an internationally reknowned voice coach and is a Fellow of the RSAMD.
      I would love it if you would reply to this. Perhaps not on this website as it is painully slow at letting me type.
      Best wshes,
      Sheila Oborne

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