Sunday, August 23, 2009

Port Richey woman searches for brother left behind in Germany after World War II

Mary Ann Wilson of Port Richey was sent to an American orphanage after the war, but brother Wisil remained in Germany.

PORT RICHEY — Mary Ann Wilson remembers only snippets of her older brother: the colored pencils he adored, his German army uniform, their final embrace.

She was just a child the last time she saw him. Maybe eleven years older than her, he and their father had been drafted to fight in the German army, she said.

After World War II ended, her brother visited Mary Ann and her mother in a displaced persons camp. Their mother was in the final stages of her battle with ovarian cancer. The brother came to say goodbye.

Like many details of her childhood, where he had been before or what happened to him after that, Mary Ann doesn't know.

At 66, she's come to accept that the father she saw only occasionally as a child is long gone. Her mother died when she was 6. But somewhere, her brother, Wisil Petruk, could be alive.

"Maybe God saved him," Mary Ann said.

• • •

Mary Ann was born in Germany two years before the war ended to parents she believes were of Ukrainian descent.

Her childhood playground was the ruins of post-war Germany. Tea parties were held with broken saucers found in the rubble. Old mattress springs were bouncy toys. The children avoided the spots where they found human skeletons.

Mary Ann's mother's dying wish was that her daughter be removed from the squalor and brought to America. After her mother's death, Mary Ann lived with a family friend in the camps for two years, until a relief organization arranged to bring her overseas.

After a week's journey by boat, Mary Ann said she was greeted by the Statue of Liberty in November 1951.

"Coming to America was the best, the most wonderful thing. But by the same token I thought about everyone left behind. I always said, 'I'm going to find them.' "

• • •

Mary Ann is tight-lipped about some of the details of her childhood. She did not reveal the names of the Philadelphia couple who adopted her. She did not say when her birth name of Maria was changed to Mary Ann, or what her last name became after her adoption.

She eventually married George Williams, a police and military man. Mary Ann asked the Times not to contact her husband, but said they raised four children in Philadelphia and retired to Port Richey in 2004.

Once a full-time mom, she now spends her days gardening, babysitting her grandchildren and entertaining friends. She likes chick flicks and is an active member of the local Republican party.

Mary Ann's children always knew they had an uncle, but she didn't reveal the details of her search as they grew up. She didn't want to burden them with the harsh realities of her childhood.

"Every time she would talk about it, she would get emotional," said daughter Daria Wilson, 28, who lives in Philadelphia.

Stories of war-torn families like Mary Ann's are not uncommon, said Orest Subtelny, a history professor at York University in Toronto, Ontario.

"This happened all the time, families were split, brothers and sisters split," he said.

In some parts of Europe, Subtelny said, people still place newspaper ads seeking family members lost during and after World War II.

Mary Ann has written to organizations throughout Europe, inquiring about her brother. She asked friends who traveled abroad to rip out the P pages of phone books. She called all the Petruks, looking for Wisil.

In June 2008, Mary Ann told her story to the American Red Cross, which provides tracing services for families displaced during war, civil unrest and natural disasters through its international network of societies.

Since 1945, the relief organization has handled 9,000 requests to locate family members lost during World War II.

The American Red Cross gathered as much information as they could on Wisil Petruk from Mary Ann, then forwarded it on to their tracing center in Baltimore, Md.

They told her to be patient.

But Mary Ann wasn't about to quit her quest.

The biggest breakthough came soon after. Through an Internet search, Mary Ann said she found a man with the same name as her brother, working as a priest in Brazil.

After decades of searching, Mary Ann felt chills and butterflies looking at his name on the screen.

She called the Red Cross with the information.

"That night, I prayed for the missing link to be found," she said.

• • •

The Brazilian Red Cross is currently looking for Wisil. There have been no updates on the search, and the Times could not find the Web page that Mary Ann discovered last year.

Such delays are not uncommon in a case like this, said Chad Magnuson, emergency services director for the American Red Cross, Tampa Bay Chapter.

"Sometimes these things take years."

But Mary Ann wonders if her brother doesn't want to be found.

Decades ago, she returned to the Philadelphia orphanage where she had lived before her adoption. They gave her a letter, supposedly from her brother.

The letter said that Wisil gave up all rights to his sister. He was in no position to take care of her.

But there was no signature, and Mary Ann holds on to a shred of hope that some organization or orphanage employee wrote it so she could be more easily processed through the system.

If the Wisil Petruk in Brazil is her brother, and he doesn't respond, Mary Ann says she will understand. Maybe by reaching out, she has stirred up too many emotions. Maybe he did write that letter and feels guilty about it. Maybe he never told anyone about her.

"Every day, it's a missing link in my life," she said. "It's a sadness because here in America people take each other for granted. They don't know what a gift it is to have a family."

Times Researcher Shirl Kennedy contributed to this report. Helen Anne Travis can be reached at or (813) 435-7312.

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