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Search The Fig Tree's stories of people who make a difference:

Author immerses readers in Balkan culture during another era

By Deidre Jacobson

Barbara Filo

Barbara Filo addresses history, cultural biases in novel.

For people who cannot be enriched by travel to other countries that immerses them in another culture and gives them a new perspective on the world, Barbara Filo, who retired in 2007 as art history teacher at Whitworth University, takes people into another time, culture and people through her novel, Return to Budapest.

“America is not the center of the world.  We need to be more aware and more considerate of other cultures,” said Barbara, a member of St. Mark’s Lutheran Church in Spokane since 1975.

“My southern background has had impact on my Christian beliefs and on my philosophy about human nature.  I believe that all prejudice, especially racial prejudice is insidious and whether one is prejudiced or not, living in that environment holds all of us hostage,” Barbara said.

Her own travels have included taking students for a semester abroad in England, Scotland and Wales and visiting family of her husband, Robert, in Slovakia and Budapest.  Both have influenced the development of three fictional families in her novel.

“Some of my deep values seem to be ingrained in my psyche and come alive in the characters,” she said.  “I did not set out to write the story, I began the story and the characters told it to me.” 

Barbara’s faith and values were shaped by her experiences growing up in the South.  Growing up Methodist in Little Rock. Ark., she experienced as a seventh grader the forced integration of Little Rock Central High School, where nine black students were recruited to attend with 2000 white students.

An armed military was sent by President Dwight Eisenhower to surround the school to protect the students.  The second year, the Governor of Arkansas closed the school, rather than allowing it to be integrated.

The Methodist Church Barbara attended formed a private school for white students, and church members voted to form a human fence, locking arms to keep black students out.

As a teen, Barbara chose to leave the Methodist church and join the Episcopal Church, which is open to all people.

“I still feel it is important to belong to a congregation where all are welcome,” she said.

Barbara taught art history at Whitworth University for 28 years.    For many years, she participated in the semester-long interdisciplinary British Isles Study Program.  Her part of the program included London, Northern England and Scotland, where the students studied art history, architecture and painting.

Her students stayed in the homes of Presbyterians in various cities, in addition to colleges and bed and breakfasts.

Other Whitworth professors continued the semester through Western England, Wales and Ireland.

Her writing journey began when she traveled to Slovakia in 1992 and 1995 with her husband to meet members on both sides of his family.  His grandparents were born in Slovakia and came to the United States as teenagers. 

She met and married her husband in Pittsburgh, Pa.  His grandmother’s siblings’ children remain in Vinične, Slovakia, while his grandfather’s relatives live in Bratislava, a city of half a million people on the Danube River.

In 1999, Barbara spent a two-month spring sabbatical as an art historian from Whitworth University at Galeria mesta Bratislavy—the Bratislava City Galleries.  From there, she toured Budapest with Robert’s cousin and did research for an art history book.

On her second trip to Budapest in 2001, as she walked along Andrássy Ave., a street lined with mansions, characters seemed to come out of the buildings into her mind. 

During these early visits, the once-beautiful mansions were in disrepair, but when she returned to the region in 2004 and 2011, most had been restored, and many had been converted into embassies.

Writing Return to Budapest took seven years, with much of that time spent in research. 

It follows the lives of three fictional Hungarian families from the waning days of the great Austro- Hungarian Empire to the end of World War II.

Although the Return to Budapest characters are fictional, some of them are named for Robert’s relatives in Slovakia.  His large family of cousins are wine makers, and Barbara’s experience with their vineyards and wine making business influenced her depiction of one primary family in the novel.

Barbara became engaged in the lives of her characters, writing ideas on napkins at restaurants and rushing home to capture vignettes that were unfolding in her imagination.   The vignettes were then woven into the historical timeline previously created.

She is fond of her characters, who are good people, believe strongly in relationship, live with integrity and are motivated by love of their family.  They practice their Catholic faith, celebrating every life event in the church.  They are tolerant, with great compassion for their Jewish friends.  As the Nazi movement invades Hungary, the characters show their integrity and courage as they choose to risk their own safety to help others.

“I visualized the whole book—the houses, the villa at the lake, everything.  I could see the characters in my mind, what they were wearing, what they were saying and doing, and all the details.  I could open the doors of their houses and see them inside,” said Barbara.

“As the characters’ lives unfolded, I could delve into my research of the region’s history and fit them into the events.  The fictional characters interact with characters who are real people from history.”

Three themes emerged as Barbara wrote the book:

• The first is Magyarization, which sought to unite ethnic minorities in Hungary under one language and culture, that of the ancient Magyar race.

• The second theme centers on history and politics—real events that happened and how the people living in that context responded and coped with them.

• The third theme involves relationships, both good and bad and how they sustain people.

After the completion of Return to Budapest, Barbara became discouraged with the process of finding a publisher.

She was encouraged by friends to contact Mike McCloskey in Seattle, but he told her that he did not publish fiction, especially not historical fiction.

After a year of frustration and disappointment, she called him back and he reluctantly agreed to look at it.  She sent the manuscript and he changed his mind.

The book was published by San Juan Publishing in the fall of 2012. Elizabeth Ward, a member of First Presbyterian in Spokane, designed the book’s cover.

Barbara is excited to see where her novel will go, marketing to Hungarian Societies, and attending book signings throughout the Northwest.  Return to Budapest is available at Auntie’s bookstore and through the author. 

For information, email

Copyright © February2013 - The Fig Tree