When Barbara Brown recounts how her new novel “The Story of Vilma” came to be, it sounds like it came straight out of a movie. Filled with adventures abroad, chance encounters, and sifting through dozens of archives, Brown underwent intense research to uncover and write the history of her grandmother, Vilma Weisz, a Jewish Hungarian/Romanian woman whose decision to immigrate to America in 1923 ultimately saved their family from the Nazis.
Brown says that growing up she was always fascinated by her grandmother. Despite not having a lot of money, her grandmother’s hair was always coiffed, her nails were always done, and she would often have a cigarette in her hand. “She’d light the cigarette and most of it would turn into ashes, but it was just the act of lighting it, the elegance of it,” describes Brown.
However, Brown was especially fascinated by her grandmother’s European roots and thick accent (something that eventually inspired Brown to become a speech pathologist). “She would make cabbage and noodles and things like that, so I got to know a little bit about her Hungarian past,” said Brown. “But she never really told us much about her life.”
Several decades later, her grandmother’s clandestineness made writing a book about her life quite difficult. Originally, Brown thought she would conduct some general research to fill in the gaps in her book. But eventually, she realized that she wanted to learn more about her grandmother’s past. So on a trip to Europe with her husband and cousin’s daughter, armed with just her grandmother’s name, birthdate, and a few other small details, Brown attempted to find her grandmother’s records.
“The first day, in Budapest, we get up in the morning, we get into a cab, and we go to the Hall of Records. The man can't find anything. He says to us, ‘you have to go to the other side of the river to the Jewish synagogue,’ which we didn’t know anything about. So we went to the big synagogue and our tour guide gave us some more ideas of where to go,” said Brown.
For the next five days, they would wake up, drive to a different Hall of Records, and search for any information they could find. Finally one day, a half a block away from their hotel, Brown recounted finally seeing her grandmother’s name in one of the books.
“Obviously we burst into tears,” said Brown. “And then we found her parents’ names because we didn't even know what her parents’ names were. Can you imagine? I mean, my cousin lived with her for over 20 years.”
That moment further solidified Brown’s desire to tell her grandmother’s story. “If at age 26 she had said, ‘Oh no, I'm not leaving my family,’ none of us would be here,” Brown said. “After that trip, the book was no longer just a fiction book about my grandmother. It became a historical record of the decision that she made and how every decision you make has an impact.”
Brown hopes that readers also find her grandmother’s story to be one of hope, redemption, and a reminder of the difficult choices many immigrants face.
“Do I care if I make a million dollars from the book or if they make a screenplay? No, not really,” said Brown. “Although if they were to make a screenplay, I'd really like Meryl Streep to play my grandmother.”
A Story of Vilma is available on Amazon and in the local Ithaca Barnes & Noble.