In this illuminating and deeply moving memoir, a former American military intelligence officer goes beyond traditional Cold War espionage tales to tell the true story of her family—of five women separated by the Iron Curtain for more than forty years, and their miraculous reunion after the fall of the Berlin Wall.
Forty Autumns makes visceral the pain and longing of one family forced to live apart in a world divided by two. At twenty, Hanna escaped from East to West Germany. But the price of freedom—leaving behind her parents, eight siblings, and family home—was heartbreaking. Uprooted, Hanna eventually moved to America, where she settled down with her husband and had children of her own.
Growing up near Washington, D.C., Hanna’s daughter, Nina Willner became the first female Army Intelligence Officer to lead sensitive intelligence operations in East Berlin at the height of the Cold War. Though only a few miles separated American Nina and her German relatives—grandmother Oma, Aunt Heidi, and cousin, Cordula, a member of the East German Olympic training team—a bitter political war kept them apart.
In Forty Autumns, Nina recounts her family’s story—five ordinary lives buffeted by circumstances beyond their control. She takes us deep into the tumultuous and terrifying world of East Germany under Communist rule, revealing both the cruel reality her relatives endured and her own experiences as an intelligence officer, running secret operations behind the Berlin Wall that put her life at risk.
A personal look at a tenuous era that divided a city and a nation, and continues to haunt us, Forty Autumns is an intimate and beautifully written story of courage, resilience, and love—of five women whose spirits could not be broken, and who fought to preserve what matters most: family.
Forty Autumns is illustrated with dozens of black-and-white and color photographs.
|Product dimensions:||5.20(w) x 7.90(h) x 1.20(d)|
About the Author
Nina Willner is a former U.S. Army intelligence officer who served in Berlin during the Cold War. Following a career in intelligence, Nina worked in Moscow, Minsk, and Prague promoting human rights, children’s causes, and the rule of law for the U.S. government, nonprofit organizations, and a variety of charities. She currently lives in Istanbul, Turkey. Forty Autumns is her first book.
Table of Contents
Family and Historical Chronology xiii
1 The Handover: End of War (1945) 3
2 An Iron Curtain Descends: Cold War Begins (1945-1946) 17
3 "If You Want to Get Out, Do It Soon": Close Calls and Escapes (1946-1948) 31
4 Flight: A Small Suitcase and the Final Escape (August 11, 1948) 50
5 Two Castles: Out of the Whirlwind (1948-1949) 63
6 A Sister Born in the East; The Stasi Takes Control (1949-1952) 74
7 "We Want to Be Free"; A Workers' Uprising (1953) 91
8 The Visit: Sisters Meet (1954) 99
9 Life Normalizes in a Police State: A Courtship (1955-1957) 107
10 The Fur Coat: Last Meeting (1958-1959) 120
11 "A Wall Will Keep the Enemy Out": A Wall to Keep the People In (1960-1961) 137
12 The Family Wall: Oma's Faith and Opa's Defiance (1962-1965) 150
13 Only Party Members Succeed: "We Have Each Other" (1966-1969) 165
14 A Message with No Words: Oma's Love from Afar (1970-1974) 179
15 Dissidents and Troublemakers: Opa Committed (1975-1977) 196
16 A Light Shines: "Out Souls Are Free" (1977) 209
17 A Surprise from America: Innocence (1978-1980) 218
18 Paradise Bungalow: Refuge and Solace (1980-1982) 234
19 Assignment: Berlin-Intelligence Operations (1982-1984) 245
20 Face-to-Face with Honecker: Mission, in Ludwigslust (1984-1985) 266
21 Beyond the Checkpoint: Passage (1985) 277
22 Imagine: The Road Ahead (1986) 297
23 "Tear Down This Wall": Winds of Change (1987-1988) 307
24 "Gorby, Save Us!": A Nation Crumbles (1989) 315
25 The World Is Stunned: "Schabowski Said We Can!"; or, the Wall Falls (November 9, 1989) 324
26 Dawn: Leaving the East (Autumn 1989) 331
27 Reunion and Rebirth: Together Again (1990-2013) 333
Author's Note 351
Image Credits 375
Most Helpful Customer Reviews
Told from the point of view of a real family, this was a wonderful account of what it was like before and after the fall of the wall.
The author combines political and family histories to bring a complete picture of life in East Germany to life.
Very interesting. So glad the family and millions of others finally got their freedom.
Good read about cold war that I enjoyed and would recommend
Hello, I am a sophomore in high school. In the novel Forty Autumns by Nina Willner, she discusses the hardships of her mother’s family in East Berlin. Like this story and many others, we should know what kind of suffering families went through so that the government makes sure to never have something like this happen again. It’s about the story of a father who did whatever he could to protect his family even if it went against everything he believed in. He was the support behind keeping his family alive and well. I was amazed at how her family survived this terrible problem and how they took on this problem and made it their daily lives. This book was overall an amazing and enjoyable novel to read. The book also has many photos of her and her family on how they looked like and all grow up. I highly recommend to read this novel if you are interested in family, love, and history all in one fascinating story and to be in a suspenseful mood on what happens next in her family journey of being together.
All the nouveau socialists in our midst should read this book.
Very good. I had just read and did a program on Irena Sendler Which is an awesome story.
This book was overall a really enjoyable and inspiring work to read. It was a fantastic true story of a family's survival from both sides of the Berlin Wall. This book seems to make the events in our history come to life and show the true effects of political leader's decisions. Nina Wilner's writing style was clear and at no point in the book was I confused. This was extremely helpful, as the family tree is very extensive and could potentially be mixed up. Although her style was very concise, it seemed to lack any true emotion. In an emotion story like this one, you would expect her to show her true feelings about what occurred to her family at some point in the book. However, I feel as though it never did, which was disappointing. Despite the parts I disliked about the book, it was still a great thing to read. I am more than glad that I chose to pick it up!
An in-depth understanding of the division of Germany is gained by experiencing the story through the lens of a family divided. The accuracy of the historical facts are brought to life for the reader through the personal accounts of the family's trials and tribulations from 1945 through 1989. The family reunion after the fall of the Berlin Wall was uplifting and heart warming. I highly recommend this novel for all who want a better understanding of how government philosophies impact their people both for good and bad.
True life story of a fascinating family in East Germany. A peek behind the Iron Curtain... so interesting! Family, community, politics, love and espionage all woven together in an unforgettable story.
I absolutely LOVED this book. The author's writing is superb. She intersperses the story of her family and the events going on at the time in Germany and throughout the region. The book also contains several black and white photos and several pages of color photos in the middle. Ms. Willner kept me on edge all through the book as I rapidly read to learn the fate of the remainder of her family. I was horrified at what went on behind the Berlin Wall and amazed at how the people kept going day after day. It was so well written I often forgot I was reading about a real family. Nina's mother was the oldest daughter and the only family member to escape from East Germany. Years would go by with an occasional letter arriving at its intended destination. East Berliners were totally shielded from news of the West. Anyone interested in history should definitely read this book.
It brought histery to life!!
What would it feel like to make a decision in one moment that would forever affect your life for the next forty years? Imagine your family having to make that decision for you? To lead a life of freedom or one of tyranny and oppression. I believe more of us need to learn the stories from those who lived without freedom. A historical journey into Germany's blackened past where at one conjuncture to defy freedom, a wall went up to separate one region of Germany for another. For what reason? Could it happen again? In the novel Forty Autumns by Nina Willner, she shares her grandparents history which undoubtedly became her own legacy of a tough choice they had to face when totalitarian leaders ran Germany the way they saw fit. All about control. Taking away from the people at the conclusion of WWII, Germany tried to find a way to rise to the top again. In a nutshell all it did was point the world's eyes to the atrocities it was trying to hide while saving face to the world. Families were separated overnight. While others tried to escape in droves, most were shot without any sense of compassion or empathy, believing the propaganda they were being spoon fed made it justified. Overnight the wall went up in hopes of preventing any more East Germans from fleeing the country. With it any viable means of labor went with it. This is one families journey through forty years. How they survived against the odds. How they learned to accept what was happening in order to stay together even though they didn't agree with it. How they managed to save one daughters life in an effort to give them the truth that could only come from the outside world away from East Germany. How one patriarch of the family Opa, vowed to do whatever he could to keep his family safe and protected even if it went against everything he believed and how one matriarch, Oma was the driving support behind keeping the family strong and loved, well-fed and held together in a city of their own that was falling apart. I received Forty Autumns by Nina Willner compliments of William Morrow, a division of Harper Collins Publishers. I believe everyone needs to read this book, because it seems like our current nation is slowly striving to rewrite the history that needs to be told and shared, otherwise we will be doomed to repeat it. I clearly see signs in the works that this world might be headed to the very thing that should be left behind and that communism doesn't work. The power does not lie with the government but with the people. We need to know their stories and that is why this is such a critical book to be read and studied. I am horrified at the things we never studied in history. I guess to glaze over it in our history books in a very subtle paragraphs is an easy way to take out what should be known to those who faced it. These are the stories that should be shared. For this reason I am giving this book, a 5 out of 5 stars. There are some great historical notes following the book and some epilogues that highlight what happened later to those featured in the book. This has some amazing photos the author shares so you can honestly feel what it was like in those times.