November 24, 2019
Forty Autumns by Nina Willner
Nonfiction - Memoir
2016 William Morrow
Finished on November 18, 2019
Rating: 3/5 (Good)
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.
I recommended Forty Autumns to my book group after learning about it from a friend who also read it for her book group. She raved about the book and said her group had a wonderful discussion, so I was sold. World War II is a subject I'm drawn to, but I didn't know much about this part of Germany's history when I picked up the book. Like most major events in history such as JFK's assassination, Apollo 11 moon landing, the Space Shuttle Challenger explosion and 9/11 (the sort that we can recall where we were when we first heard that shocking news), I remember when I first heard about the fall of the Berlin Wall. I was busy with work and family life and while I knew it was a historical event, I didn't fully understand the enormous impact it had for those German families who had been separated from their loved ones for decades. Nina Willner's narrative sheds light on the authoritarian rule and repression by the East German government, as well as sharing her family's individual story of fear and uncertainty, including the separation of family members over the course of forty years. Willner's poignant memoir is well written and informative, but sadly, I didn't love it. It started off very strong and readable, but began to drag halfway through. I felt that the author kept her readers at a distance, in spite of sharing such a personal story, and I might have enjoyed it better had it been presented as a historical novel rather than a memoir.