Memoir, Non-Fiction, Reviews

Forty Autumns

Forty Autumns: A Family’s Story of Courage and Survival on Both Sides of the Berlin Wall by Nina Willner

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.

When my book club picked this one, I’ll be honest and say I didn’t look at it too closely when I ordered it. So when it came in the mail, I glanced at it and was like, “Cool, they picked another WWII book” and nightstanded it. Cause ya’ll know how I feel about WWII books.
Then when my friend texted me to see if I’d started it yet and was liking it, I dug it back out of the pile and actually READ what it was about. Turns out it’s not about WWII, but the Cold War.

And then I started reading it and HOLY WOW this book was so good. I feel like I say this about every memoir I read, but honestly some people have absolutely fascinating lives. This one is the story of a family divided by the Berlin Wall for 40 years. About the family that stayed behind in East Germany and the branch of the family that went to West Germany and ultimately the United States.

Not only is this book a riveting, absolutely fascinating read, but the quality of the writing is also excellent. The result is a stunning portrait of life behind the Iron Curtain, contrasted with a portrait of life in the West during the Cold War years. A story so richly and deftly intertwined, a fiction writer couldn’t have done it better.

If you like memoirs, family stories, and history, GET THIS BOOK. I feel like this is an under-the-radar memoir that we all need to stop sleeping on. Especially because some of what is discussed in terms of what life was like at the start and end of the Cold War is applicable to our current world – and also left me with a measure of hope in these tough times. If the Berlin Wall can fall not with a bang, but with a whimper, then this too shall pass. I believe.