Forty autumns A family's story of courage and survival on both sides of the Berlin Wall

Nina Willner, 1961-

Book - 2016

"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."

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Location Call Number   Status
2nd Floor 929.20943/Willner Checked In
New York, NY : William Morrow, an imprint of HarperCollins Publishers [2016]
First edition
Physical Description
xxii, 391 pages, 16 unnumbered pages of plates : illustrations (some color) ; 24 cm
Includes bibliographical references and index.
Main Author
Nina Willner, 1961- (author)
  • Part one: The handover : end of war (1945) ; An iron curtain descends : Cold War begins (1945-1946) ; "If you want to get out, do it soon" : close calls and escapes (1946-1948) ; Flight : a small suitcase and the final escape (August 11, 1948)
  • Part two: Two castles : out of the whirlwind (1948-1949) ; A sister born in the East : the Stasi takes control (1949-1952) ; "We want to be free" : a workers' uprising (1953) ; The visit : sisters meet (1954) ; Life normalizes in a police state : a courtship (1955-1957) ; The fur coat : last meeting (1958-1959)
  • Part three: "A wall will keep the enemy out" : a wall to keep the people in (1960-1961) ; The family wall : Oma's faith and Opa's defiance (1962-1965) ; Only Party members succeed : "We have each other" (1966-1969) ; A message with no words : Oma's love from afar (1970-1974) ; Dissidents and troublemakers : Opa committed (1975-1977) ; A light shines : "Our souls are free" (1977) ; A surprise from America : innocence (1978-1980) ; Paradise bungalow : refuge and solace (1980-1982)
  • Part four: Assignment: Berlin : intelligence operations (1982-1984) ; Face-to-face with Honecker : mission in Ludwigslust (1984-1985) ; Beyond the Checkpoint : passage (1985) ; Imagine : the road ahead (1986) ; "Tear down this wall" : winds of change (1987-1988) ; "Gorby, save us!" : a nation crumbles (1989) ; The world is stunned : "Schabowski said we can!" or the Wall falls (November 9, 1989) ; Dawn : leaving the East (Autumn 1989) ; Reunion and rebirth : together again (1990-2013).