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Forty Autumns: A Family's Story of Courage and Survival on Both Sides of the Berlin Wall

Forty Autumns: A Family's Story of Courage and Survival on Both Sides of the Berlin Wall

Written by Nina Willner

Narrated by Cassandra Campbell


Forty Autumns: A Family's Story of Courage and Survival on Both Sides of the Berlin Wall

Written by Nina Willner

Narrated by Cassandra Campbell

ratings:
5/5 (48 ratings)
Length:
10 hours
Publisher:
Released:
Oct 4, 2016
ISBN:
9780062564856
Format:
Audiobook

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Also available as bookBook

Also available as...

Also available as bookBook

Description

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.

Publisher:
Released:
Oct 4, 2016
ISBN:
9780062564856
Format:
Audiobook

Also available as...

Also available as bookBook


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.

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Reviews

What people think about Forty Autumns

4.8
48 ratings / 24 Reviews
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Reader reviews

  • (5/5)
    I was interested in this book initially because my parents took me to Germany where my father was stationed with the Army in 1954 - 1955 (not sure of actual dates). I was 1 or 2 at the time. The timeline of the events that happened in my lifetime was interesting and a bit eye opening in today’s cultural climate.This is a very interesting read.
  • (5/5)
    Excellent story about on large family growing up in E Germany from 1945, through a brief U.S. Occupation, to 45+ years under Soviet Union control.The story focuses on Hanna, who escaped E Germany, was forced to go back, and 2 years later escaped for good. It details the ramifications this had on the rest of the family, until the Berlin Wall came down.The story follows Hanna, as she settles first in west Germany and then in America, her children as well as all of Hanna's brothers and sisters who she left behind.Any time people casually throw around terms like dictator, fascism, totalitarian, in regards to politicians in America just display their complete ignorance of what these words mean, and what it is like to live in such a situation.The East German government were horrible evil people, who destroyed their population all for the sake of power.This book details what happened if you stood up and said anything.This is an outstanding, fantastic book.
  • (4/5)
    This was a fascinating look at two families on both sides of the Berlin Wall during the Cold War. I really liked this book - it had a lot of historical detail, but it wasn't dry or boring. It's not typical that I'll read a non-fiction book all in two days, but this one did it for me.
  • (4/5)
    I had not previously read anything about East Germany after WWII, and I learned a great deal. The family story is indeed interesting, but I found the history involved even more so. You find yourself asking, "How did this ever happen?" and wondering what we can do to keep it from happening again. Well written and thought provoking.
  • (5/5)
    The author had me at the second paragraph, "I felt alone and left out. I looked at them, then panned to the empty chair next to my desk, which got me wondering, where were my grandparents?" This is a wonderful read, full of lessons for all of us today. Thank you to Harper Collins Publishers and librarything.com for a copy of this book.
  • (5/5)
    A riveting page-turner. This book keeps me up late at night. Nina Willner is a master storyteller. I had no idea how bad it was in East Germany after WWII.
  • (5/5)
    I almost didn't read this one, almost. It was due back at the library and quite lengthy, didn't know if I could fit it in, but three of my trusted friends on here rated it highly, so I thought I would just start it and see if I connected with the story. Obviously I did, finished in a few days, and was so glad I opened the cover.I was so young, during the Cold War, remember the fear of my parents, vaguely remember duck and cover, do vividly remember the air raids sirens and having to leave my desk to line up in the hallway, quietly, for some reason, they good sister thought if we were quiet and in a perfect line, we would be saved. I remember watching the the Berlin Wall coming down and the people rushing through. But those were pictures on television, this book is an actual telling of what it was like to live in East Germany, to have to watch everything one said and did. Centered on a large family, one whose daughter at the age of 17, escapes to, West Germany. From then on they would be a family divided, with little contact, always wondering and hoping when they would get word, meet again. I learned more from this book, not just about country but other things that were going on in the world, communism and how it eventually ended, than I ever did in school. It is however, the personal perspective, this book written by a granddaughter in the family, a woman who was in Army intelligence that made this a five star read for me. For the Oma and Opal in the story, the families matriarch and patriarch, I have the utmost respect. Making a family a port in the storm, family first, in a country that stressed loyalty to the state first, was an amazing and enviable accomplishment.
  • (5/5)
    Touching and realistic account of a family's separation in East Germany/Berlin during the Cold War.
  • (4/5)
    I received this book as an ARC through LibraryThing.com I found it very interesting and informative. Willner give much history of East Germany in short little blasts intermingled with the story of the family. The family story is frightening to us living in freedom our whole lives. But you cheer for them and are scared for them. You admire their strength in escaping and in remaining behind the Iron Curtain and all that entailed for over forth years.
  • (4/5)
    Very interesting perspective from a young girl living in Berlin after WWII. Most stories of Germany occur during the war. It was an eye opener to see how East Belin was so different from West Berlin and how the Russian occupiers treated the German citizens. They were similar to the Nazis. The story showed how hard life was in E Belin and why so many tried to escape to the West. There was starvation and tortures. How lucky for those who escaped and started a new life in the West. Some of them coming to America. But there was also sadness from leaving their family and the only home they ever knew. I never realized what a wonderful day it was when the Berlin wall came down.
  • (5/5)
    This book absolutely entranced me. It is as good a memoir as a tome to make the history of the Cold War home to many younger or other people who were not exposed to the happenings of the Cold War. I give the book 5 stars!
  • (5/5)
    I received this book through the Early Reviewers program.This is the story of a family split apart by the closing off of East Germany. I knew some of the bare bones of East Germany splitting off after World War II. I can vividly remember the pictures of the Berlin Wall being torn down. In between, about the only thing I knew about East Germany was through their athletes at the Olympics.Forty Autumns filled the gaps in my knowledge. The story of the author's family was well written. It was enjoyable to read even though the subject matter was not always pleasant. I enjoyed learning about her family and through them the story of East Germany. I highly recommend this book to anyone with a slight curiosity about the Cold War years.
  • (5/5)
    I have been eyeing this book for about a month. I have wanted to check it out. I finally got the chance to. This book is way better then I imagined it to be. Sometimes I go into a nonfiction or memoir looking for the history and connection with the people. I experienced this while reading this book. Instantly, I felt that connection with Oma, Opa, Hanna, and Heidi to name a few. Unless you really lived divided behind the "Iron Curtain" aka Great Wall; you have no idea what freedom, loss of family, and fear is all about. While I was lucky enough to have been adopted by my parents in the US, I might have gotten to understand a little more what it would have been like had I not been adopted. I was born in South Korea. I was so intertwined with everyone that when the Wall came down, I almost cried when Heidi and her husband traveled into West Germany and really felt true freedom. This book reminds us of the past. Yet, it also teaches us to be grateful for what we have and the important things in life. A treasure of a read!
  • (5/5)
    This book was the history that I never took notice of at school. A totally engaging story.
  • (5/5)
    Very historical and interesting! A great read about Germany and WW2
  • (5/5)
    A fantastic family story interwoven with Cold War history. It details the parallels of the lives of two sides of a family living on either side of a political divide. Fascinating and engaging, anyone who enjoyed Anna Funder's Stasiland would enjoy this family epic.
  • (5/5)
    Incredible! The author told a valuable story. Informative, invigorating, an absolute delight. Thank you
  • (5/5)
    This is an amazing story of one family’s history in Germany from the end of the Hitler years to the fall of the Berlin Wall. It is told by the daughter of the only family member to escape East Germany and made a life for herself, first in West Berlin, and then ultimately in the United States after she married an American serviceman. It is an amazing look at what life was really like in Soviet-controlled East Berlin and East Germany. It is also an amazing feat for one young girl to have the courage to leave her family behind because her desire for independence in the West was so strong! As the author tells the tales of her various family members on both sides of the Wall, she also keeps the reader abreast of what was happening in the world during these various time periods as well. This is a fantastic book for anyone who loves history, tales of people who show amazing courage despite the odds and for anyone who simply loves a good book.
  • (4/5)
    This is an excellent memoir for high school students and teachers who want to put a face on the brutal oppression of Communist East Germany in the years following World War II. Author Nina Willner’s family was separated by the Iron Curtain for the Forty Autumns of the title, but managed to keep in some contact with one another. At times, even simple letters disappeared, or were read by secret police. She does a good job of describing her relatives’ lives, which were filled with suspicion, food shortages, secret police and prisons. Her grandparents, Opa and Oma, worked hard to feed the family of eight and to keep brothers and sisters united, both within East Germany and with the one daughter (Willner’s mother) who managed to escape. Forty Autumns is strictly focused on life within East Germany and Willner’s family. Readers who want to learn more about the turbulent years of the Cold War in German or American history will have to look elsewhere. I received this book as an early reviewer, and enjoyed it. I would recommend it for people like me who enjoy history through memoirs.
  • (4/5)

    1 person found this helpful

    Under East Germany's hardline Communist government, the lives of ordinary citizens were bleak. Anyone could be a Stasi informer, and tight family bonds were the only ones that could be trusted. In Forty Autumns, former U.S. Army intelligence officer Nina Willmer describes how the members her mother's family (her grandparents, aunts, uncles, and cousins) survived from the end of WWII to the collapse of the Berlin wall with their spirits and their dignity still intact. Not that it was ever easy. The family endured long years of separation from beloved oldest daughter Hanna (Nina's mother), who defected to the West and married an American. Moreover, the tension of going along to get along under the Communist regime gave Willmer's headmaster grandfather a nervous breakdown. And Willmer's cousin Cordula had to train at almost a superhuman level to keep her place as a member of East Germany's elite swim team.This is a sad, but eye-opening look at everyday lives behind the Iron Curtain. I highly recommend it.

    1 person found this helpful

  • (5/5)

    1 person found this helpful

    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.

    1 person found this helpful

  • (5/5)

    1 person found this helpful

    a look at life under a dictatorship, this time East Germany, maybe foreshadowing life to come in the good ol' USA once it's made great again.

    1 person found this helpful

  • (5/5)

    1 person found this helpful

    This is a beautiful story. It was a early reviewer freebie, thank you.If you want to know (albeit only slightly since you most likely havent worn their shoes) what it was like for many German families after East Germany was formed post WWII, read this book. It's not just about the hardships the East Germans had to endure to survive in their police state but the separation of families once the Wall was up.I lived in West Germany during the 60's and 70's and I travelled into East Germany st Checkpoint Charlie- I can still remember what a difference there was from the happy, contented West Berliners and the drab, nonsmiling East Berliners. I was shocked that in such a short stretch of distance there could be such a difference but I never truly understood the real impact of whstthst wall did to so many families.This is so well written- I almost think it should be a must read in high school since lest we forget because for many of the young this post-wat time is just history.

    1 person found this helpful

  • (5/5)

    1 person found this helpful

    This is a first for me: a book about the trials and tribulations of a family that closed one day in the U.S. sector of defeated Germany and began the next in the USSR sector, what became East Germany. The characters are fairly well defined. The principle characters are relatives of the author which suggests a tempering but it is not troublesome. The struggles about trying to maintain contact are covered with a low hum that leaps to crescendo when the rare physical contacts occur. One member of this large family makes three escape attempts, finally staying in the west on the third try (she had managed it twice before but returned once due to confusion and the other to protect her family). But because of the one defection, the position of the family steadily degrades. It is not possible to evaluate the passions of the family members because of the incredible story of simple existence. This is an excellent book.

    1 person found this helpful