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

by Nina Willner


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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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Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780062410320
Publisher: HarperCollins Publishers
Publication date: 08/15/2017
Pages: 416
Sales rank: 49,842
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

Preface xix

Part 1

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

Part 2

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

Part 3

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

Part 4

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

Epilogue 341

Author's Note 351

Acknowledgments 357

Glossary 361

Bibliography 363

Image Credits 375

Index 377

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