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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About the Author
Table of Contents
Family and Historical Chronology xiii
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
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
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
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
Author's Note 351
Image Credits 375