“Willner’s epic memoir traverses three generations of mothers, recounting the tragedy, estrangement, and overwhelming courage of a family torn apart…. Her interrogative and unabashed voice explores the painful intersection of national duty and familial responsibilities…. A thrilling and relevant read for historians and casual readers alike.” (Publishers Weekly)
Thoughtful and informative, Willner’s book not only offers a personal view of the traumatic effects of German partition. It also celebrates the enduring resilience of the human spirit. A poignant and engrossing, occasionally harrowing, family memoir.” (Kirkus Reviews)
[A] moving account of one family’s life under tyranny… Willner’s sensitive and well-written account causes us to reflect on what is really important to us and how we would react in a similar situation.” (BookPage)
“This book is kind, honest, incredibly well-written, and important, a testament to humanity and courage.” (LitHub)
“[A] meticulous and compassionate family memoir… Charting the twists and turns of politics in communist East Germany over more than four decades, it shows how currents of repression and reform affected individual lives.” (Chicago Tribune)
“Forty Autumns is both an informative and timely read. In this increasingly tumultuous modern era when borders, both theoretical and physical, have once again become the front lines of critical issues such as immigration reform, pervasive prejudice and terrorism, stories like Willner’s are especially important.” (BookReporter)
“Even if you well know the story of the East German sequester, you will be drawn to [Willner’s] family story of living through the worst of times.” (Manhattan Book Review)
“A poignant parable of hope and, at times, a harrowing ghost story.” (Christian Science Monitor)
From the Back Cover
Growing up in a provincial village outside of Berlin, Hanna was encouraged by her schoolteacher father to follow her dreams. But at the end of World War II, the Soviets took control of the eastern part of Germany and established a repressive communist state—East Germany—which used brutal force and a massive wall to cut off East from West.
Determined to live free, Hanna made a dangerous escape to West Germany. But the price of freedom—leaving behind her parents, her eight siblings, and her home—was heartbreaking. Uprooted, Hanna eventually moved to America, where she settled down with her husband, a U.S. Army officer, and had children of her own, but she never forgot her parents and siblings trapped on the other side of the Berlin Wall.
Growing up near Washington, D.C., Hanna’s daughter, Nina Willner, became the first female U.S. Army intelligence officer to lead sensitive intelligence collection operations in East Berlin at the height of the Cold War. Though separated by only a few miles, American Nina and her German relatives were kept apart, leaving a family divided for more than four decades by a bitter political war.
Nina takes us deep into the tumultuous and terrifying world of East Germany under communist rule, revealing both the harsh reality her relatives endured and her experiences as an intelligence officer running secret operations behind the Berlin Wall that put her life at risk.