Today we're sharing a guest post by Nina Willner, author of Forty Autumns, on sale in hardcover today.
About the Book:
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.
From the Author - The Story Behind FORTY AUTUMNS
When you are cut off from the ones you love, you must believe it cannot last forever…
The year was 1966. I was five years old when I first saw a picture of my grandmother. Her image captivated me—a lovely, smiling face that radiated beauty and grace. I couldn’t wait to meet her. Other photos followed—the rest of my mother’s family, more people I had never met, dozens of aunts, uncles, scores of cousins my own age. But the cruel reality was, they were all beyond reach, locked away inside East Germany. Forty Autumns chronicles the lives of my family, one of the millions swept up into the maelstrom of the Cold War.
After WWII, Germany was split by the victors of war. The Americans, British and other allies took over West Germany giving birth to a new nation built on freedom and democracy. The Soviets took over the East, creating a closed society where communists ruled with an iron fist, stripping people of their human rights, censoring all information, even jamming the airwaves so that no information from the West could reach its eighteen million citizens. A ubiquitous secret police watched over everything and everyone and even set citizens spying on each other. My mother could not bear to live in a society that was based on fear and control so, barely out of her teens, she risked her life in an escape to the West, leaving all of her loved ones behind. One of the lucky ones to make it out, she eventually made her way to the U.S. where she raised her own family.
The Soviet-American superpower battle raged throughout the world, launching the Space Race and the Nuclear Arms Race. In East Germany, amidst brightly colored propaganda posters and goose-stepping soldiers, the massive Berlin Wall was built to permanently seal the country, spanning all the way around it were armed guards posted in watchtowers to ensure no one got out alive. Nevertheless escape attempts continued, people trying to scale the Wall, tunnel under it, swim to Denmark, or jumping from buildings or bridges to try to reach the west. In one miraculous escape, two men flew their families over the Wall in a homemade balloon.
In the East, the family found their way: an innocent “sweet, baby-faced” teenager ordered to become a border guard at the Berlin Wall; a little girl who “resembled a lovely little storybook pixie,” grew up to become an elite East German athlete. A patriarch stood up to the regime and paid the price for it, meanwhile, a mother raised a family in a godless society, telling her children, “You know how to do what is right. The right way is in your soul.” Some of my mother’s siblings joined the Communist Party, others did not, including one who idolized her American sister who had escaped to the West, calling her “a legend.”
Despite the oppression they faced, the family found strength in each other and in the beauty of nature, in their gardens and in a magical secret hideaway that had “an enchanting, dreamlike quality and bore all the excitement and innocence of a child’s secret fort tucked away in the forest.” At night, children took comfort in Sandman, a gentle, calming wooden puppet man on TV who took little viewers around the world in his rocket ship, a helicopter, a magic carpet, to places they could not go themselves, places they could only dream of going.
In the mid-1980s, I became an American intelligence officer and was posted to West Berlin, the tiny island of democracy and freedom completely encircled by communist East Germany. At the age of 22, I went into the country that my mother had fled, to work against the Soviets and East Germans who were holding my mother’s family hostage. Meanwhile, just down the road from where I was conducting intelligence operations, my East German cousin was training for the Olympics.
What unfolded over the forty years of the Cold War against the backdrop of East – West confrontation, was a whirlwind of drama and intrigue interconnected by strands of family history on both sides of the Iron Curtain that left my family wondering if they would ever see each other again. Then one day in November 1989, shocking news stunned the world when unexpectedly the borders of East Germany were opened and its people were free to go. My mother’s family emerged from behind the Iron Curtain to an extraordinary reunion with their long lost sister, to meet their American family, and begin a new life.
Forty Autumns is a story of courage, resilience, and love. A testament to the strength of family bonds against the forces of oppression, it is also about having faith, never giving up and never losing hope.
Forty Autumns in available in hardcover now. Start reading an excerpt, download the reading group guide, and purchase your copy here today!