Friday, January 26, 2018

Forty Autumns by Nina Willner

First sentence:

I was five years old when I learned that my grandmother lived behind a curtain. 

Forty Autumns: A Family's Story of Courage and Survival on Both Sides of the Berlin Wall by Nina Willner is the story of a large German family, from just after the end of WWII to the present day, with emphasis on the four decades that the family was split apart by the Iron Curtain.

Only one child in the family managed to escape East Germany and it took her three attempts. While Hanna got a job in the West and was able to advance at work and eventually marry and move to the United States, the rest of her family lived through hardship and desperation, often hungry, standing in line for hours to obtain necessities, always in danger of being arrested if a neighbor or friend suspected them of saying or doing something subversive against the government. The author, Nina Willner, is one of Hanna's children.

The book begins with the end of WWII in 1945 and the division of Berlin. While families waited for the men to come home, American, British, and Soviet troops divided Germany. There were rumors of atrocities committed by the Soviets, so when the American troops pulled out of the area where Hanna's family lived, some German citizens either left with the soldiers or tried to send their daughters away.

The reality of Soviet occupation and what was to come was immediate. Everyone was told they must turn in all their food to be equally divided and anyone who hid food would be shot. But, the food was never divided and redistributed as promised, so the Soviets brought hunger. That was just the beginning of life in East Germany. Forty Autumns is a well-rounded family biography that takes you through the entire 40 years, till the family was finally reunited after the fall of the Berlin Wall, including the years that the author worked as a U.S. Army intelligence officer serving in Berlin during the Cold War. There are some tense scenes in which she describes various missions into East Berlin.

Highly Recommended - History buffs and fans of memoir, particularly anyone with a fascination for the Cold War, will enjoy this meticulously researched story of a single family in which the author compares and contrasts life behind and outside the Berlin Wall. Included are maps, a Family and Historical Chronology (a comparative timeline that shows what was happening historically and within the author's family), photographs, and epilogue describing what's happened since the fall of the wall, an extensive bibliography, and index.

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  1. Sounds a bit dry but also fascinating. Is that even possible? I know very little about the Cold War. Maybe I should try this one.

    1. No, absolutely not dry, in my opinion. It's is definitely fascinating because she walks you through the growing sense of deprivation and the propaganda that the family experienced on one side and contrasts it to the freedom to work, move, and shop on the other side. And, when it comes to the bits with the author working in East Germany as an intelligence agent . . . whoa, hold onto your chair. Some of those scenes are pretty exciting.

      I would say go for it if you like memoirs. It's mostly about the family and I liked reading about the family, although there was one particular section that I found a bit boring because it focused on the obsession one of the sisters in the East had with the one in the West. I thought she hammered that home a bit hard, but I loved reading about the family, how they coped, what happened when they didn't keep their mouths shut (one family member got in a good bit of trouble), who lived and died during the forty years, who found a way to succeed in spite of refusing to join the Communist Party, etc. I think you'll get a good glimpse into life during the Cold War from it.


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