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Forty Autumns: A Family's Story of Courage and Survival on Both Sides of the Berlin Wall

4.35  ·  Rating details ·  5,635 ratings  ·  888 reviews
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 fam
ebook, 416 pages
Published October 4th 2016 by William Morrow
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Jason Muckley Yes, it is a historical account of one family's survival in East Germany during the Cold War. There isn't any graphic portrayals of life in East Germa…moreYes, it is a historical account of one family's survival in East Germany during the Cold War. There isn't any graphic portrayals of life in East Germany that would be inappropriate for children. I think it would be both informative and important book for younger people to read to understand the Cold War better, as well as Communist societies and Totalitarian governments.(less)

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Elyse  Walters
Jun 02, 2017 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
As soon as I finished reading this 'wonderful' epic family memoir .....I wanted to know a little more about the author: *Nina Willner*. I wasn't expecting her to be absolutely gorgeous ... physically stunning!
Gifted author --and beautiful -- I'm trying to imagine what it 'feels' like for Nina Willner to have written this book --for the world to read -- about HER MOTHER.... a very personal story. What a gift she is passing to 'her' children.
Oh... and speaking of children: there are several phot
Diane S ☔
Mar 04, 2017 rated it it was amazing
Shelves: lor
I almost didn't read this one, almost. It was due back at the library and quite lengthy, didn't know if I could fit it in, but three of my trusted friends on here rated it highly, so I thought I would just start it and see if I connected with the story. Obviously I did, finished in a few days, and was so glad I opened the cover.

I was so young, during the Cold War, remember the fear of my parents, vaguely remember duck and cover, do vividly remember the air raids sirens and having to leave my des
Nov 21, 2016 rated it it was amazing
Recommended to Dem by: Lilisa
" Our story started when one war ended and another began"

Every now and then a book comes along that ticks all the boxes for me and Forty Autumns was everything I love in a book. A beautifully written memoir that is historically informative and a moving story of courage and estrangement.

Nina Willner seamlessly weaves a narrative history of her family torn apart by a divided Germany and Berlin, separated by the Iron Curtain for forty years we learn of their struggles, trials and reunions.

The au
Oct 04, 2018 rated it it was amazing
The Cold War is a time many of us remember learning about in history class, and some of us remember the TV images in the news when the Berlin Wall came down. But most of us can’t put a human face to these events. This book does just that. It’s a powerful story of a family split apart by a divided Germany.

The author, born in the U.S., discovered at a young age that her Oma and Opa, along with her entire extended family, lived in East Germany behind the Iron Curtain. Her mother, Hanna, escaped at
Jan 21, 2017 rated it really liked it
Shelves: audiobook
4 high stars. I listened to Forty Autumns as an audiobook. I loved listening to this mix of memoir and history about East Germany. Author Nina Willner's mother Hannah defected from East Germany when she was 20 years old, leaving behind her parents and seven siblings. Willner recounts the story of her family on both sides of the wall, adding in a heavy dose of historical information. I loved the mix of personal and political history. Willner really conveys the emotional and personal impact that t ...more
"What will become of a country when a mother cannot even trust her own children, and they, in turn cannot trust their own families?"–Oma

 photo FullSizeRender_zpsobqfdkhs.jpg

Apart from a documentary I saw a few years ago about East Germany doping innocent athletes in the 80s, I knew relatively nothing about East Germany or about how the infamous wall came into existence. This book was so enlightening! On quite a few occasions I was moved to tears at the utter waste associated with the 40 year regime. Overnight freedom didn't nec
Sep 14, 2019 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
In 1966, five year old Nina Willner was given the assignment to write a letter to her grandparents. Unlike most of her classmates who had two sets of living grandparents to write to, Nina found out that one set of grandparents were deceased and the other set was trapped behind the Iron Curtain. At age five, Nina the concept of a curtain triggered a lifelong curiosity to find out more about the distant members of her family that she did not know that she had. After a career that brought her back ...more
Dec 20, 2016 rated it really liked it
Those interested in how it was to live in East Germany during the Cold War will enjoy this book. It is both biography and history lesson.

The author writes of her family, with the greatest emphasis upon her maternal grandparents, great-grandparents, mother along with her mother's eight siblings and the author's cousin named Cordula. It is a large family. By observing the whole family we come to understand the earnings and sorrows and triumphs of not just one but people of different personalities
Jun 16, 2019 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
Recommends it for: anyone interested in reading about the Cold War
I love non-fiction that reads like fiction. This is a true story about a German family separated during the Cold War years. It captures the horrors of living under a totalitarian regime perfectly. I often tell my parents how thankful I am to them for taking us out of Iran when we did. I also feel grateful for not having had to ever live in a Communist country.

The author, writing about her mother’s family, does an incredible job of engaging the reader right from the get-go. I felt a strong conne
In the waning days of World War II, Germany was invaded by the British, French, and American armies on the west and by the Russian army in the east. It quickly became clear that the Russians did not intend to leave. Author Nina Willner’s mother, Hanna, and her family were trapped in the East. Fear, suspicion, and hardship that existed under the Nazi regime were not eliminated but continued under the Russians and their authoritarian East German Communist counterpart leaders once the Allies withdr ...more
Sep 23, 2019 rated it it was amazing
Shelves: biography, germany
Through this book you live with Nina Willner's family through the beginning, height and end of the dictatorship that imprisoned her family as well as 17 million other East Germans. There are family photos throughout. Willner adds context by describing the family situation along with contemporaneous events. She concludes with a topical list of what became of perpetrators (not much) and something of those who suffered. The sobering recognition is that this was not that long ago.

The book begins as
Jan 15, 2018 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: non-fiction, military
Looking back, one of the best books I read in 2018.

An extraordinary family history, superimposed upon one of the most profound historical anomalies (a divided Germany), well researched and beautifully told, all seamlessly combining and contrasting the warmth of one sister's hand in another's with the icy, relentless sweep of strident communism and the mind-numbing repression exerted throughout East Germany throughout the Cold War. So much ground covered, so many lives lived and intertwined and s
Although Nina Willner's Forty Autumns: A Family's Story of Courage and Survival on Both Sides of the Berlin Wall has been enlightening and informative (for even with my German background and knowing the basics of what transpired in East Germany, in the the GDR post WWII until its collapse in 1989, I certainly did not know all that many specific details about the day to day lives of the East Germans as individuals, of them as actual living people with families, friends, with hopes, desires, trium ...more
Cold War Conversations Podcast
The story of East Germany through one family.

Nina Willner tells the moving and powerful story of her mother and her family from the end of World War 2 to the unification of Germany.

Using the story of her mother’s immediate family Willner creates a compelling story of life in East Germany. Her extended family have all the ingredients, the loyal party member, the strong headed daughter, and those that kept their heads down. She paints a tale of oppression and ordinary life that ultimately leads t
Iris P
May 03, 2017 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Recommended to Iris P by: Esil

Forty Autumns: A Family's Story of Courage and Survival on Both Sides of the Berlin Wall

A compelling account of how a family found itself divided by the ruthless geopolitics of the Cold War. Full review to follow.
Gina *loves sunshine*
Gosh...I just wanted so much more life and vibrancy from this book. Maybe I went in with a really high expectation given all the good ratings. Having been to Berlin a year and a half ago I was really looking forward to reading this interpretation of a family literally separated by a brick wall!! I've read a lot of holocaust, but nothing really along this storyline.

The setting and the details are all good, you get a small feel for the emotions involved within this family that was separated. You h
Jul 31, 2019 rated it liked it
Exceptional family story about particulars of this long and heart breaking separation. But others have said it better in review. I find it difficult to express reaction to this book. I was there and I saw and also cannot explain how dire East Germany, and especially East Berlin- was. Even with the cars, there was absolutely no color. Tin, gray shapes, rusted boxes. Everything from building to auto to light post to machine or bicycle. Dinge gray everything. With 5 broken attachments either next t ...more
Jun 12, 2017 rated it it was amazing
Utterly compelling look at a German family's efforts to survive in the communist days of East Germany. I could not put this one down. Nina tells her family members' stories so well that it reads like fiction...what blows your mind is knowing that it's all true. If you ever thought communism might be a good idea, just read this book. This story is both heartbreaking and hope-making. It was an unforgettable journey.
Sep 06, 2019 rated it it was amazing
Where has this book been? What an amazing story about a family full of courage, loyalty and survival!
Carly Friedman
Aug 29, 2019 rated it really liked it
I really enjoyed this extensively-research account of the author's family. It begins right after WWII, when Russians forces took over the family's small town, and ends in near-current times. It is impressive how Willner weaves together historical and biographical information to give a fascinating view of her family's life. Hanna, her mother, escaped as a teenager and moved to the US as a young woman. Willner grew up not completely separate from her mother's family. We follow her to adulthood, wh ...more
Guy Austin
“What will become of a country...when a mother cannot trust her own children, and they, in turn, cannot trust their own families?”

History and or Biography/Memoir folks will enjoy this title. It reads like a great fiction novel. The only issue is that it is a true account of one family’s history within Germany and then East Germany before and after WWII. This family, overjoyed that American troops had come to their town rather than the Russians and then being unfortunate to have the line in the m
Nov 07, 2016 rated it liked it
Despite the awkward presentation at times, this was a fascinating story about a family separated for decades during the Cold War. It's so strange to read about history that was taking place while you were alive and yet had no understanding of it at the time. Of course, I've heard for years about the wall and the Cold War and that some people were separated, etc. I've been to Checkpoint Charlie and walked through Berlin and seen some of these places that the author talks about, but it didn't beco ...more
Jan 15, 2017 rated it liked it
Shelves: 2017
I don't remember the beginning if the Cold War; I was very young, but I vividly remember the tearing down of the Berlin Wall. Thus, I found this novel intriguing. I cant imagine a forty year separation from family, or the confusion they felt not knowing if freedom was truly at hand or if it was all a political ruse to expose those unfaithful to the regime. Oma, the glue that held the family together and kept everyone going. I could never have fared so well. Opa, who finally broke from the psycho ...more
Dec 25, 2016 rated it really liked it
This book is really interesting because it focuses mostly on actual East Germany, not just East Berlin, which never seems to happen. I learned a lot about parts of Germany I had never heard of.
The author is ex-military from a military family, so it has a big bias but she even mentions that this is her story, and everyone's story is different. I appreciated that even if she gives Ronald Reagan way too much credit.
It was also cool to read about a woman leading these spy missions during a time wh
Sep 11, 2016 rated it it was amazing
Shelves: memoir, germany
Nina Willner’s Forty Autumns is a remarkable achievement. Blending personal memoir, contemporary history, and beautifully readable narrative nonfiction, she has chronicled the lives of several generations of her family as they live in East and West Germany and America. The book begins at the end of the Second World War, with Germany being divided, and she tells the stories of how that affected her family, most of whom remained trapped in the East, but one lucky daughter, her mother, eventually m ...more
Mar 27, 2018 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Wow! This book really blew me away with the historic events that took place at this time period and the very personal struggle of the author's family. It was all so seamlessly woven together to give the reader a deeper understanding of what life was like in East Germany during the Cold War both before and after the Berlin Wall. Growing up in the 1980's, I remember hearing President Reagan and Gorbachev on the news. After reading this memoir, I realized that there was so much more that I did not ...more
Linda Fagioli-Katsiotas
Oct 28, 2017 rated it it was amazing
How embarrassing to be blubbering like a big crybaby over my cappuccino in Starbucks . . . but this story is told so well, I forgot I was even in the U.S. until, from across the table, my husband said, "are you okay?" I could not put this book down! It's part memoir, part family history with such detail and interesting insight into life on both sides of the wall for those separated by it. It's one thing to learn of the "iron curtain" in history class and quite another to see, feel and experience ...more
Apr 17, 2020 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
Forty Autumns by Nina Willner.

A really well told family tale during the Cold War that grabbed me a few pages in. With the Soviets taking over her home town after the war, Hannah the author’s mother, has no interest in sticking around. Against her family’s wishes she flees to West Germany, twice in fact. Over time the Soviets and the Stasi lock down her family’s home town and East Germany undergoes a decades long transformation under the oppressive regime of Erick Honecker.

The pacing here was p
Oct 27, 2018 rated it really liked it
Shelves: kindle, nonfiction, 2018
Interesting look at a family's story that is divided by the Berlin Wall. I learned so much about East and West Germany at this time and I'm glad I learned it through the eyes of this family. It's heartbreaking to think that some of the siblings and their parents had little to no connection with each other, some for almost 40 years. This was written by a granddaughter so it had a similar feel/story to "We Were the Lucky Ones" but told in a non-fiction standpoint instead of historical fiction. At ...more
Nov 28, 2016 rated it really liked it
A fascinating memoir of a East German family surviving behind the Iron Curtain after their oldest daughter escapes to the west. I read this in one sitting as it was such an engrossing story of family loyalty, love and the ability to withstand unimaginable deprivation. It also refreshed my memory of the various events of the Cold War that I had forgotten.
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