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

4.36  ·  Rating details ·  3,411 ratings  ·  563 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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Emmett I read this book when I was fourteen, and the content seemed fine. This is a great book, and it helps explain a period of history that is sometimes…moreI read this book when I was fourteen, and the content seemed fine. This is a great book, and it helps explain a period of history that is sometimes overlooked. I think that this would be a good book for a 14-year-old to read, assuming they have a good attention span.(less)

Community Reviews

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4.36  · 
Rating details
 ·  3,411 ratings  ·  563 reviews

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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
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
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 29, 2017 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
"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

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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 necess
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
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
Manchester Military History Society (MMHS)
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.
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
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
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.
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
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
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
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.
Mar 20, 2018 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
I loved this book. Very illuminating regarding life in the Soviet controlled sector of Germany. I must add that the author’s mother is gorgeous! Even well into her eighties.
A wonderful story and one that I have never thought of.

First off, this book is written by Nina Willner, Hanna's daughter.

This story starts at the end of World War II. Germany has lost the war and Hanna and her family are waiting to see who will show up -- the Americans or Russians -- to liberate their small village.

After all is said and done, it is the Russians who take over and the village lands swiftly in what is quickly becoming East Germany. During this period, we learn that this population
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
Nov 21, 2016 rated it liked it
A great story poorly told
May 18, 2018 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Wow! On balance, I give this work an overall "4" and only wish that the author's work was split in two (somewhat like her native Germany)? The bulk of the book in the early chapters is a solid recounting of a family riven by the Iron Curtain and the Wall - that story has been told and this version ought to rate among all the better ones.

However, the final chapter and epilog of this one were enough to take my breath away. I was listening as I finished my workout at the gym and had trouble keeping
Nov 28, 2017 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
I absolutely LOVED this book. The author's writing is superb. She intersperses the story of her family and the events going on at the time in Germany and throughout the region. The book also contains several black and white photos and several pages of color photos in the middle. Ms. Willner kept me on edge all through the book as I rapidly read to learn the fate of the remainder of her family. I was horrified at what went on behind the Berlin Wall and amazed at how the people kept going day afte ...more
Apr 30, 2018 rated it really liked it
This is a true story told by the granddaughter of Oma and Opa who lived in East Germany where they raised 8 children. The oldest daughter, 2nd born, defected to West Germany as a teen. This memoir traces the lives of Oma & Opa, their 8 children and many grandchildren. The saga traces 4 generations (because the great grandparents are even addressed) while really explaining what it was like living behind the Iron Curtain. I learned things from this book that I not only didn’t know but I also g ...more
Apr 19, 2018 rated it it was amazing
This was a really fantastic book of the author's family who was divided by the Iron Curtain for 40 years. This read like a novel but had so much good historical context. People tend to forget that after the Holocaust life in Germany didn't snap back to normal....and many Germans went (or were forced to go) from fascism to the other other extreme -- communism.
This book is extremely relevant for today's climate -- even though the author does not push a belief system on anyone. Well written and in
Aug 01, 2017 rated it it was amazing
Excellent. Really explains the heartbreak of being separated from family because of political philosophies.
Jan 15, 2019 rated it it was amazing
4.5 stars. Fantastic true story of a German family living in WWII and the aftermath, when their town happens to be located in what becomes East Germany. The author is the daughter of a young woman who escapes East Germany and leaves behind her 10 siblings, parents and grandparents. The book starts at the end of the war and follows the life of the family through 40 autumns and the ultimate destruction of the Berlin Wall and the iron curtain. In the book, there is a great side by side timeline of ...more
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“What will become of a country...when a mother cannot trust her own children, and they, in turn, cannot trust their own families?” 3 likes
“The first challenge the Soviets faced was to change the mind-set of the almost 19 million German citizens who, long before World War II, had been led to believe that communism was the greatest threat to the Western world. Stalin demanded the transition be swift, and the approach uncompromising” 0 likes
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