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FORTY AUTUMNS

A family's story of courage and survival on both sides of the berlin wall.

by Nina Willner ‧ RELEASE DATE: Oct. 4, 2016

A poignant and engrossing, occasionally harrowing, family memoir.

A former U.S. Army intelligence officer’s story of her East German mother’s flight to the West and of the family she left behind.

Willner was just 5 years old when she first learned that her mother Hanna’s parents lived “behind a curtain” in East Germany. But it would not be until several years later that she would understand that this “curtain” was really a symbol of their political oppression and that Hanna had barely escaped entrapment herself. Her own mother, Oma, had literally pushed her into the arms of the departing American soldiers who had been occupying their hometown. The 17-year-old Hanna soon returned out of concern for her family. But when, after fleeing and returning a second time, she saw how communist ideology was changing her father and destroying the freedom, happiness, and security she had once known, she left, this time barely escaping with her life. Piecing together the story of Hanna’s family from relatives encountered only after the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989, Willner re-creates an at times painful account of how her aunts, uncles, and especially her grandparents survived a brutal East German dictatorship. Though marked as “politically unreliable” due to Hanna's defection, they never gave up hope that one day they would be reunited. However, the price they paid was high. Willner's grandfather became a target of communist officials, who banished him, his wife, and youngest daughter, born after Hanna's third and final escape, to a tiny farming community to prevent the spread of possible dissent and then forced him to undergo “intensive reeducation training” at a mental hospital. Yet through all the suffering, the family managed to stay together and survive by building a “Family Wall” of love and loyalty against the powerful outside forces they could not control. 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.

Pub Date: Oct. 4, 2016

ISBN: 978-0-06-241031-3

Page Count: 384

Publisher: Morrow/HarperCollins

Review Posted Online: Aug. 1, 2016

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Aug. 15, 2016

BIOGRAPHY & MEMOIR | HISTORICAL & MILITARY | GENERAL BIOGRAPHY & MEMOIR

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NIGHT

by Elie Wiesel & translated by Marion Wiesel ‧ RELEASE DATE: Jan. 16, 2006

The author's youthfulness helps to assure the inevitable comparison with the Anne Frank diary although over and above the...

Elie Wiesel spent his early years in a small Transylvanian town as one of four children. 

He was the only one of the family to survive what Francois Maurois, in his introduction, calls the "human holocaust" of the persecution of the Jews, which began with the restrictions, the singularization of the yellow star, the enclosure within the ghetto, and went on to the mass deportations to the ovens of Auschwitz and Buchenwald. There are unforgettable and horrifying scenes here in this spare and sombre memoir of this experience of the hanging of a child, of his first farewell with his father who leaves him an inheritance of a knife and a spoon, and of his last goodbye at Buchenwald his father's corpse is already cold let alone the long months of survival under unconscionable conditions. 

Pub Date: Jan. 16, 2006

ISBN: 0374500010

Page Count: 120

Publisher: Hill & Wang

Review Posted Online: Oct. 7, 2011

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Jan. 15, 2006

BIOGRAPHY & MEMOIR | HOLOCAUST | HISTORY | GENERAL BIOGRAPHY & MEMOIR | GENERAL HISTORY

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by Elie Wiesel ; edited by Alan Rosen

THE TALE OF A NIGGUN

by Elie Wiesel ; illustrated by Mark Podwal

NIGHT

by Elie Wiesel ; translated by Marion Wiesel

INTO THE WILD

INTO THE WILD

by Jon Krakauer ‧ RELEASE DATE: Jan. 1, 1996

A wonderful page-turner written with humility, immediacy, and great style. Nothing came cheap and easy to McCandless, nor...

The excruciating story of a young man on a quest for knowledge and experience, a search that eventually cooked his goose, told with the flair of a seasoned investigative reporter by Outside magazine contributing editor Krakauer (Eiger Dreams, 1990). 

Chris McCandless loved the road, the unadorned life, the Tolstoyan call to asceticism. After graduating college, he took off on another of his long destinationless journeys, this time cutting all contact with his family and changing his name to Alex Supertramp. He was a gent of strong opinions, and he shared them with those he met: "You must lose your inclination for monotonous security and adopt a helter-skelter style of life''; "be nomadic.'' Ultimately, in 1992, his terms got him into mortal trouble when he ran up against something—the Alaskan wild—that didn't give a hoot about Supertramp's worldview; his decomposed corpse was found 16 weeks after he entered the bush. Many people felt McCandless was just a hubris-laden jerk with a death wish (he had discarded his map before going into the wild and brought no food but a bag of rice). Krakauer thought not. Admitting an interest that bordered on obsession, he dug deep into McCandless's life. He found a willful, reckless, moody boyhood; an ugly little secret that sundered the relationship between father and son; a moral absolutism that agitated the young man's soul and drove him to extremes; but he was no more a nutcase than other pilgrims. Writing in supple, electric prose, Krakauer tries to make sense of McCandless (while scrupulously avoiding off-the-rack psychoanalysis): his risky behavior and the rites associated with it, his asceticism, his love of wide open spaces, the flights of his soul.

Pub Date: Jan. 1, 1996

ISBN: 0-679-42850-X

Page Count: 320

Publisher: Villard

Review Posted Online: May 19, 2010

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Oct. 15, 1995

GENERAL BIOGRAPHY & MEMOIR | BIOGRAPHY & MEMOIR

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by Jon Krakauer

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Jon Krakauer Torn Over Removal of ‘Magic Bus’

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

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Nina Willner

Forty Autumns: A Family's Story of Courage and Survival on Both Sides of the Berlin Wall Paperback – August 15, 2017

Purchase options and add-ons.

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.

Forty Autumns is illustrated with dozens of black-and-white and color photographs.

  • Print length 416 pages
  • Language English
  • Publisher William Morrow Paperbacks
  • Publication date August 15, 2017
  • Dimensions 5.31 x 1.06 x 8 inches
  • ISBN-10 0062410326
  • ISBN-13 978-0062410320
  • See all details

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Editorial reviews.

“An excellent and intriguing account of the impact of the Cold War on families and their lives on either side of the Berlin Wall.” — Library Journal  (starred review)

“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.

About the Author

Nina Willner is a former U.S. Army intelligence officer who served in Berlin during the Cold War. Following a career in intelligence, Nina worked in Moscow, Minsk, and Prague promoting human rights, children’s causes, and the rule of law for the U.S. government, nonprofit organizations, and a variety of charities. She currently lives in Istanbul, Turkey. Forty Autumns is her first book.

Product details

  • Publisher ‏ : ‎ William Morrow Paperbacks; Reprint edition (August 15, 2017)
  • Language ‏ : ‎ English
  • Paperback ‏ : ‎ 416 pages
  • ISBN-10 ‏ : ‎ 0062410326
  • ISBN-13 ‏ : ‎ 978-0062410320
  • Item Weight ‏ : ‎ 14.4 ounces
  • Dimensions ‏ : ‎ 5.31 x 1.06 x 8 inches
  • #61 in German History (Books)
  • #144 in Women in History
  • #2,090 in Memoirs (Books)

About the author

Nina willner.

Nina Willner is a former U.S. Army intelligence officer who served in Berlin during the Cold War. Following a career in intelligence, Nina worked in Moscow, Minsk, and Prague promoting human rights, children’s causes, and the rule of law for the U.S. government, nonprofit organizations, and a variety of charities. She currently lives in Washington, D.C.

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Review: Forty Autumns by Nina Willner

Review: Forty Autumns by Nina Willner

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. Forty Autumns is illustrated with dozens of black-and-white and color photographs.

Forty Autumns is a very personal story. It is one woman’s account of the history of her own family, separated by the Iron Curtain that fell across Europe in general and Germany in particular post-World War II. While it may be possible to generalize from this one woman’s family to the history of East Germany as a Soviet-bloc country and to the circumstances of many families that were kept apart over those forty years, the power in this story comes from that personal touch. We feel for the author, her mother, and her family because it is easy to see ourselves in their shoes. On both sides of that impenetrable wall.

This is a story of courage across generations. It is easy to see the courage of the author’s mother Hanna, a young woman who took her life in her hands and literally ran across the border before it turned into deadly barbed-wire – with gun towers. But there was also courage in staying. Hanna’s mother, Oma, exhibited that kind of courage, as she strove to keep her family together and keep them from turning on each other, as so many families did, during the long dark years when the Secret Police seemed to have a spy in every house and every factory.

And it is, in the end, a story of survival. Because the family, on both sides of that once formidable divide, remained intact in spite of the dictatorial regime’s best and worst efforts. This is their personal story of that long, twilight struggle. And it’s marvelous.

Reality Rating A : Forty Autumns turned out to be a book that I just plain liked. I fell into the author’s story, and found myself picking it up at odd moments and sticking with it at points where I only intended to read a chapter, which turned into two, then three, without my being aware of it. The prose is spare, and it simply works, even though I’m having a difficult time articulating exactly why.

Forty Autumns  also reminds me of two books I read recently. The history it contains reads like a nonfictional account of the history that is also covered by the marvelous, but fictional, On the Sickle’s Edge . Both are stories about families that are separated by the Soviet regime, and detail the ways that those trapped behind the Iron Curtain manage to survive even the harshest repression with just a little bit of hope.

It also touches a bit on the history in Sons and Soldiers . It felt obvious, at least to this reader, that the American G.I. that Hanna marries, the author’s father, was one of the “Richter Boys” whose history is outlined in that book.

This is very much a story about women – their courage, their tenacity, their perseverance. In this family, it is the women who cling to love and hope when all seems lost, as it so often does. This is a story that takes the political and makes it compellingly personal. Through the author’s story of her family, we get a glimmer of understanding of what life was like during those very dark years.

Part of what made this so readable is the way that the author managed to bring out the experiences of both sides of this struggle. So often, this kind of story is told only from the perspective of those who made it out, while those who were left behind recede into the shadows.

That is not the case here. Instead, we see Hanna’s struggle to make a place and a life for herself alone in the west, while the family she left behind struggles equally if differently to survive repression and stay together, with the State always looking over their shoulders, not just because that’s the way it was, but especially because Hanna’s defection left the rest of her family under a life-long cloud.

I found this story to be eminently readable. The author’s prose is spare, but she does a terrific job of telling the story without inserting additional drama or melodrama. There was plenty of both without needing to manufacture any!

In the end, the reader feels for this family, and joins in their triumphant celebration that they made it through, and were reunited at last.

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5 thoughts on “ Review: Forty Autumns by Nina Willner ”

Although I have absolutely no recollection of doing so, Amazon tells me I bought this book in April. Guess I need to pull it out of the cloud. Thanks.

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  • Pingback: Nina Willner, author of Forty Autumns, on tour August/September 2017 | TLC Book Tours

I’ve always wondered what it would have been like to live during the Cold War era in Eastern Europe. It’s not a place I would have wanted to be, but it is something that has intrigued me for a long time.

I’m looking forward to reading this book! Thanks for being a part of the tour.

I also have a hard time saying why the prose worked. My best guess is that it’s good enough that it doesn’t detract from a really awesome story, without being exceptional in any way I can identify. That’s not to say I didn’t enjoy it though! I also found this compulsively readable and gave it five stars 🙂

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'Forty Autumns' tells of one family, divided for decades by the Berlin Wall

An American intelligence officer dramatizes the dangers and heartbreaks of a divided Germany by telling the story of her family, particularly her grandparents.

stack of books

  • By Steve Donoghue

October 11, 2016

Nina Willner – the first female Army Intelligence Officer to lead missions in East Berlin at the height of the cold war – could very likely fill a book with stories of her own adventures evading and outwitting her counterparts in the Stasi, the East German security forces. Writers like John le Carré made entire careers out of such raw material, but for her nonfiction debut, Willner chooses another path.

Some of her own adventures round out the pages of Forty Autumns: A Family’s Story of Courage and Survival on Both Sides of the Berlin Wall , but mostly this is the story of a much quieter and more quotidian kind of bravery, although no less moving. In these pages, Willner dramatizes the dangers and heartbreaks of a divided Germany by telling the story of her family, particularly her grandparents: Opa, an introspective schoolteacher, and Oma, whose indefatigable spirit fills the book.

The story begins in the ruins of war. A defeated Germany lay prostrate before two conquering armies: the Allies approaching from the west and the Russians approaching from the east. There was no question in the minds of German women crawling out of the rubble as to which new overlords they preferred. Rumors were already widespread about the raping and pillaging done by the advancing Russians, despite assurances from the American troops that Stalin’s Soviet forces were intent on a benevolent and orderly military occupation.

The Russians were more or less orderly but far, far from benevolent. Their efforts at creating and isolating East Berlin began almost immediately, with clear portents of what was to come. “If you want to get out,” one person tells another early in the story, “do it soon.... In less than a year, this place will be one big prison.”

In 1950, the new state of East Germany began a systematic war against the people trapped within its borders. A vicious state police force was established, and in 1961, the year Willner was born in the United States, the Berlin Wall was erected, cutting a nation in half and stranding millions of Germans, including many of Willner’s relatives, behind concrete and barbed wire. The stories Willner recounts about some of her relatives – forced out of their professions, like her grandfather was, or pressed into brutal border guard service, as her “gentle and sweet-tempered” uncle Kai was – not only horrify on the personal level but do grim stand-in duty for the kinds of things millions of families were suffering.

Through it all, however, Willner’s grandmother never loses her faith in the future. “No one can say what will happen or if things will change, but all I know is, justice will win,” she says in a typical outburst. “Truth will prevail and justice will win.”

It was a difficult thing to predict for most of the four decades of East Berlin’s life. The spectacle of a people held in an open-air prison created, as Willner puts it, “a shared sense of disgust at what the Wall represented.” This disgust turned to heightened outrage in 1962, when an 18-year-old bricklayer named Peter Fechter attempted to scale the wall near the infamous Checkpoint Charlie and was shot down by border guards and left to bleed to death “in plain view of onlookers from West Berlin.” In the US, as a young schoolgirl, Willner learned why she couldn’t bring her grandparents to school events like her classmates did.

But the long arc of the justice Oma believed in slowly began to swing in East Berlin’s favor. The reforms instituted by Soviet premier Mikhail Gorbachev (the inadvertent hero of this story, as he almost necessarily must be) weakened the very foundations of the kind of state that could keep shooting runners off a wall in front of international news cameras.  

Willner’s grandmother died in 1978. Her grandfather died in 1984. In 1987, President Reagan made his famous “Tear Down This Wall” speech, and on Nov. 9, 1989, the Berlin Wall fell at last and 16 million East Germans were free to cross the border and reunite with friends and loved ones. Willner ends her drama with tales and photos of family reunions, and when she walks down the big streets of Berlin, she’s struck by how much the present clashes with the past: “Leipzigerstrasse today is filled with coffee shops, clothing stores, and life energy, no longer the near-abandoned gray stretch of road that we used to race down, trying to lose our surveillance.”

Clashes like this abound in “Forty Autumns,” which succeeds at being both a poignant parable of hope and, at times, a harrowing ghost story. Steve Donoghue regularly reviews books for The Christian Science Monitor.

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book review 40 autumns

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IMAGES

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

    book review 40 autumns

  2. Blogtrotter: David Mitchell's "The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet": Book Review

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VIDEO

  1. In conversation with Dan Mitchell (Autumns Eyes)

  2. Day 13 of 40: Book Review 40

  3. Yan Wushi's Got It Bad 😏 Thousand Autumns Book 4 Review!

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COMMENTS

  1. Forty Autumns: A Family's Story of Courage and Survival…

    The title “Forty Autumns” refers to the forty years of the East German state, from its conception after the war in 1948 to 1989 when the Berlin Wall fell. The book doesn’t stop there, but continues to 2013 detailing the lives of the family members and the progression from a communist state to a western democracy.

  2. FORTY AUTUMNS | Kirkus Reviews

    A poignant and engrossing, occasionally harrowing, family memoir. A former U.S. Army intelligence officer’s story of her East German mother’s flight to the West and of the family she left behind. Willner was just 5 years old when she first learned that her mother Hanna’s parents lived “behind a curtain” in East Germany.

  3. Forty Autumns: A Family's Story of Courage and Survival on ...

    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…

  4. Forty Autumns: A Family's Story of Courage and Survival on ...

    FORTY AUTUMNS makes visceral the pain and longing of one family forced to live apart in a world divided by two. Here, Nina Willner 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 ...

  5. Review: Forty Autumns by Nina Willner – Escape Reality, Read ...

    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 ...

  6. Forty Autumns: A Family's Story of Courage and Survival on ...

    A site dedicated to book lovers providing a forum to discover and share commentary about the books and authors they enjoy. Author interviews, book reviews and lively book commentary are found here. Content includes books from bestselling, midlist and debut authors.

  7. Forty Autumns: A Family's Story of Courage and Survival on ...

    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 ...

  8. Book Marks reviews of Forty Autumns by Nina Willner

    Forty Autumns has one notable omission: It offers only the sketchiest information on the family's stance and situation during the Nazi years. Overall, this is an interesting story, unevenly told. The narrative tone is so strong in places that you can forget you’re reading nonfiction. Then Willner drops in a 'My mother' or other personal details.

  9. Forty Autumns : A Family's Story of Courage ... - Google Books

    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 ...

  10. 'Forty Autumns' tells of one family, divided for decades by ...

    Clashes like this abound in “Forty Autumns,” which succeeds at being both a poignant parable of hope and, at times, a harrowing ghost story. Steve Donoghue regularly reviews books for The ...