This post contains affiliate links. I remember the Berlin Wall coming down when I was a freshman in college, but I don’t think I’ve ever read about life behind the wall. Forty Autumns by Nina Willner tells the story of a large family broken apart when one child defects and the rest of the family is left behind in East Germany. Nina Willner is uniquely qualified to tell this story. Her mother is the child who escaped from East Germany, and Nina herself worked as an intelligence officer in East and West Germany.
About Forty Autumns by Nina Willner
The book opens just after the end of World War II. Oma, the matriarch of the family, is on the lookout for the return of her husband and oldest son from their time serving in the military. She is also worried who will occupy their city. When Americans enter their city limits, the town residence are happy. However, that happiness ends a few months later when the Russians take over.
Suddenly, life changes dramatically. Hanna is the second born child and is 17 years old when the Russians take over. Soon, she finds the Communist regime oppressive and longs to be free. She tries to escape a few times, to her father, Opa’s, horror. Opa is a head schoolmaster. It doesn’t reflect well on him that his daughter continues to try to run away.
Hanna seemed to have settled into life in East Germany, even signing up for a training to be a school teacher. However, on her way to that training, she escapes and finally makes it to West Germany. Little does she know that her family will be affected for years because of her escape, both emotionally and economically.
This story then tells the two divergent paths–Hanna, forging her own way in a free society, and the rest of her family struggling to survive in Communist East Germany without actually falling for the doctrine.
My Thoughts on the Book
Willner does an excellent job sharing what life was like for the family back in East Germany. She also show how difficult her mother’s life was, first as a young, single woman without a high school diploma living in West Germany and then as a housewife in America.
Overall, I really liked this book. I felt like I knew Oma and Opa and their children, and I felt the pain of the separated family. However, I feel that a small part of the book when Willner shares her expereinces working in intelligence in West and sometimes East Germany got a bit bogged down in details that I didn’t think were necessary.
Having said that, I would have liked to have learned more about what life was like for Willner growing up. She is the daughter of an East German defector and a Jew who survived several concentration camps in WWII. Surely, this must have affected her upbringing in some way.
I give Forty Autumns by Nina Willner 4 out of 5 stars on the Mom’s Plans’ scale.