In 1989, the wall came down, but until then, there were some moving stories that surrounded those who were torn apart due to the Berlin Wall. A couple of my favorite movies – Goodbye Lenin and Das Versprechen – offer treatments of this time period. Forty Autumns is a memoir that adds to the narrative of families torn apart by the Iron Curtain. Nina Willner paints a picture of this tragic occurrence and shares the stories of five women and how they were reunited once the wall came down.

In a nation that stands divided due to ideology and discord, it’s important to look at lessons about division (and uniting) from our not-so distant history. It is these individual stories, like the ones Willner tells in Forty Autumns that help inspire us.  

About Forty Autumns

• Paperback: 416 pages
• Publisher: William Morrow Paperbacks; Reprint edition (August 15, 2017)

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.

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Photo by Julia Forsman

About 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 Istanbul, Turkey. Forty Autumns is her first book.

Find out more about Nina at her website, and connect with her on Facebook and Twitter.