Brushing up on German history: Forty Autumns

In 2007, when I was studying abroad in Amsterdam, I went to Prague for a couple of days. While there, my friends and I visited the Museum of Communism.

I’m 31 – the Berlin Wall came down when I was 4. By the time I was old enough to learn about the Cold War, it was already over. That trip to the museum, which outlined what it was like to live under the Soviets during the cold war complete with the types of food and appliances in the average home, books, toys – anything you can imagine that was part of everyday life at the time was featured there, was really the first time that I came face to face with the reality of living behind the Iron Curtain.

There was also news footage of uprisings and brutal reprisals looping. In one room, an older man from the UK was sobbing. Sobbing. Over and over he kept saying that he’d had no idea, he’d never realized how bad it was, none of this was shown on TV at the time.

As I was reading Forty Autumns: A Family’s Story of Courage and Survival on Both Sides of the Berlin Wall, I realized that it was one of the first books that I’d read about life on the other side of the Iron Curtain.


When author Nina Willner was about six, they talked about grandparents at school. She went home and asked her parents why she didn’t have any grandparents but it turned out that she did – her Oma and Opa lived in Germany. She soon found out that it was highly unlikely that she would ever meet them.

What follows is the story of her family – her mother, Hanna’s, attempts at escaping an increasingly hopeless East Germany until finally succeeding; her grandmother’s decree that the remaining family building a Family Wall, that family loyalty would always come before anything else; her grandfather’s struggles to maintain his livelihood and hope under a regime that more and more he disagreed with; her aunt Heidi, who had only met her defector sister once but held her up as an inspiration for her entire life, refusing to join the Communist Party despite the fact that it would make her own life more difficult.

What Willner accomplishes incredibly effectively is that she describes her family history against the backdrop of the politics and policies of the Soviet regime. And Willner is the perfect person to do both – not only is she a part of her story, she herself became an intelligence officer during the Cold War and spent three years in East Germany, going on intelligence missions.

Guys, the story of Willner’s family made me cry multiple times. Her Oma and Opa were incredible people, on the wrong side of an arbitrary border, trying their very best to provide the best for their family. The sacrifices forced on this family because of a regime they had the bad luck to be under were devastating. The whole family (Willner’s mother had eight siblings) held out hope that one day they would see Hanna again.

This book kind of has everything. There is an incredibly intense story of a family that is trying against all odds to make something of this life they’ve been forced to live, it’s a history book filled with real examples of regime that didn’t care about its people, Willner herself is one of the first female intelligence officers to lead fact finding missions, and there are spies. So many spies.

If you’re in the mood for a moving true family saga, if you live for The Americans (if you don’t, you should), or you want to brush up on German history, Forty Autumns is for you.

14 thoughts on “Brushing up on German history: Forty Autumns

  1. I’ll definitely read this! My grandfather’s sister and her family lived in East Germany, and we visited them before the Wall came down. My sister and I made fun of all the bananas and oranges my mom bought for the trip, until we saw how excited some of the kids were because those were the first oranges they had ever eaten in their lives.

    • Funny you mention that – the lack of citrus fruits totally comes up in this memoir. The author’s mother always tried to send grapefruits etc but the packages didn’t always make it through to her family. Totally worth your time – an incredible story.

  2. This sounds totally up my alley. I have a weird obsession with life behind the Berlin Wall and loved the part of Ken Follett’s Edge of Eternity dealing with a family trying to escape.

  3. Ok I had already added this to my TBR and then you throw in the Americans?! I’m sold. Your story also makes me think of my visit to the Checkpoint Charlie museum in Berlin and how desperate people were to get into West Berlin. Definitely something I’d like to know more about.

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