The Iron Curtain rises again in “Forty Autumns,” Nina Willner’s account of a German family divided after World War II. Stitched from memories collected on both sides, it’s a Cold War story Willner knows well. It’s her family.
In East Germany in 1948, the relief of peacetime gives way to dismay over tightening Communist control. Hanna, the oldest daughter of a school principal in Schwaneberg, flees to the West, leaving behind her parents, a growing number of siblings and the taint of suspicion that her family will carry for decades.
Their separation widens after Hanna marries an American army intelligence officer and moves to the United States. It intensifies as the fencing that Hanna slipped through becomes fortified by barbed wire, watchtowers and the Berlin Wall.
Harassed by Communist Party officials, her father snaps. But such family news rarely gets past the censors. As years pass, parallel lives unfold. Hanna has six children, including Nina, who is stunned at age 5 when her mother tells her about the grandparents, aunts, uncles and cousins who cannot visit because of this Iron Curtain. “Someday, she reassured me, we might be able to meet them,” Willner recalls. “Someday indeed. For goodness sakes, I thought. It’s just a curtain.”
Willner’s understanding deepens when she becomes an army intelligence officer in Berlin in 1982. She leads a team of agents who cross the “Bridge of Spies,” trying to find evidence of military activity and evade their Soviet pursuers. That experience yields some of the memoir’s most dramatic moments.
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. It’s no easy feat to weave a personal memoir into a larger tableau of world events, and Willner complicates her task by trying to do justice to so many family members.
She heightens the difficulty further by trying to construct a second set of parallel lives between herself and a cousin who grows up to be an East German cycling champion headed for the 1988 Olympics. She can’t quite pull all the strands together.
Even so, she paints a vivid picture of life for East Germans who didn’t toe the party line, and bears witness to her mother’s poignant meeting with surviving family members in a reunited Germany. “There were so many feelings all at once: overwhelming emotion, immeasurable joy, but also heartache for those who had passed, who had not lived to see this day.”
Maureen McCarthy is a team leader for the Star Tribune.
Forty Autumns; A Family's Story of Courage and Survival on Both Sides of the Berlin Wall
By: Nina Willner.
Publisher: William Morrow, 391 pages, $27.99.