Monday, April 17, 2017

Forty Autumns by Nina Willner

I loved this book - especially because it put such a human face on the history I learned on a recent trip to Berlin.

The author's mother, Hanna, escaped the repressive regime in East Germany when she was 20 years old.  In doing so she left behind her parents, grandparents and 8 siblings.  Following the reunification of Germany, the author painstakingly researched her family history to learn about what life was like from the end of World War II until the families were reunited in the late 1980s.  Herself a retired army intelligence officer with an expertise in the former Soviet Union, Willner adeptly weaves historical context into the family's story.

While this is obviously a story of the terrible effects of living in a totalitarian dictatorship, it also shows the incredible strength of family which all members draw upon to survive.  The author's grandmother drilled into her children that they must always stick together; that the family needed its own wall to keep spies and suspicions out and to create a safe space for airing ones real views.  The bonds she created were so strong that Hanna's youngest sister Heidi, who was born after her escape and only met her once when at age five she and her mother were granted a pass to visit Hanna in West Germany, looked up to Hanna and tried to emulate her courage until they were able to meet again.  This was even true when Heidi's daughter was selected to represent East Germany in sports and Heidi was forced to cut off all direct communication with Hanna in order to protect her daughter's position.

While Heidi's grandmother's strength of character held the family together, I also empathized with her grandfather who tried so hard to get along within the Communist regime but at times could not help himself from expressing his true feelings (he was a well educated teacher and headmaster), much to his personal disadvantage.

One interesting story that stuck out for me was when the author's brother was backpacking across Europe during college and, with a friend who held a diplomatic passport, was able to wander into East Germany and contact the family.  The large extended family gathered together immediately and welcomed him into their midst for two days.  Unfortunately his grandmother had passed away only months before.  Interestingly, before she died she predicted that Heidi and Hanna would one day be reunited.  When they finally were, they both felt her presence with them.

All in all this was a great story of one family, but also an important lesson in broader history.  I learned a lot about the East German regime that was unfamiliar to me.  And it made me appreciate even more the immense task it was to reunify the country.  I recommend this book to anyone with an interest in history and/or family.

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