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Nina Willner was only five years old when she learnt that the reason she had never met her grandparents, aunts and uncles was because they were trapped behind “a curtain” in East Germany.
“Someone, I thought, simply needed to pull that sheet of fabric to the side and let those poor people out,” is how she recounts her immediate thoughts as a little girl growing up in the US. The book goes on to chart the painful and harrowing story of a family torn apart by the forces of the Cold War.
A line of women are the protagonists, beginning with Hanna, Willner’s rebellious mother, who escaped from East Germany as a young adult after a couple of failed attempts. The price she paid was complete separation from her family for four decades. In the eyes of the totalitarian regime, Hanna’s escape put a black mark on her family’s social standing for she “committed the worst of all crimes against the state by depriving the Soviet Zone of a healthy, able-bodied citizen it needed to help rebuild the country.”
Like so many other families, Hanna’s struggled to adjust to the new reality under the brutal Soviet rule. Her father, a headmaster, who tried to adjust to Nazism first and then Communism, ultimately ends up speaking out against the system. He is sent away to live in a remote village and is forced to undergo “intensive re-education training” in a mental institution.
Meanwhile, Hanna’s mother, a farmer’s daughter, does everything to keep the family together at a time when children are taught to denounce their own parents for criticising the regime.
Willner’s descriptions of food rations and shortages in East Germany echo accounts from today’s North Korea, while the propaganda machine and state espionage are reminiscent of China.
After Hanna’s escape, her brother Roland cuts off contact with her to salvage his career; other families try to communicate with her but most letters, packages and calls are intercepted by the Stasi.
In West Germany, Hanna builds a new life for herself and meets her future husband, Eddie, a German Jew and Holocaust survivor.
Unfortunately, we do not learn anything about the author’s father, how he survived the Holocaust, the history of that side of the family or what the author feels about her Jewish roots. As a Jewish reader, I could not help but be saddened to see that one chapter begins with the quote, “If not me, who? And if not now, when?”, attributed to Mikhail Gorbachev, rather than its original source, Hillel in Pirkei Avot, Ethics of the Fathers.
Willner weaves together the parallel lives of her mother’s family with her own life and career as a US intelligence officer in East Germany.
She describes the horrific treatment of dissidents, the many deaths of those who tried to escape to the West and important points in history such as the Berlin Airlift of 1948 and the East German Workers’ Uprising of 1953, with tremendous compassion and clarity.
This book is heart-wrenching as much as it is life-affirming. When the family finally reunites after 40 years of Soviet oppression, it makes us marvel at their resilience and strength.
This review was originally published in the Jewish Chronicle on 1 December 2016: https://www.thejc.com/review-forty-autumns-1.148038