Forty Autumns: A Family’s Story of Courage and Survival on Both Sides of the Berlin Wall – WILNER (TH-JM)

WILNER, Nina. Forty Autumns: A Family’s Story of Courage and Survival on Both Sides of the Berlin Wall. New York: HarperCollins, 2016. 391p. Resenha de: SHIELDS, Trevor. Teaching History – A Journal of Methods, v.45, n.2, p.55-57, 2020.

On June 26, 1963, President John F. Kennedy, on a visit to West Berlin, eloquently lamented, “The [Berlin] Wall is…an offense not only against history but an offense against humanity, separating families, dividing husbands and wives and brothers and sisters, and dividing a people who wish to join together.” All too often, the humanity of those impacted by the events of the Cold War gets lost in the background of the larger narrative of communism versus democracy—the Soviet Union versus the United States. Nina Willner’s work, Forty Autumns: A Family’s Story of Courage and Survival on Both Sides of the Berlin Wall (2016), successfully and vividly injects much needed humanity into the Cold War.

Written as primarily a family memoir, Forty Autumns tells the story of just one of the families divided by the Berlin Wall. Willner’s book chronicles the life of her mother, Hanna, and grandparents, Erna and Karl (Willner regularly only refers to Erna and Karl as Oma and Opa, or Grandma and Grandpa.) The book, which is divided into roughly four sections, begins with several maps of Europe during the Cold War. From there, one of the greatest features of the book appears, a family and historical chronology as Willner pairs the events of the Cold War physically right alongside their impact on her family. Seeing the history of the Cold War linked to the impacts of particular historical events on real people makes the vivid narrative of Forty Autumns difficult to put down. In 1946 the Soviets occupied East Germany and imposed Soviet law. That same year, Opa, who fought for the Germans during WWII, was forced to begin teaching Soviet doctrine to his many students in East Germany.

The Cold War had more physically terrifying consequences on the people of East Germany than being forced to learn and love communism. Not wanting to take any chances of people inciting dissent, many East Germans were thrown into prison with little idea why they had been arrested. The Hoheneck Castle, which was known around the world for its Gothic and Renaissance architecture, was converted to house women. In eloquent yet terrifying prose, Willner paints the picture: “There, skin to skin, in total darkness, with no room to sit, they were made to stand in knee-deep freezing water for days on end in dank, poorly ventilated chambers until they simply passed out” (72). The inhumanity of what happened at Hoheneck Castle, although known to historians, is often missing from more traditional narratives. Since Forty Autumns was written in such an accessible way, more people today will understand the realities of life behind the Iron Curtain.

Willner’s book could be used in the classroom in a variety of ways. The most obvious, though, would be to use the story of her family to both introduce and to potentially teach the entirety of the Cold War. This would be particularly doable since Willner interjected the major events of the Cold War throughout the many pages of Forty Autumns. On the family level, for example, East German authorities harassed Opa at the same time the Warsaw Pact was being formed and dissent was being silenced. Forty Autumns definitely brings to life the impact of many Cold War developments on both individuals and Germany as a whole.

While not all of Millner’s family lived to see Germany reunified in 1990, all the individuals discussed helped make true a few of President Ronald Reagan’s words: “What is right will always triumph” (324). Although much of Forty Autumns detailed the horrors of life under communism in East Germany, it ended on a positive note, with Willner’s extended family reuniting in a united Germany in 2013. Anyone interested in learning more about the Cold War or about one family’s brave attempt at enduring the unthinkable should give Forty Autumns a read. Beyond that, in a more contemporary moment where construction of a wall is regularly discussed as a way to make life better for so many, the history within Forty Autumns should be seen as a foreboding tale.

Trevor Shields – Minooka High School.

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