Willner’s account, Forty Autumns, chronicles the experiences of her family during the iron-fisted regime of the German Democratic Republic (1949-1990).
The Second World War has wound to a close. Perhaps life can return to normal. Or not. For Willner’s family, as for millions of others behind the Iron Curtain, a new normal, intrudes upon their lives. Almost a mirror image of the Third Reich, The communist regime boasts new governing officials, restrictions on freedom, youth programs, and its own set of propaganda. The “People” replace “The Fatherland,” communism replaces fascism and Young Pioneers replace the Hitler Youth.
A daring Escape
Hanna, a restless teen, rebels under the bleak strictures of this new reign. Over the years, escaping becomes increasingly difficult, and repercussions on families left behind are costly. For Hanna and her loving family, long term separation causes pain on all sides. Willner lovingly narrates the family’s lives as they navigate the totalitarian German Democratic Republic (DDR) and its effects on their family ties, finances and freedom. Opa compromises in order to please those above him and keep his job, but his struggle under communist idealogy is ongoing and it nearly breaks him. In contrast, some of his children succeed in small measure to stay true to themselves.
Willner does not hold back. Her loving and positive mother, her tormented father and various siblings, over 40 years, work to make life bearable while missing their oldest sister. Meanwhile, Hanna lives her parallel life of relative freedom and prosperity in the West, apart from those she loves. Communications between East and West are sparse, censored carefully and at times cut off.
Historical snippets interspersed throughout the book illuminate tensions between the Soviet bloc and Western world during the Cold War. Willner includes both successful and tragic escape attempts along with reactionary inhumane clampdowns by the East German government.
As a reader, I longed for the wall to topple, for the regime to end, and this family to reunite. The story resonated with me because as a child, I corresponded with a pen-pal from the DDR. I remember feeling sad that people who lived in East Germany weren’t free to visit. The book reminded me of relatives I barely knew, enduring life in that time and place, and of those who risked all for a better life. I wrote about the latter in my book, Threaten to Undo Us.
An important book
Willner’s book stands as testament to those who might otherwise think that controlling a populace in the name of their ideals, is worthwhile endeavour. Spoiler warning: it is NOT. People long for freedom. The desperation and pain of the characters is palpable, and yet determination of the individual human spirit to shines through. Forty Autumns is a compelling and important read.