Forty Autumns: A Family's Story of Courage and Survival on Both Sides of the Berlin Wall. Nina Willner. William Morrow, 2016 (reprint edition).
"None who have always been free can understand the terrible fascinating power of the hope of freedom to those who are not free." ~ Pearl S. Buck (epigraph to one of the book's chapters)
Forty Autumns is a meticulously researched story of the desperate human desire, even need, for freedom. The text weaves back and forth between the 40-year history of East Germany and the very personal history of the author's family during that period. In the first few pages, I wasn't sure how well that structure was going to work, but Willner crafted it masterfully. I stayed engaged the entire time and learned a great deal about a period of Germany's history I knew very little about. The country's history provided a profoundly graphic context for what was happening within the family. And the family story made the country's history starkly real.
Briefly, East Germany came under Soviet rule after WWII, whereas West Germany was under the control of the US, Britain, and France. In East Germany, the totalitarian government took draconian measures, among them Stasi, the secret police rivalling the Gestapo, to enforce adherence to hardline Communist principles. The regime did away with more and more freedoms, both physical and mental, indoctrinating the populace from an early age into the approved way to think and act. As a result, thousands of East Germans tried to flee the country, which reflected poorly on the government, which then reacted by enacting more and more measures to keep their citizens contained. When people failed in their attempts to escape, they could be shot, imprisoned, or have the few freedoms left to them taken away.
As I read, I realized with some embarrassment that I had traveled three times in West Germany while the country was divided, and I had given no thought to the tragedies occuring on on the other side of the wall. As far as I was concerned, I was in a country called Germany, using my college-girl German. Period. Of course I knew that that East and West Germany existed, but there was so much I didn't know. I'm sure, unbeknownst to me, I blindly encountered people who were excruciatingly separated from people and places they loved, now on the other side of what was known worldwide as the Iron Curtain.
Nina Willner's book was published after her time as a US intelligence officer in East and West Berlin. She had to have spent years among documents and in interviews to thoroughly research the family story and the broader one. Her mother was the only one of nine children in her family of origin who had been able to escape and then was cut off from her grandparents, parents and siblings for the next forty years. Few letters or packages she sent to them or letters they sent to her, ever made it through. The family's intent to remain connected was steadfast and courageous. And within East Germany, the mother of the family built what she called the "Family Wall," which allowed members to maintain integrity at home while surviving outside by going along with what was required of them, with as much truthfulness as possible. How this family held together was a stark reminder of how my own family, with the freedom to choose unity, has allowed much smaller things to divide us.
Having written a biography of Viktor Frankl, I was necessarily very familiar with pre- and post-WWII history, as well as the events of the war itself, but Forty Autumns made me realize how little I knew about the Cold War and its dire effects on people's lives. I had a personal interest in this story because I knew a man, when we were both in our early twenties, whose father had carried him, as an infrant, out of East Berlin on his shoulders through the sewers to West Berlin. I see now, what a remarkable lack of curiosity I had then about Rudi's story.
The intense desire for freedom that causes people to risk their lives does seem, as Pearl Buck wrote, incomprehensible to those of us who have always lived free. I've been guilty of internally scoffing when people praise the freedom we have in the US, conscious of the many restrictions marginalized people in this country face on a daily basis. Forty Autumns reminded me of my own time living illegally in Denmark and how that restricted my freedom but to such a lesser degree as to seem inconsequential. My ability to think my own thoughts was never impacted, and I appreciate after reading this book how much more cruicial it is to have freedom of thought than freedom of movement, although we would wish for both.
The book also reminded me of my work with students and families who were undocumented immigrants in the US. These families live in constant fear of deportation. They don't dare to contact police when they are victims of some of the most violent crimes. Life is so difficult, so marginal for them here, that I often marvel that they choose to stay. It makes me aware, without knowing details, of how horrific things must have been for them in their home countries. My own experience and theirs influence my belief that we should be free to move among countries, free to live where we choose. My friend Suzanne once said I would make a good anarchist. I think her basis for saying it was because of this sort of thinking and because she sees me as having a moral compass, which of course is essential if an anarchist society is not to fall into chaos.
Forty Autumns moved me far more deeply that I had expected, bringing me to tears several times, and it, too, contributes to my belief that we should all be able to simply be citizens of the world. To paraphrase Buck, If we have always been free, we do not begin to fathom the power that the hope for freedom holds for those who are not free.