Nina Willner, a former US Army captain, ran intelligence operations on Soviet territory in East Berlin during the Cold War. After working for some of our nation’s most sensitive intelligence organizations, Willner spent almost two decades living in Eastern Europe (including in Russia, Belarus and Czech Republic) working for the U.S Government in the fields of human rights and rule of law, and for NGOs focused mainly on women's and children's causes. Willner’s critically acclaimed book Forty Autumns (William Morrow) is a sweeping history of the Cold War that pieces together the intriguing and inspiring tale of Willner’s family divided by the Iron Curtain for more than forty years.
With its uplifting message and wide appeal based on its narrative storytelling of one family’s faith, courage and resistance – Willner’s mother an escapee from communist East Germany and her father a survivor of Auschwitz–and based on the most up-to-date research, Forty Autumns follows the major political events of the Cold War including the American-Soviet superpower struggle for dominance in the Space Race, the Nuclear Arms Race and in proxy conflicts around the globe that at times brought the world to the brink of nuclear war. A personal look at a tenuous era that divided a city and a nation, and continues to haunt us, Forty Autumns is an intimate and beautifully written story of courage, resilience, and love—of one family whose spirit could not be broken, and their four decade journey to find each other again.
Publisher’s Weekly called Forty Autumns “an epic, thrilling and relevant read.” Kirkus Reviews praised the book for its celebration of the “enduring resilience of the human spirit." The Christian Science Monitor named Forty Autumns its “Top 15 Nonfiction Books of 2016” and The Book Authority, based on recommendations from business industry leaders, ranked Forty Autumns #33 in their "100 Best Memoir Books of All Time." Forty Autumns has been sold in the US, UK, Germany, Hungary, Poland, Slovakia, Holland, Brazil and China.
Through fascinating presentations filled with research and stories from Willner’s personal experiences, audiences can take away lessons on history, leadership, adversity, and the importance of freedom and democracy while thinking out of the box both in historical and cultural contexts. Willner is a perfect fit for historical societies, colleges and universities, and human rights organizations.
Currently, Willner resides in Washington, D.C.
Praise for Nina Willner:
“Nina Willner had the rapt attention of her audience when she spoke about "Russian Authoritarianism and the Global Threat to Democracy" at the Rotary Club of San Francisco in August 2017. Membership of the club is made up of business leaders from the Bay Area, and several had direct experience in Germany during the time the Berlin Wall fell, which made her presentation even more meaningful to the group. Her knowledge of the subject, based on her own experience as an intelligence officer during the Cold War, gave her valuable first-hand experience. She spoke in an engaging manner, answered questions thoughtfully, and led a stimulating discussion with her audience.”
--Warren Grawemeyer, San Francisco Rotary Club
“Ms. Willner is an accomplished speaker who draws the audience into her story as living history. Her well-prepared PowerPoint material helps bring a human touch and understanding to the people, places and events she describes. Willner’s story interspersed accounts of her own career as an Army Intelligence Officer operating in Berlin during the final decades of Communist rule. Few, if any, contemporaries would have such a story to relate. This was a first-rate talk that was both polished and personal.”
--Stephen White, Chairman, Falls Church Military History Forum
"Nina Willner presents in a manner that engages the audience in a very personal way as her narrative unfolds. She has the ability to communicate real life experiences in the book, Forty Autumns, that are both painful and joyful as each member of her family survived in a time of chaos and disorder. Nina was just the right person to express to an audience how she melded her depth of understanding, her exhaustive research, her experiences, and a powerful history. Our group of participants unanimously recognized her accomplishments as a writer and a speaker to captivate an audience."
--Carol Riley, Board of Directors, Treasurer/Secretary Haymarket Country Club, Haymarket, VA
“Attendance at our talk was about 300. Our speakers have included a large number of people with widely varying subject expertise and seniority in their field. They include the head of the Congressional Budget Office, the Chief Justice of our State Supreme Court, curators from the Metropolitan Museum of Art, research scientists in subjects ranging from cancer to astrophysics, constitutional law scholars, military historians, former ambassadors, and quite a few authors. It is fair to say that our audience is active, engaged, and quite demanding. Author Nina Willner of Forty Autumns did an outstanding job of presenting her book, concentrating on the geopolitical maelstrom in which she found herself as a young Army intelligence officer in occupied Berlin, while giving us a good understanding of her family’s predicament of being separated by the Iron Curtain. Our members came away feeling that they gained a new level of understanding of this history, even though most had lived through these times. The audience response to Nina’s presentation was overwhelmingly positive. I can highly recommend Capt. Willner as a speaker on these subjects. She will delight her audience!”
--Horst Tebbe, RMA Program Committee
Praise from the San Francisco Literary Circle Event:
"Nina was fantastic and fascinating.”
"Nina is smart, thoughtful, engaging."
"A rare treat to hear from the author the truly fascinating tale of family, courage, loyalties, intrigue and the Cold War."
"A delightful gathering to meet Nina and hear her stories about the book. This is what good storytelling is about."
"Very interesting presentation. I'm recommending Forty Autumns to my book group."
--Anne Grawemeyer, San Francisco Literary Salon
Praise for Forty Autumns:
“An excellent and intriguing account of the impact of the Cold War on families and their lives on either side of the Berlin Wall.”
--Library Journal (starred review)
“Willner’s epic memoir traverses three generations of mothers, recounting the tragedy, estrangement, and overwhelming courage of a family torn apart…. Her interrogative and unabashed voice explores the painful intersection of national duty and familial responsibilities…. A thrilling and relevant read for historians and casual readers alike.”
"Thoughtful and informative, Willner’s book not only offers a personal view of the traumatic effects of German partition. It also celebrates the enduring resilience of the human spirit. A poignant and engrossing, occasionally harrowing, family memoir.”
"[A] moving account of one family’s life under tyranny… Willner’s sensitive and well-written account causes us to reflect on what is really important to us and how we would react in a similar situation.”
“This book is kind, honest, incredibly well-written, and important, a testament to humanity and courage.”
“[A] meticulous and compassionate family memoir… Charting the twists and turns of politics in communist East Germany over more than four decades, it shows how currents of repression and reform affected individual lives.”
“Forty Autumns is both an informative and timely read. In this increasingly tumultuous modern era when borders, both theoretical and physical, have once again become the front lines of critical issues such as immigration reform, pervasive prejudice and terrorism, stories like Willner’s are especially important.”
“Even if you well know the story of the East German sequester, you will be drawn to [Willner’s] family story of living through the worst of times.”
--Manhattan Book Review
“A poignant parable of hope and, at times, a harrowing ghost story.”
--Christian Science Monitor
“A page-turner. Plenty of background—both heartbreaking (would-be escapees shot at the wall) and fascinating (President Kennedy's Berlin speech, preceded by his peeking over the wall)—is woven neatly in. A multigenerational tale that brings the Cold War and Iron Curtain to tragic, memorable life.”
“Describes… with tremendous compassion and clarity. Heart-wrenching as much as it is life-affirming. It makes us marvel at [the family’s] resilience and strength.”
-- The Jewish Chronicle