TLC Book Tour: Apfelkuchen and Forty Autumns by Nina Willner

I received a gratis copy of Forty Autumns: A Family’s Story of Courage and Survival on Both Sides of the Berlin Wall by Nina Willner for TLC Book Tours.

About Forty Autumns

• Paperback: 416 pages
• Publisher: William Morrow Paperbacks; Reprint edition (August 15, 2017)

In this illuminating and deeply moving memoir, a former American military intelligence officer goes beyond traditional Cold War espionage tales to tell the true story of her family—of five women separated by the Iron Curtain for more than forty years, and their miraculous reunion after the fall of the Berlin Wall.

Forty Autumns makes visceral the pain and longing of one family forced to live apart in a world divided by two. At twenty, Hanna escaped from East to West Germany. But the price of freedom—leaving behind her parents, eight siblings, and family home—was heartbreaking. Uprooted, Hanna eventually moved to America, where she settled down with her husband and had children of her own.

Growing up near Washington, D.C., Hanna’s daughter, Nina Willner became the first female Army Intelligence Officer to lead sensitive intelligence operations in East Berlin at the height of the Cold War. Though only a few miles separated American Nina and her German relatives—grandmother Oma, Aunt Heidi, and cousin, Cordula, a member of the East German Olympic training team—a bitter political war kept them apart.

In Forty Autumns, Nina recounts her family’s story—five ordinary lives buffeted by circumstances beyond their control. She takes us deep into the tumultuous and terrifying world of East Germany under Communist rule, revealing both the cruel reality her relatives endured and her own experiences as an intelligence officer, running secret operations behind the Berlin Wall that put her life at risk.

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 five women whose spirits could not be broken, and who fought to preserve what matters most: family.

Forty Autumns is illustrated with dozens of black-and-white and color photographs.

Purchase Links

HarperCollins | Amazon | Barnes & Noble

Photo by Julia Forsman

About Nina Willner

Nina Willner is a former U.S. Army intelligence officer who served in Berlin during the Cold War. Following a career in intelligence, Nina worked in Moscow, Minsk, and Prague promoting human rights, children’s causes, and the rule of law for the U.S. government, nonprofit organizations, and a variety of charities. She currently lives in Istanbul, Turkey. Forty Autumns is her first book.

Find out more about Nina at her website, and connect with her on Facebook and Twitter.

What I Thought…

Having just recently finished Mastering the Art of Soviet Cooking and learning what it was like growing up in the Pre-Gorbachev USSR, I was unsure I really wanted to tackle another tale of life in a Soviet bloc country.   Willner, however, pens a compelling tale of her family’s life in East Germany, starting  with the saga of her Oma and Opa.

Her tale is unique.   Her Opa, whom she never met, fought in both World Wars and was forced to embrace not only Nazism but also East German communism.   Although he initially conformed to both, he soon saw the hypocrisy and dangers of these doctrines.   As a high ranking educator, he felt he had no choice but to help indoctrinate East German youth.  It was Oma that held her beliefs and developed “The Family Wall” to ensure not only her family’s safety but also her children’s sense of identity.

Willner’s mother, their oldest daughter, escaped East Germany in her early adulthood and spent forty years separated from her family.   Ironically, Willner returns to West Germany as an Army Intelligence Officer and ends up making information gathering forays into East Germany.

Forty Autumns  was a page turner for me.   I came to adulthood during the final years of the Cold War and I distinctly remember watching the wall fall.  (In fact I turned twenty-four on that exact date).  And I still distinctly recall Christmas in 1991 when an uncle remarked we were watching history as the Soviet Union dissolved.  I remember in high school trying to keep East and West Germany separate for a world history test.  “West is good; East is bad,” I memorized.   Obviously, I learned a great deal with this reading.

As I am always reading and looking for food references, I noticed a lack of culinary descriptions.   But, I did decide to classify the food angles into East and West categories as they were mentioned in the book.

From West Germany:

Brotchen–German Hard Roll that Hanna buys when she first visits Heidelburg Castle (70).

erdbeerebowle—“a potent punch made with champagne and cognac-sugar soaked strawberries” (130) from the celebration of Opa and Oma finally visiting Hanna and Eddie in the West.

A family meal of rouladen (from Oma’s recipes), cognac creme, and French wine (131), making her father feel like a king.

From East Germany:

Opa’s birthday celebration:  homemade liqueur, soup and potatoes, pickled vegetables, Butterkuchen, Bienenstich, and Apfelkuchen (158-59).

References to Opa and Oma’s gardens and Heidi’s Paradise Bungalow gardens

A late summer meal of  pflaumkuchen, “East German delicacies including Eberswalder sausages with Brautzen mustard, and Spreewalder pickles” (213).

Homemade bread and jam from the Paradise Bungalow plot while visiting with Heidi, Reinhard, and Cordula after the fall (355).

Willner incorporates and weaves historical facts and events seamlessly into this memoir.  Included in her tale are family portraits and pictures as well as a few East German surveillance photos of Willner’s team during her intelligence gathering missions.  She ends her book with an epilogue, updating her family members’ current situations, and Historical Notes.  The book contains a glossary and very extensive index.

Since we are nearing fall, I decided to make an Apfelkuchen (Apple Cake) for this post to highlight Forty Autumns.  

Apfelkuchen (Apple Cake)


This is my own riff for a German inspired cake, based on a Pflaumkuchen recipe.


  • 2 c. flour
  • 1 t. baking powder
  • 1 c. sugar
  • pinch of nutmeg
  • 1/8 t. fine sea  salt
  • 4 T. butter, softened
  • 6 large eggs, divided
  • 2 T. whole milk
  • 5 c. sliced apples (combo of Granny Smith and Golden delicious, 5-6 apples)
  • 1/2 c. half and half
  • For topping; 1/3 c. sugar combined with 1 T. cinnamon


  • Preheat oven to 375 F.
  • In a mixing bowl, combine flour, baking powder, sugar, nutmeg, and salt.
  • Add butter, 4 egg and milk to the dry ingredients. Mix until just incorporated.
  • Pat or spread this mixture into a well-greased 9″ x 13″ square pan. The mixture should be about ¼ inch thick, slightly thicker around the edges.
  • Arrange sliced apples on top of this layer of dough.
  • In another bowl, mix together remaining egg and half and half. Pour this mixture over the apples.
  • Combine the topping of cinnamon and sugar and lightly sprinkle over the top . Bake for 30-35 minutes or until golden brown. (Be careful not to overcook.)
  • Let cool before serving.

I enjoyed this book, the history, and the story of a family’s determination to one day be reunited.

Note:  Willner’s mother, “Hanna-she-went-to-the-West,” the daughter who escaped, is also an author and published Christine: A Life in Germany After WWII (1945-1948), a novel based on her life and experiences.

I am also linking up with Simona’s Novel Food #31….

and September’s Foodie Reads.

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