is a family memoir by American former intelligence officer Nina Willner. Willber’s mother fled Communist East Germany: for forty years she couldn’t see her family. In the interim, her daughter became an American intelligence officer working in Berlin during the Cold War. Willner recounts her family’s history on both sides of the Iron Curtain, using this history as a lens to re-tell the story of the Cold War and German Communism. Well received by critics, Publishers’ Weekly
described the book as a “thrilling and relevant read for historians and casual readers alike.”
In Schwaneberg, East Germany, 1948, Hanna is the oldest daughter of a school head teacher, an adventurous, energetic girl, known as a “rabble-rouser.” She is close to her intelligent and likable brother, Roland, only a year older than her, and she has six younger siblings.
As the Communist regime tightens its control over civilians’ lives, Hanna’s mother, “Oma,” tries to persuade
her to leave, pushing her into the arms of the occupying American troops who are finally leaving the town to the Communist government. Hanna—just seventeen—goes with them to West Germany, only to return out of fear for her family.
However, upon her return she realizes that things are only going to get worse: “The first challenge the Soviets faced was to change the mind-set of the almost 19 million German citizens who, long before World War II, had been led to believe that communism was the greatest threat to the Western world. Stalin demands the transition be swift and the approach uncompromising.” The Communist restructuring of the education system is taking a heavy toll on her father, whom she calls “Opa.” The family falls under the suspicion of the Stasi, the brutal secret police force of Communist East Germany.
Hanna flees once again for the West. She slips away without saying goodbye, only to realize that her mother is watching her from an upstairs window. She barely makes it across the border, and for the next year, she lives hand-to-mouth in Berlin, constantly frightened that East German agents will murder her.
Meanwhile, her family doesn’t know whether she has survived or not. If she is caught, her whole family will be punished. As it is, the family is designated “politically unreliable” due to their defecting daughter.
Hanna moves to Heidelberg. There she spends two days with family members who have been permitted brief excursion across the border. In Heidelberg, she meets a U.S. intelligence officer, Eddie, a survivor of the concentration camps. They fall in love and marry. Hanna returns with Eddie to the United States.
Back in Germany, the fences Hanna slipped past are gradually fortified, until they become the notorious Berlin Wall. Opa is increasingly harassed by Communist officials, until finally he, Oma and their youngest daughter (born after Hanna’s escape) are exiled to a tiny rural farming village, to prevent them from contaminating others with their possibly dissenting views. Worse, Opa is subjected to “intensive re-education training” at a mental institution.
Communication out of East Germany is censored, so Hanna never learns her father’s fate. In America, she and Eddie have six children, including Willner, who is five when she first learns that she has grandparents, aunts, uncles, and cousins on the other side of the Iron Curtain, whom she can’t meet: “Someday, she reassured me, we might be able to meet them. Someday indeed. For goodness sakes, I thought. It’s just a curtain.”
As she grows up—in a suburb of Washington, D.C.—Willner learns what the Iron Curtain really is, and she learns how narrowly her mother escaped from the other side of it.
Throughout her account of this period, Willner offers potted summaries of important events from the Cold War—one of these is the growing importance of international sporting competition. In the late 1970s, Hanna’s cousin Cordula earns a place in the East German Olympic cycling team.
As an adult, Willner follows in her father’s footsteps, becoming the first female Army Intelligence Officer to head up a sensitive operation in Cold War Berlin. While based in the city, she is only a few miles away from her grandmother and the rest of her family, but she cannot meet them. Willner leads a team of agents who cross the “Bridge of Spies,” searching for evidence of military activity. On more than one occasion, she narrowly escapes capture by Soviet forces.
After the fall of the Berlin Wall, Willner pieces together the lives of her German family members. She learns how Oma led her children in building a “Family Wall” of loving loyalty, impregnable to the Stasi.
Willner is present at the emotional reunion between her mother, Hanna, and the family she left behind: “There were so many feelings all at once: overwhelming emotion, immeasurable joy, but also heartache for those who had passed, who had not lived to see this day.”