A former U.S. Army intelligence officer’s story of her East German mother’s flight to the West and of the family she left behind.
Willner was just 5 years old when she first learned that her mother Hanna’s parents lived “behind a curtain” in East Germany. But it would not be until several years later that she would understand that this “curtain” was really a symbol of their political oppression and that Hanna had barely escaped entrapment herself. Her own mother, Oma, had literally pushed her into the arms of the departing American soldiers who had been occupying their hometown. The 17-year-old Hanna soon returned out of concern for her family. But when, after fleeing and returning a second time, she saw how communist ideology was changing her father and destroying the freedom, happiness, and security she had once known, she left, this time barely escaping with her life. Piecing together the story of Hanna’s family from relatives encountered only after the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989, Willner re-creates an at times painful account of how her aunts, uncles, and especially her grandparents survived a brutal East German dictatorship. Though marked as “politically unreliable” due to Hanna's defection, they never gave up hope that one day they would be reunited. However, the price they paid was high. Willner's grandfather became a target of communist officials, who banished him, his wife, and youngest daughter, born after Hanna's third and final escape, to a tiny farming community to prevent the spread of possible dissent and then forced him to undergo “intensive reeducation training” at a mental hospital. Yet through all the suffering, the family managed to stay together and survive by building a “Family Wall” of love and loyalty against the powerful outside forces they could not control. 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.