Thursday, September 1, 2016

A Brazen Escape over the Berlin Wall by hot air balloon (more detailed story)

Traveling by hot air balloon always seems adventurous and peaceful at the same time. But imagine what it’s like to travel in your own made balloon to escape to West-Germany. That is what the Wetzel and Strelzyk families did in 1979.

Escaping East Germany

Imagine what it’s like to never really say your opinion without fear of being spied on. The Wetzel and Strelzyk families were fed up with life in the GDR because they were always afraid a Stasi spy would be listening in on a conversation. Traveling to another country was impossible as well. At least, to Western countries on the other side of the iron curtain. Gunter Wetzel really hated all of it and wanted to leave the GDR, but he had no idea how to because escaping was nearly impossible. Until a relative that lived in West Germany showed him a picture of a large hot air balloon. He suddenly knew what to do: escaping by hot air balloon.

Hot air balloon

He talked about it with his work buddy and together they got the idea to make an hot air balloon themselves to escape from East Germany to West Germany. It was an inventive idea. But it was quite hard to make one. They could not simply walk into a store asking for the best material to make a hot air balloon. The first balloon let to much air through. They experienced with several fabrics and then came up with taffeta. They went into a store and said they were members of a sailing club and they needed it for sails. The people at the store bought their story, so they could go crazy behind the sewing machine again. The gas burner was home made as well from a gas cylinder and a stove pipe.

Dangerous Escape

The Stasi wasn’t on to them. Yet. But the second balloon didn’t fly through the East German sky either. It was too small and the Wetzel family decided it would be to dangerous to continue escaping with the home made balloon.

Gunter Wetzel changed jobs and was okay with the situation for the time being, the other family tried to escape in a different way. But that didn’t work out either. All things changed when the Stasi found another home made balloon, made by someone else. The two families were very afraid the Stasi would catch them if they knew they bought so much taffeta to make the second balloon. There  was just one option: make a third balloon and escape as soon as possible.

Third Balloon

In order to do so, they again had to go shopping to buy taffeta because the third balloon had to be much bigger in order to fly. And with the other balloon being discovered, this had become even trickier than before. The two families had to travel for very long distances to buy small pieces of fabric so they wouldn’t get any unwanted Stasi attention. A few times they were waiting with trembling hands for the fabric being cut by shop employees. Once they thought they were caught right handed when a police officer came up to the two dads of the families. They had just bought new taffeta. But he had not spotted the fabric. He warned them they had driven in the wrong direction and after paying him a small fine, they could continue.

But still, they had to hurry up. One wrong move or suspected shop owner and they were put in jail and their kids would have been taken away. Time was running out, because Gunter Wetzel had taken of some time of work and he had to get started in a few days. The balloon was nearly finished, but the weather conditions were bad. Wetzel was afraid he had to stay behind and get arrested.


But the weather changed suddenly. On September 15, 1979 the weather was perfect and in the dead of night they heated up the home made balloon and loaded the two families, Gunter Wetzel and his wife Petra, their two boys and Peter Strelzyk, his wife Doris and their two boys into the balloon. It nearly went wrong. The balloon heated up perfectly, but the ropes that kept the balloon to the ground were not cut at the same time. The ‘basket’ was listing to one side and the burner tilted. The balloon even caught fire, but the eldest son of the Strelzyks was well prepared and put out the fire with an extinguisher.

Search lights looking for the balloon

The hot air balloon drifted higher and higher, but soon they noticed there was a hole right in the middle of the ballloon. They were far away from the ground, but they had to use the gas continuously otherwise they would drop in hight.

They were all very quiet. The only noise came from the burning heater. Below they could see the search lights from the borders, but they were so high up in the sky the lights didn’t touch the balloon. However, the burner didn’t work anymore, and they started to descend pretty fast. They tried to get the heater going again, but since they used all the gas, that didn’t work. They were 2000 meters from the ground when the heater stopped.

Crash on the ground

The two families prepared for the worst and feared a bad crash on the ground, but they were lucky. The basket landed in a forest and the treetops stopped the basket, so they didn’t crash too bad. They had no idea if they had managed to escape to the other part of Germany though. The two wifes hid in the forest with their kids and Gunter Wetzel and Peter Strelzyk explored the area. They noticed a barn with huge machines with brandnames that were unfamiliar. They had to be in West Germany. Two West-German policeman came up to them, and although they already knew they were save they asked: ‘Are we in the West?”. The policemen were very surprised and replied: “Of course you are, where else would you be then?”

Left photo:  Peter Strelzyk, his wife Doris (on the left) and their two boys and Gunter Wetzel and his wife Petra, their two boys into the balloon. Right photo: Peter Strelzyk
Best friend in prison

After that, the two women and the kids came out of the forest and they all cheered. But this story has no happily ever after, like the movie Night Crossing that was made of this courageous escape suggests. The two families parted and never really contacted each other again. The Stasi put one of Peter Strelzyks best friends, Jurgen Dier, in prison. He didn’t know anything about the escape plans of his friend, but the Stasi didn’t care about that and put him in jail. When he was released, he was able to travel to West Germany and the Strelzyk family took care of him and offered him a job. They didn’t know the Stasi asked Dier to spy on the escaped family.

Being watched by the Stasi

They wanted to flee the GDR because they hated the idea of being watched all the time. They didn’t want to be scared anymore about being spied on by your work mates and friends and flee the country. But the fact was, the Stasi was not on to them in their own country. They spied on them in the West. Dier told the Stasi everything. He told them about Peter Strelzyks stomach problems, how much coffee he drank and when his firm went bankrupt. The Stasi kept a close eye on them, when they least expected it. More escapes at the Berlin Wall.

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