German Language Blog

How Two Families Escaped to West Germany in a Balloon Posted by on Sep 17, 2021 in Culture, Film & Theater, News, Politics

It’s September 16, 1979. Germany is still separated in East and West. The Berlin wall has stood for almost 20 years. Germans live and grow up in two very different realities. One communist and supervised by the state, the other capitalist and free. Before the wall, things were easier. Many chose to leave their homes in the East behind to search for a better life in the other Germany, which saw an unprecedented economic upswing. But now, with the wall in place, crossing the border to the West is a life-threatening undertaking. Border patrols have discretion to shoot anyone who attempts to cross the border. And yet, many still try to go. Also on this very day. Here’s the spectacular story of die Flucht (escape) of the Strelzyks and Wetzels. In a hot-air balloon.

Crossing the border with a homemade balloon

There have been many attempts at crossing the border. From digging tunnels underneath the wall to crossing the border in Hungary. One more dangerous than the next. But no doubt, one of the most spectacular attempts happened on September 16, 1979. 42 years ago, two families, the Strelzyks and Wetzels, jumped into a selbstgebastelter Heißluftballon (m, homemade hot-air balloon) to escape to the West.

It was their fifth attempt to escape. Trying again and again really made them eager, said Günter Wetzel, one of the builders of the balloon. They went all over the GDR to buy Stoffe (m, fabrics), that he and three others carefully sowed together into a massive Heißluftballon.

Their third balloon. The first one failed, it wouldn’t inflate properly. The second one worked, but the Korb (m, balloon basket) was too small for both families. And so, in July 1979, the Strelzyks gave it a shot. The balloon worked, and brought them just about one mile from the border – but the balloon came down. It had soaked up too much water and was too heavy. Incredibly, the family was able to leave the balloo behind and find their way back home without being seen.

And so, the two families ended up with their 28-meter (about 92 ft) tall Heißluftballon. They started at the same place as the Strelzyk’s attempt two months earlier, in the middle of the night. From there, it wasn’t far to the West. And then, at 2:32 am,  the balloon went up. The eight people held onto the selbstgebastelter Korb (homemade basket) as best as they good.

Within just a few minutes, they reach a height of 2000 meters (about 6500 ft)! But that was all according to plan. At that height, the Windgeschwindigkeit (wind speed) was, as expected, 50 km/h (30 mph). But not everything went smoothly. Because of a sowing mistake, there was a hole at the top of the balloon. And because of that, they had to use the heater continuously, making them visible as a little light in the sky.

Furthermore, the Grenze (f, border) was not illuminated in any way, as they had hoped. So they lost their orientation fairly quickly. But everybody remained calm.

Then suddenly, a light went up in their direction. It didn’t reach them, as they were so high, but it did scare the passengers. As it later turned out, it was a searchlight of an East German Grenzposten (m, border post) that noticed the little light in the sky.

After a few more minutes in the freezing temperatures, the flame suddenly went out. No matter what they tried, it did not turn on anymore. Slowly, the balloon started its descent. The gas was empty. It felt like an eternity in the dark silence of the night. Then, suddenly, there were Baumwipfel (m, tree tops), and the Heißluftballon crashed.

Without a clue where they were, the two fathers scouted the area. They noticed western equipment at a farm nearby, and so they believed they made it to the West. When two police officers appeared, they knew for sure that they had reached West Germany. It was the beginning of a new life.

Günther Wetzel, one of the builders, created a website where he details the planning, escape and aftermath of their Flucht. It is quite informative, I can highly recommend it!

If you’d rather watch the story than read it, you can. There are two movies made about this particular attempt, a Hollywood movie from 1983, which is not very accurate, and an allegedly much better German version from 2018.

A balloon is dangerous.

balloon hot air escape GDR east west germany

Photo by Ethan Air on Unsplash

It wouldn’t be the last attempt to use a Heißluftballon to escape the DDR (GDR). In March 1989, just a few months before the Mauerfall (fall of the Berlin wall), Winfried Freudenberg attempts the escape with his balloon. However, the police gets wind of their idea, and rushes to stop them. When Winfried and his wife hear the sirens, he decides to jump in to go. She doesn’t want to join. He leaves anyway. But because her weight is missing, the balloon travels far too high. For 5 hours, Winfried circles over Berlin at a height of 3000 m (9000 ft). When he tries to cut a hole in the balloon to go down, he may have slipped and fell to his death. It illustrates again the kind of risk that people took in their attempts to escape to the West. And that a balloon is a really dangerous way to do it.

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About the Author: Sten

Hi! I am Sten, both Dutch and German. For many years, I've written for the German and the Dutch blogs with a passion for everything related to language and culture. It's fascinating to reflect on my own culture, and in the process allow our readers to learn more about it! Besides blogging, I am a German-Dutch-English translator, animator and filmmaker.