Monday, November 16, 2009

Escape of the Century: Night Crossing to Freedom

Although they had no experience with hot air balloons, Peter Strelzyk and Gunter Wetzel tossed around the idea of building one to escape from East Germany. Peter was an electrical technician and both loved to tinker. They headed to their village's one library and bookstore and began to dig for information.

Last Monday, November 9, 2009, was the 20th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall. In honor of the event, we've had a look at various methods of escape used to get from East to West Germany. People escaped through the border, under the border and even over the border as did our heroes, the Wetzel and Strelzyk families.

The two men and their wives worked 18 months on a balloon, scouring stores across East Germany for taffeta, nylon thread and lining fabric. They worked at night and in utmost secrecy. A sizable balloon would be needed to transport the eight of them - the two couples and their four children - across the border.

The taffeta panels which made up the balloon were stitched on this machine. The final product was the height of an 8-story building. Just imagine the spools of thread and bobbin-winding that would require.

Strelzyk, the architect of the project, designed the ignition system and used 4 propane bottles for fuel. That eight people crowded onto this small platform, contained only by ropes, and sailed high overhead makes my tummy do flip-flops. Amazing what folks will do in order to be free.

And so it was, in the pre-dawn hours of a September morn, 1979, the two families boarded their vehicle. They were aloft just 30 minutes but that was long enough to sail from East Germany to the west, floating high above the vicious attach dogs and ditches, above the land mines and self-triggering shrapnel guns, above guard towers and search lights. After landing and confirming that they really had made it to the west, the two families opened the bottle of champaign they had brought along.

Getting to West Germany was not the end of problems for these folks. The story of their dramatic escape garnered such international attention that the East German government was determined to make an example of them. They received hate mail and kidnapping threats. Peter Strelzyk's electrical shop was bombed. They were constantly on the run and moved 13 times during their ten years in the west. Finally, after the wall came down and Germany was unified, the families returned home to East Germany and were able to live in peace.

Their story of escape is recounted in Night Crossing (1981) , starring Beau Bridges. This write up in Popular Mechanics is fascinating (pg 100). Their flight to freedom has been called the escape of the century.


Jessica said...

Hi, Eileen:

I don't know if you already saw this, but in case you hadn't I wanted to let you know that your blog was listed as one of the best expat blogs in this BootsnAll article:

Keep up the good work. :)


Jon D. Ayres said...

Very nice blog you have, and very interesting, I have enjoyed reading all your articles and will add your blog to my blog list on my blog:

Eileen said...

Hello Jessica, That BootsnAll site is quite impressive and I must say I was surprised and delighted to see my blog included as an outstanding blog. Are you the whiz behind the BootsnAll site? Well, keep up the good work, yourself!

Thanks Jon, for stopping by and thank you for the link. Are you in Russia?

Anonymous said...

If anyone is interested in reading the "true" story of what happened and who actually built and designed the various components of the ballon, please visit the website link below. I came across this and is told by Gunter: