Once is enough, twice is too much, and the third time? Maybe this is the charm that you might be looking for if you’re escaping a Nazi regime.
This is what happened in the case of the joint forces of the two families who did not give up until they got their freedom when they crossed the Berlin Wall even after two failed attempts.
For Peter Strelzyk and Gunter Wetzel, the time, effort, and dangers they had to face were all worth it if it meant the freedom of their families. So in 1979, they made their attempts to leave East Germany.
After World War II ended, Germany was divided into two completely different sides: West Germany, which flourished and became modernized with the help of the United States and Britain, and East Germany, which was under the control of the Soviet Union and stumbled down.
Life was harsh in East Germany. That was why it was no surprise that some 3.6 million people left the Soviet sector of Germany and Berlin between 1945 and 1961. The Soviet Union was becoming increasingly alarmed by the number of people fleeing the German Democratic Republic (GDR). So in August 1961, Premier Nikita Khrushchev decided that the best way to stop the people from leaving was to build a wall and close the border of the East German government for good.
He ordered the construction of what would be famously called the Berlin Wall. The dividing wall was completed in as quickly as two weeks, reminding East Germans that they were not allowed to leave.
But the thing about the mighty Berlin Wall was that it wasn’t that mighty at all. Some of its spots were barbed wires that should be easy to breach if not for the machine guns and landmines arranged to set off if anyone attempted to climb over. But even with the heavy military on the posts, this did not stop families from fleeing the region.
From 1961 to 1988, 40,000 of the 150,000 East Germans who attempted to cross the border succeeded. There were quite different ways on how the people did it, like the Bethke brothers, who escaped one by one using a mattress, a zip tie, and planes. Eight of the others who succeeded used hot air balloons, which would also be the choice of the two families desperate to escape communism.
The Escape Plan
Of all the escapees, 600 of them died, either after being shot by the border guards or while trying to escape— drowning, accidents, or committing suicide once caught. Peter Strelzy and Gunter Wetzel were both aware of that, so they knew that it wasn’t just a matter of trial and error once they attempted to flee.
The two fathers met in 1974 while working at a local plastics factory. The two became friends as they were both growing concerned with the politics and overall situation in East Germany. As for Wetzel,
The private part of life in the GDR, my family and I enjoyed… It more was the public life. We couldn’t express our opinions.
For Strelyzk, he didn’t like the political system and its hypocrisy,
You are subjected to constant propaganda and lying. You are not free to read what you please, to say what you think, or to travel anywhere except to other communist countries.
And so the two decided they would get out of East Germany, and they began to work together to devise a plan to escape with their families. The idea was to create a hot air balloon to transport all eight of them.
Try and Try…
They spent the next 18 months working on building their giant hot air balloon’s platforms, gas burners, and a makeshift flame thrower. On the other hand, their wives helped each other sew the balloon made from curtains, bed sheets, shower lines, and other fabrics they could find.
On their first test flight on April 28, 1978, they learned that the fabric they used for their balloon was too porous and let the hot air escape that it didn’t even lift off the ground.
Of course, this did not discourage the Wetzel and Strelzyk families, and they immediately went back to the drawing board to identify and correct their mistakes. They were not sure which was the suitable material that would not let the hot air escape. After a series of experiments, they decided to use some 900 square meters of taffeta that they purchased in a store in Leipzig, telling the shopkeeper that they were engineers making sails for a boating club.
They were ready for their second and hopefully the last attempt in July 1979. The two families hopped in the new hot air balloon, and everything went according to plan. They were drifting toward West Germany until their hot air balloon went through a cloud, and the moisture weighed down the fabric, causing them to descend and land about 590 feet away from the West side of Germany. They quickly abandoned their balloon and escaped, knowing that the border police were just close by.
Their hot air balloon was quickly discovered, and an intense search was conducted to find out who was trying to flee. Fortunately for the Strelzyks or the Wetzels, they were never realized. Nevertheless, local newspapers appealed to anyone who could provide information about who was responsible for the escape attempt.
As for the families behind the attempt, they had to create another hot air balloon from the beginning and did it fast. F finally, on September 15, with an untested balloon ready, the Strelzyk and Wetzel family decided that they would make a go for the third time.
…Until You Succeed
At 2:26 am on September 16, 1979, they drove their cars to the border and lifted off with everyone. Just a few minutes from their flight, the border police were alerted about an unidentified flying object. They started searching with their searchlights but could not see anything.
Meanwhile, the Wetzels and Sterlyzks landed some 15 miles away in a farmer’s field after descending from their 2000 meters altitude. This was the tale of two families who took the risk and succeeded in fleeing to freedom.