“Are we in the West here???” Peter Strelzyk and Günter Wetzel ask just this one question when they come across Bavarian border police near Naila early in the morning of September 16, 1979. And they let out cheers at the answer: “Yes, of course, where else?” The most perilous night of their lives – their escape from the GDR and a balloon ride to freedom – lies behind them at that moment.
Peter Strelzyk (born in 1942) and Günter Wetzel (born in 1955) had been planning their escape in detail, clandestinely getting ahold of literature on aerodynamics, for years in Pössneck in Thuringia. Strelzyk benefitted from his training as an aircraft mechanic and his job as an electrician. He worked tirelessly on building a burner system based on propane cylinders. In the meantime, Tuchmacherstrasse 22 in Pössneck lived up to its name: Professional bricklayer Wetzel painstakingly sewed several hundred square meters of fabric strips together at night – on an old mechanical sewing machine. He needed three attempts. The first balloon envelope proved to be sewn too loosely when tested in April of 1978. The Strelzyks attempted the flight alone with their three children on the eve of July 4, 1979. It failed again. The balloon got caught in fog and the envelope became soaked with water. The balloon sank and landed in woods right before the restricted border zone. The Strelzyks managed to return to Pössneck undetected. They had to abandon their balloon, though. When it was discovered, the police launched an intensive search – without success.
The Strelzyks and Wetzels ventured their third attempt. An even larger balloon envelope was made at night again. They purchased the fabric strips in different places all over the GDR to keep from attracting attention. Then it was ready on the eve of September 16, 1979. The glider weather forecast on Bayerischer Rundfunk promised ideal conditions with a steady north wind. The two families drove their cars toward the border on side roads. The four sons aged two, five, eleven and fifteen were with them. They began filling the twenty-six-meter-long balloon envelope with air fifteen kilometers southeast of Probstzella, right above the Saalfeld-Lobenstein railroad line. They all got onto the thin steel plate of the improvised gondola and the balloon lifted off at 2:26 a.m. They reached an altitude of over 2000 meters – in icy minus-eight-degree-air.
The police had been notified a few minutes after their launch. The night watchman at the county cultural center in Lobenstein had reported an unidentified flying object heading for the national border. Searchlights scanned the skies but did not reach the balloon. The balloon had left the territory of the GDR even before the border police could take action. With a great deal of luck, the escapees landed seven kilometers behind the border at the edge of the small town of Naila in Upper Franconia – just 300 meters away from a high-voltage line.
The daring escape was a huge sensation celebrated in the Western press for weeks. A book was written and Hollywood even filmed the story in “Night Crossing”. After retraining to become an auto mechanic, Günter Wetzel found a job at a car dealership in the Hof region. The Strelzyks opened an electronics store in Bad Kissingen. Even in the West, though, they were spied on and pressured by Stasi agents. They moved to Switzerland in 1985 and did not return to Germany until after the Peaceful Revolution of 1989-90.
The balloon envelope was spread out in Naila’s Frankenhalle and readied for the permanent exhibition in Regensburg in early August 2017. You will find more information on and pictures of the press conference among the press releases.
Roman Grafe: Die Grenze durch Deutschland. Eine Chronik von 1945 bis 1990, Munich 2008, p. 262 ff.
Jürgen Petschull: Mit dem Wind nach Westen. Die abenteuerliche Flucht von Deutschland nach Deutschland, filmed by Walt Disney Productions, Munich 1980