Lieber tot als eingesperrt!
Translated this means “I’d be rather dead than locked up”. This is what many people in communist East Germany chose to live by before the fall of the Berlin Wall. Thousands of people tried to flee from their own homes because the circumstances in which they found themselves were so bad they resembled prison. Even though some were successful with their escape plans, about 800 people died trying, 136 of them died right by the Berlin Wall.
However, not all the stories from those times ended in tragedy. The story of one family in particular stood out so much, that even Disney decided to turn it into a movie in 1981. They called it Mit dem Wind nach Westen (translation: With the Wind to the West). It tells the story of their spectacular escape from East Germany and just like Walt Disney likes it, it has a happy ending.
On September 16, 1979 two women, two men and four children crawled out of a metal basket into the unknown. They had been in the air for only 28 minutes, but to them it seemed like an eternity had passed by. The Strelzyk family had crash-landed deep into the woods of Germany and were not completely sure whether they had actually made it out of East Germany. The women and children quickly hid in the bushes, while Peter Strelzyk and his friend Gühnter took a signal flare and explored the surrounding area. They tell their family that if they see the flare it is safe to come out of hiding because they made it to West Germany. After a while, the two men ran into a police officer. When they asked them whether this was West Germany, the officer looked a little puzzled and just replied “Yes, where else… you are in Naila, Bavaria“. They instantly fired the signal flare and the whole family is so happy they break out dancing.
We know the story has a happy ending, but what is really remarkable is how they actually managed to build a hot-air balloon right under the noses of the feared East German Stasi.
The family always worked at night and sometimes during daylight hours. They constantly feared that at any moment the Stasi would knock on their doors, take their children away and punish them severely for their intentions to escape. Since they had already tried to escape with a hot-air balloon once and failed, it was only a matter of time till the police would track them down.
The Strelzyk family invested all their savings in better material and other stuff needed for the trip, and spent weeks sewing up a bigger and better hot-air balloon. This time they had help, the Wetzel family also had intentions to escape and joined them in their efforts.
At night, they spent almost two hours setting everything up for their escape. Everything was going according to plan, but they made one mistake that almost cost them their lives. They turned up the gas so high, that not only did it run out a lot faster than they had thought, but eventually burned a hole in their balloon at almost 7000 feet. The only reason they lived to tell the tale, is that the balloon they had sown together was so huge that it acted like a parachute. And so they crashed landed in the woods of Bavaria.
Today, they are taking BILD Magazine on the same 8 miles long trip they took 20 years ago in their hot-air balloon. A trip that earned them their freedom and even got them a spot in the movie theaters.