The punishment for trying to escape was either spending your life in the slammer or being executed. East German papers proudly ran stories of people executed for trying to escape as a warning to would-be runners. But that didn't stop the more than 5,000 people who successfully made a bid for freedom. The wall forced people to get creative in finding a way through, over, under, or around.
The Strelzyks built a hot air balloon out of scraps of cloth and a foot powered sewing machine. But things weren't all smooth sailing. The first attempt the balloon couldn't even get off the ground. On the second attempt the wind changed directions and took them deeper into East Berlin. But on September 16, 1979 the third time was the charm literally sailing them and another family over the wall into West Germany. Their story was made into a 1982 Disney filmed called Night Crossing.
Hot Air Balloon.
Escape by Window
In the early days of 1961, the wall was built up against an existing house or building. Many East Germans snuck past the police and made their way out second and third story windows that had not been boarded up (yet). Using an mattress or rope they climbed to freedom. Often a passing West Berliner would help them get down.
Sometimes the West Berlin firefighters would be waiting. Again the police put an end to this by boarding up all windows and eventually demolishing any building close enough to the wall to escape from. The government even went so far as to ban the sale of rope strong enough to hold the weight of a person! Of course, climbing from a window was dangerous work. You could be pulled back in or shot by the Vopos (border police) patrolling nearby. If the Vopos didn’t do you in the fall just might. This is what happened to Ida Siekmann who became the wall’s first casualty when she died from injuries after jumping from a third story window.
West German police try to help a woman escape while East German guards try to pull her back in.
Comrades in Costume
Our favorite escape story is about a group of young people who literally drove out to freedom. Their plan was to disguise themselves as soviet army personnel and simply drive through a checkpoint. After stealing a soviet-car and putting stolen military plates on it further added to the ruse by putting maps and other “official looking papers” on the dashboard. To make themselves look like Soviet officers they sewed cardboard stars onto their raincoats. When the three young men (with a women hidden under a blanket) drove up to the checkpoint they were waved through by the border guards, no questions asked!
One of the saddest escape attempts was that of Peter Fetcher. Fetcher and his friend Helmut Kulbeik were just two East German construction workers with a dream: to make it into West Berlin. In 1962, the wall had just been completed but there were plenty of holes in the security.
They decided to use an abandoned building near the American sector from which to make their dash to freedom. Racing through death strip and crawling under barbed wire they made it to the wall. Kulbeik made it over but Fetcher was slower and spotted by a guard who began shooting.
Fetcher continued to climb even as the bullets pierced his body. He reached the top but was too weak to make it over the barbed wire. He fell to the ground on the wrong side and bled to death as East German guards looked on as West Germans shouted and abused the guards for doing nothing.
The body of Peter Fetcher being carried away by a East German guard.