Flight for Freedom: The Wetzel Family's Daring Escape from East Germany; Kristen Fulton, illustrated by Torben Khulmann
For thirty-four years, Günter Wetzel kept the story of the brave escape that he, his family and the Strelzyk family made from East Germany to West Germany in 1979 away from the world. He feared for the friends he had left behind in the East and didn’t want to draw global attention to his children. Finally, he felt the time was right to share his story and after he was approached by Kristen Fulton the two set to work on retelling one of the most remarkable escapes during the Cold War.
Germany was once divided by a huge wall that stretched over nine hundred miles. It was built of concrete and steel and was heavily guarded, it was impenetrable and there was no way anyone was crossing it. On the West side there was choice. Happy jeans-wearing children watched cartoons whilst eating pizza. On the East side there were no such luxuries. ‘Children watched the news, wore scratchy uniforms and waited in long lines for a banana once a year.’ Two such families to find themselves on the wrong side of the wall were the Wetzels and the Strelzyks.
Desperate for a better life for their families and to provide greater opportunities for their children the adults began to dream up an escape plan. Do they tunnel their way out? Do they take on the challenge of the Baltic Sea. Or is there a more ingenious way to cross the wall? After coming up with the perfect plan, the families set about acquiring what they would need. But they would have to be careful, ‘the government noticed everything’. Months passed until finally in the early hours of September 16th, 1979, the families were ready to leave. Everything was in place and now was the time, but could they really fly their way to freedom…
I love true stories and this is one of the best. It is a powerful example of the human spirit and how two families were determined to not accept the situation they were in and proactively sought a solution to their problem. Ultimately, they escaped an oppressive regime so that they and their children could lead better lives.
Flight for Freedom has all the ingredients of a war-time thriller - meetings, secret plans and a brave bid for freedom. It is easy to get caught up in the excitement of the story but as a reader it is important to remember that these events were real and on the night of the escape those involved must have been feeling terrified. Should the plan fail and they were to be caught then they would face certain imprisonment and possibly worse. And when after only a few short minutes the balloon and its precious cargo ran out of fuel and hastily returned to Earth, crashing in a forest, they no doubt feared the worst. With no idea whether they had made it into West Germany or not the families looked around for clues as to their whereabouts. When they spotted a car that they had not seen before the answer was revealed to them and the sense of relief they must have felt is unimaginable. As a reader, I found myself letting out a huge sigh of relief - I was with the family every step of the way and desperately hoping that their bid for freedom had been a success.
The book is superbly illustrated by Torben Khulmann. Khulmann is one of my favourite illustrators (if you haven’t had the pleasure of reading any of his books then I strongly suggest you do - Lindbergh and Armstrong being two of my personal favourites). His illustrations in Flight to Freedom are rich and detailed and expertly convey a sense of place and time as well as capturing the drama and tension of the situation. Back matter includes detailed information on the designing of the balloon, history on various escape attempts and further information on the Cold War and the Berlin Wall. A map showing the route that ballon flew is delightfully presented on the inside of the front and back covers.
A wonderful historical retelling about two brave, resourceful and determined families who achieved the impossible when the odds were stacked firmly against them.
Recommended for 9+.