The tragic fate of Winfried Freudenberg

The tragic fate of Winfried Freudenberg
By Judith Prescott
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Winfried decided to risk everything to escape East Germany to West Berlin just months before the fall of the Berlin Wall. This is his tragic story


Today the remaining pieces of the Berlin Wall are mainly a tourist attraction, but 30 years ago a young couple risked everything to escape from East Germany to West Berlin.

Winfried is a young engineer, known as a risk-taker, an adventurous spirit. He comes up with the idea of fleeing to the West by building a hot air balloon. In March 1989, after months of preparation, Winfried and his wife Sabine are ready.

Outside their home in East Berlin, in the middle of the night, they start to fill the balloon with gas. But someone spots them and calls the police.

Caroline Labusch is the author of the book about the escape. She explains what happens next.

"The policemen see the balloon, which is already leaning towards the West and is ready to go. They can't see any people, but they suspect what is happening," she says. "They are armed but they do not dare use their guns, because there is a strong smell of gas. As they said later, they were afraid the whole house would explode."

Winfried and Sabine, faced with a balloon that is not completely full, have only seconds to make a decision.

"They have 30 seconds to decide what they want to do," says Caroline Labusch. "And they decide that he will go and she will stay behind. She hid in the bushes and saw him flying away."

With such a sudden departure, Winfried finds himself at the mercy of the wind. He has no control over the balloon and flies for five hours, sitting on a piece of cut-off broom handle attached to the balloon. He climbs up to 5,000 metres, where it is freezing cold, - minus 20 degrees. His flight ends in the west part of the city, Berlin Zehlendorf.

"He was chilled to the bone, and he must have been exhausted - psychologically as well as physically," says Caroline Labusch. "We tried to work out how this flight really unfolded and came to the conclusion that he probably just fell, his strength left him and he couldn't hold on anymore. And in the afternoon his body was found in one of the gardens bordering the lake."

Every bone in his body was broken - his dream of a new life in the West shattered.

But if everything had gone according to plan, what was the aim of Winfried's plan?"

"I think Winfried was hoping he could sell the story to the press as the romantic escape of a loving couple by hot air balloon," says Caroline Labusch.

The tragic story makes headlines in the West. In East Berlin, Winfried's wife Sabine is in jail being interrogated by the Stasi, the East German secret police. After several weeks they let her go.


Just a few months later, on the evening of November 9th, there's a miracle - the Berlin Wall falls. Thousands of East Germans gather at the Bornholmer Strasse border and cross the bridge.

Sabine is in shock and only manages weeks later to finally cross this now historic bridge.

She admits she was thinking about Winfried the whole time.

"This was what kept me from going over there. He died in March, and now it was only November," she explains. "And he was dead because the wall was closed, and I think he would still be alive if we had waited a few months. And that was so, so sad, so terribly incomprehensible to me. What if he were here and he could see this? And now he can't see it anymore and I'm left with my grief, only grief."

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