Hijacked to Capitalism Unwitting East German Defectors Revisit Decision to Stay or Go

A group of East Germans were presented with a unique dilemma when the plane they were on got hijacked to West Berlin in 1978: Should they defect to the West or return home? More than three decades later, three of the people who were on the flight review their decisions on that fateful day.

Barbara Galonska is a former citizen of East Germany who was on a plane that got hijacked to West Berlin in 1978. She decided to return home rather than defect.
Carsten Koall

Barbara Galonska is a former citizen of East Germany who was on a plane that got hijacked to West Berlin in 1978. She decided to return home rather than defect.

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Barbara Galonska doesn't like to talk about the day when she wanted to leave communist East Germany but ended up staying. She is sitting at her dining table and looking out the window of her apartment in Berlin. The story begins somewhere out there, up in the sky. She could have disappeared from her country as quietly as someone slipping out of a movie theater to avoid having to watch a bad film.

It's been 32 years, and yet she still has to explain herself, as a woman who decided not to flee. Why didn't she leave when she could? Why did she let her son, who was only nine at the time, make the decision for her?

The day that still weighs heavily on her mind today was Aug. 30, 1978. That morning, a Tupolev with 50 East German citizens on board took off from Gdansk in Poland and later made an unscheduled landing in West Berlin. That's where the questions began for Galonska and the others. Should they have abandoned everything they held dear, just to live more freely? How quickly can someone make a decision like that? And how easy is it for someone to step out of his or her life?

On that Aug. 30, it didn't take Galonska long to decide what she wanted. The same was true for Ingrid Ruske, a barmaid from East Berlin. Others, like Constanze Schröder, a hospital employee from Dresden, had to give it some thought first.

Fateful Coincidence

In August 1978, none of the women had any idea that the Berlin Wall would come down 11 years later, bringing down their government along with it. None of them believed in the possibility of being allowed to travel freely in the future. There were people who spent months and even years planning their escape from East Germany, people who would never have dreamed of being deposited in the West through a combination of coincidence, fate and luck, the way Barbara Galonska, Ingrid Ruske and Constanze Schröder were. They were three citizens of the German Democratic Republic -- as East Germany was officially called -- who, by coincidence, were sitting in the same aircraft, which was supposed to land in East Berlin.

Barbara Galonska was a petite and sensitive woman, and an art lover. She had flown with her nine-year-old son to Gdansk on the Baltic Sea to enjoy the summer. She was separated from her husband, an actor, and her son was her ally and confidant. They stayed in Gdansk for two weeks, and their return flight, LO 165, was scheduled to depart for Berlin's Schönefeld Airport at 8:40 a.m. on Aug. 30.

Constanze Schröder, as a mother of two children, housewife and nurse, could hardly find a quiet moment for herself, and she was constantly on the move. She had been married for three years, but there was little left to hold the marriage together. It was only because her husband wanted to show his son and daughter to friends in Gdansk that they took one last trip together, driving from Dresden to Gdansk in their Trabant, the ubiquitous East German car. Shortly before reaching their destination, the car went off the road, turned over and crashed. It was totaled. They decided to take a flight back to Berlin.

Ingrid Ruske, a confident woman with short, blonde curls, earned a living as a waitress. She was waiting for her boyfriend in Gdansk, but he never showed up. She reached the airport just in time, traveling with her daughter and a friend from East Berlin. At the security checkpoint, a customs official found a pistol in the young daughter's coat, but she assumed it was a toy and returned it to the girl. Ruske tried to hide her nervousness.

Misplaced Trust

The 393-kilometer (244-mile) flight from Gdansk to Berlin-Schönefeld took an hour and a quarter. Galonska sat across from her son, at a table for four, in row 2 on the right side of the plane. The Schröders, with their two children, sat in rows 12 and 13, also on the right side of the plane. Ruske and her daughter sat in row 6, on the left side of the aisle.

The plane flew across the Oder River, entering East German air space. It was beginning to descend when a man in row 6, on the right side of the plane, stood up and went to the front. His name was Detlev Tiede, and he was an acquaintance of Ruske's from East Berlin.

The Tupolev Tu-134 has room for 72 passengers, who can hear the two Soloviev engines quite clearly during a flight. It is almost impossible to understand what someone a few rows farther up is saying, even if he shouts. The flight was not completely sold out on that day. There were 50 East German citizens on board, 10 Poles, a man from Munich and a woman from West Berlin. The crew consisted of the captain, the co-pilot, an engineer, a female flight attendant, two male flight attendants and a navigator who sat in a glass "nose" at the front of the aircraft. Even though Palestinian terrorists had hijacked a Lufthansa flight, the "Landshut," only 11 months earlier and half the world was now terrified of hijackers, the cockpit door was open. The Polish airline LOT trusted its passengers.

Tiede walked down the center aisle. When he passed Galonska, she saw that he was pressing his hands against his stomach, which led her to believe that he wasn't feeling well and was headed for the toilet.

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