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.
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.
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.
Well-Rehearsed Plan Goes Wrong
Barbara Galonska, sitting in row 2, worked as a clinical beautician at the Charité Hospital in Berlin, where she administered acne treatments and helped patients conceal scars with makeup. She would sometimes imagine the countries she would travel to if the Wall ever came down.
Constanze Schröder, in row 12, worked as a pediatric nurse in Dresden. She was forced to leave high school at the age of 16, when officials accused her of being insufficiently loyal to the communist system. Her father was a pastor, and although this was disadvantageous for her, she had no interest in leaving. Her husband, on the other hand, was eager to get out of East Germany, claiming that he would even swim across the Danube River to escape.
Ingrid Ruske, in row 6, wanted to escape to West Berlin to be with a man who loved her, had money and had a West German passport. His apartment was big enough for two people and Ruske's miniature poodle. But her petition to be allowed to leave the country was turned down.
She and her lover had planned her secret disappearance. A second man, Tiede, was supposed to help her. Ruske had had an affair with Tiede, and they had remained friends. Tiede, for his part, wanted to escape to the West because of a woman and because of his son.
They had rehearsed the plan many times. Tiede was to travel to Gdansk by train, and Ruske and her daughter would follow by air. Ruske's lover would obtain forged passports in the West and meet them at the train station in Gdansk, where they would all take the ferry to the Baltic Sea resort town of Travemünde in West Germany. The plan sounded simple enough, but the lover from the West -- and the passports -- never arrived in Gdansk.
The East German secret police, the Stasi, had been tipped off -- a friend had betrayed Ruske. The Stasi launched Operation "Ferry" to prevent the group from leaving the republic illegally. Customs officials searched Ruske's lover when the train he was taking to Gdansk crossed the Polish border, and they found the forged documents. He had hidden fake Polish customs stamps in the heels of his shoes.
Ruske became nervous when her lover failed to appear and didn't answer the phone in his Berlin apartment. Had their plan been uncovered? What did the Stasi know? They knew that they couldn't board the ferry to Travemünde without the forged passports, and they also couldn't return to East Berlin, where the Stasi was presumably waiting for them. Where else could they go? They needed an alternative plan, a way to escape to the West.
Ruske already had a return ticket to East Berlin for Aug. 30, and Tiede managed to get a seat on the same flight. He bought a Mondial starter pistol at a flea market. It was about 80 years old, and it made a loud noise when caps were fired. On the evening before the flight, Ruske knelt down in a pew in a church in Gdansk and prayed to God for support.
Gun against Her Head
On the flight the next day, at about 9:30 a.m., Tiede grabbed the female flight attendant by the hair and pressed the barrel of the pistol against her head. Shouting loudly, and speaking in German, Polish and English, he ordered the pilot to land the plane at Tempelhof Airport in West Berlin instead of in East Berlin. The captain, who could see Tiede through the cockpit door, shouted into his radio that a terrorist was on board and that he didn't want to jeopardize the life of the flight attendant. No one noticed that the gun Tiede was waving around was just an ancient starter pistol.
The Tupolev landed at Tempelhof at 10:04 a.m. Tiede, Ruske and her daughter had reached their intended destination. They and 47 other East German citizens had landed on West German soil.
The incident was a source of great embarrassment for the Stasi, which spent the next few hours asking itself how on earth someone who was being shadowed could hijack an aircraft. Where were the people from Polish intelligence? Couldn't the crew have overpowered the hijacker? It wasn't until days later that Department X at the Ministry for State Security, as the Stasi was officially known, discovered that the Poles had terminated their observation as soon as Ruske and Tiede were on the plane. They hadn't expected a hijacking.
After the plane landed, Tiede tossed the pistol out of the aircraft door. American soldiers greeted him with the words: "Welcome to free West Berlin." For them, he was a hero. He shouted into the cabin that anyone who wanted to get off could leave. Then he left the plane, together with Ruske and her daughter. An East German woman sitting in row 15, a radiology assistant from Erfurt, quickly made up her mind and went after them.
A Choice between West and East
Some 46 East German citizens stayed behind. In row 12, Schröder's husband whispered that they should get off the plane. He would no longer have to swim across rivers to reach the West. All he had to do was walk through a door.
His wife hesitated. She thought to herself: If I get off now, I'll never see my parents again. She wanted to divorce her husband. Would she still have the courage to do so in the West, where she knew no one? What would she do there? But, then again, she thought: Isn't all of this just a big test, the opportunity of a lifetime? She reflected for a few minutes. Then she jumped up and hurried to the exit with her husband and the children.
Galonska remained seated, just like the other passengers. Later on, the American soldiers took them to a waiting hall in the airport building. Any of them could stay in the West, the Americans said, and the West German police officers and the diplomats said the same thing. For them, the hijacking served as proof that no one liked living in a socialist country. Besides, it was the perfect opportunity to provoke their eastern enemy. Back then, the Americans were convinced that someone who was given a choice between the West and the East, between freedom and captivity, wouldn't have to spend much time thinking about it.
A US officer announced that those who wanted to return home would be taken to East Berlin on a bus. The passengers didn't have much time left. In less than an afternoon, they were being asked to leave everything behind: parents, grandparents, siblings and friends. A decision they would make in only a few hours could mean rejecting an entire life.
Fate had provided her with a challenge, Galonska thought. She went to the ladies' room with her son, placed him on the toilet seat and kneeled in front of him.
We're going to stay here, she said, and soon we'll be able to fly wherever we want to go.
Her son Sasha was nine. He liked airplanes, and he very much liked traveling with his mother. But he also liked their apartment in Berlin's Prenzlauer Berg neighborhood. He was looking forward to going home, to his room, his books, his toys and his grandparents. He was also excited to see his friends in the building, twin children who were his age and in whose apartment he often spent the night.
Sasha said he wanted to go home.
His mother tried to persuade him, and she even slapped him. He became defiant, defensive and whiny. His mother wanted to leave their home, but he wanted to stay. She had the power, and she could decide that he would go with her. She didn't need to ask him, a nine-year-old boy, what he wanted to do, and she certainly didn't need to do what he demanded.
Six days after the hijacking, Galonska, still a citizen of East Germany and still yearning to leave the country, was interrogated by officials in the investigation division at the Ministry for State Security. What happened while the aircraft was at Tempelhof Airport? What happened during her stay in West Berlin? She answered their questions for six hours and 15 minutes, and told them about the hijacker, the family that got off and didn't come back, and how they were questioned by Western officials inside the airport. She said nothing about her longing, her wanderlust and her doubts.
Of all the East German citizens on board that Tupolev, nine remained in the West: Ingrid Ruske, her daughter and Detlev Tiede; Constanze Schröder, her husband and their two children; and a couple from Leipzig. Nine people out of 50. The radiology assistant from Erfurt was standing in front of East German border guards at the Berlin-Friedrichstrasse border crossing the next day, waiting to cross back to the east.
Regrets about Moving to the West
Some 32 years later, Ruske, who now uses her married name Maron, is sitting in a pub in the western part of Berlin. After the hijacking, she was charged with disrupting air traffic, but then the charges were dropped. Her lover, who had been captured by the Stasi, was sentenced to eight years in an East German prison for engaging in organized crime and for forgery of personal and border crossing documents. It wasn't until years later that he decided to marry Ruske. They separated after 11 years, and he died in 2006.
Today Ruske says: "I had no expectations of the West, and it didn't even live up to those." She had had a happier life in East Berlin. Once she was in West Berlin, she trained to become a practitioner of alternative medicine and now provides acupuncture massage and hypnosis in her West Berlin apartment.
Waiting for Her Divorce
When Tiede was released from prison after a few months, he refused to talk about the hijacking unless he was paid to do so. His account eventually led to two novels, a film and a play about Aug. 30 and the period after that. Tiede has made a living from his story, which is the subject of a TV movie to be broadcast on the German broadcaster RTL this year.
Schröder and her husband and children were initially placed in the Marienfelde transit camp for refugees from East Germany. Two days after the hijacking, the Stasi launched Operation "Return." The state reached out to the Schröder family and the couple from Leipzig in a bid to get them to return to their socialist home. The Stasi wanted to know why the two families had fled the system. The East Germans even sent Schröder's father to convince his daughter to return -- but his efforts were in vain.
Constanze Schröder moved to the southwestern city of Mannheim. Her marriage lasted longer than expected. She felt dependent on her husband, she says today, and insists that she would have quickly obtained a divorce if she had stayed in Dresden. She finally filed her divorce papers 11 years ago. Her ex-husband lives on the same street as her in Mannheim. Sometimes, she says, she sees him driving past her living-room window.
For a long time, Galonska thought that her son had forgotten the hijacking. In the late 1980s, the authorities allowed her to visit an uncle in Hamburg, and when she returned home after a week, her son was astonished to see her. "Mommy, you're back?" he asked. He was surprised that his mother hadn't taken advantage of her second opportunity to flee.
After German reunification, she found a job with the agency responsible for maintaining and processing the mountains of files left behind by the Stasi, where she looked into teachers' past connections to the secret police. She began to satisfy her wanderlust, traveling to Florence and Rome, Mexico, Andalusia, Thailand, Cuba, Bali, Ecuador and Indonesia. Today her partner is a musician from Ghana. Galonska is finally leading the global lifestyle she had always dreamed about in East Germany.
Galonska also examined her own Stasi file, which the secret police had opened because of her contacts to artists. The file ended on Aug. 30, 1978, the day of the hijacking. The state no longer felt that it was necessary to observe her.