… or Colditz castle, in the English-speaking world.
We are camped in our large, crowded, unappealing campsite about 30kms away from the notorious Colditz castle, which I’m sure was equally crowded and unappealing to its former inmates. It was used in WW II by the Nazis as a high security prison camp for Allied officers [officers only] who had escaped from other camps. In effect, the Nazis had put all their bad apples in one basket. As such it was the scene of many ingenious escape attempts, some of which were successful. Naturally, being so close, we were keen to see this iconic piece of history for ourselves.
Our German friends, H&G, raised their eyebrows a little, apparently not understanding our interest. It seems that they, I think in common with most Germans, know nothing of the castle’s story. Nonetheless, they offered to drive us to see it first hand.
The castle stands, as would be expected where castles are concerned, towering above the town of Colditz itself. There are understated road signs indicating the way to the castle, once you get within striking distance, but it is certainly downplayed; there are no advertising hoardings or any such promotional material on the outer roads. The approach to the castle itself is through a maze of residential streets and little is provided in the way of parking for visitors. H found a parking place by the roadside easily and we tipped out to walk the last hundred metres or so. This provided, I think, the most impressive view of the building.
There is little in the way of signage even in the entrance courtyard, save for a sign to a youth hostel which is now located in the buildings. [There’s an irony here: incarcerate the youths in a prisoner of war camp. Excellent – I could suggest a few inmates of my own.]
Turning a corner and passing through a gateway, we learned of a piece of Colditz Castle’s history that was unknown to us as well as to H&G. Obsessed with human perfection, up to 1938, the Nazis had incarcerated some 84 “sub-standard” people and systematically sedated them and reduced their diet such that they eventually died either of starvation or of vitamin deficiencies. We came across a cellar set up as a memorial to those who died there. Two rooms artfully crafted mattresses cast out of cement. I didn’t count them all but I’m guessing that there are 84 such rolls in total.
Back outside we found the entrance to museum to the prisoner of war history. For a modest 4€ each (3€ for H ‘cos he has a disability card), we gained access to a series of rooms detailing some of the more famous officer inmates and their escape attempts. In addition to the usual explanatory boards, cabinets showed items demonstrating the ingenuity and skills of the officers: handmade tools; a wooden sewing machine; buttons and insignia cast from compressed foil in plaster moulds; uniforms fashioned from bedding and dyed. There is also a reconstruction of the glider that the inmates were famously building in an attic but you only see this on one of the guided tours.
Our most famous Colditz inmate was probably Airey Neave who made the first successful British “ home run” in the company of a Dutch officer. It’s a sad irony that, having survived the Nazi regime, Airey Neave was eventually assassinated by the IRA. The French record at Colditz was particularly good with their 12 successful escape attempts (those which made it outside the castle) resulting in a 100% record of “home runs”. Bien fait!
Perhaps surprisingly, only one war prisoner was killed at Colditz, during an escape attempt; a much better record than those 84 poor souls who had been were completely unknow to us before our visit.