'Escape-proof' Colditz would like a new tenant

April 14, 1992|By Carl Schoettler | Carl Schoettler,Staff Writer

COLDITZ, Germany -- Colditz Castle squats on the second-highest hill here, dour and dumpy, a relic of a time when officers considered themselves gentlemen and war was conducted with at least a pretense of decency.

And for anyone with a romantic yearning to own a castle in some pleasant far-off land where the townsfolk below smile and nod and say, "Guten Tag," Colditz Castle may be just the place.

Schloss Colditz is not really for sale, everybody here is quick to say. The castle is, after all, one of Saxony's historic treasures. But someone could probably get a good deal on a very long lease. This town would love to have someone come here with a bundle of cash and a credible development plan.

Like all of the former East Germany, the town of Colditz has lots of economic problems. Unemployment is high, population falling. The porcelain factories that were the town's main industry are struggling. Recently, even the local brewery almost went bust.

Coldlitz's chief asset is quiet charm -- very quiet charm: The town virtually closes down at sunset -- along with a lovely location on the River Mulde, a genial population and the castle.

Some sort of stronghold has perched here for nearly a thousand years, most of the time as a "Residenz" of Saxon princes, notably August the Strong, an Elector of Saxony and later King of Poland.

"He was really very, very strong," says Annakathrina Gorodos, one of the two women who run the town's museum. "We are very proud of our August.

"He loved strong people. He loved wine. He loved hunting. And he loved women. And he was the father of 365 children." One for every day of the year, which is why he was called The Strong.

"That's what they say," Miss Gorodos explains. "He had a lot of mistresses. This is true. Officially, he had eight children."

But Colditz Castle is probably most famous as the World War II prisoner-of-war camp where the Germans jailed the most determined Allied escape artists. Almost all the POWs here had tried to escape from somewhere else -- some many times.

The Germans reserved the castle for officers and allowed them many of the privileges of rank. Following the military caste system, the enlisted men imprisoned here were almost all essentially servants for officers and the "Prominente," especially prized prisoners potentially valuable as hostages.

The Prominente included nephews of British wartime Prime Minister Winston Churchill; of Mary, the Queen Mother, and of King George VI; a cousin of Field Marshall Alexander; the commander-in-chief of the Polish Home Army; and the son of John Gilbert Winant, the U.S. ambassador to Great Britain.

The castle was supposed to be escape-proof. Anchored onto a white cliff, with 7-foot-thick walls, it rises sharply from the river bed some 250 feet below. Searchlights swept the castle. It was webbed with barbed wire, heavily guarded, crammed with alarm systems, and 300 miles from any area not controlled by the Nazis.

Still, for the inmates of the castle, escape became an obsession, an assertion of military honor and a display of gamesmanship; 600 escape attempts are recorded. The place is still riddled with the tunnels and other means the prisoners used to get out.

"I can think of no sport that is the peer of escape," wrote Captain Patrick R. Reid, a British prisoner who made it out. "Freedom, life and loved ones are the prize of victory and death the possible . . . price of failure."

About 30 prisoners actually made it to friendly territory -- scored "home runs," in the parlance of the time. Just one prisoner, it seems, was shot trying to escape. Colditz was staffed by aging and cautious soldiers of the Wehrmacht, the German regular army.

At least a dozen books have been written about the Castle, including Pat Reid's best-seller, "The Colditz Story." Mr. Reid's book was made into a 1954 movie.

The British love the old dump. They come trekking through here all the time. Colditz has resonance in Great Britain, an echo from their finest hour.

British interest in investing in the castle is very strong, according to the Finance Ministry of Saxony, the official owner of the castle.

About 20 inquiries from Great Britain have come to the ministry, a finance official says, several worthy of consideration.

The British contingent was probably the largest here until the very end of the war. But the French had a slightly better record at breaking out. Mr. Reid records 31 home runs: 12 French, 11 British, 6 Dutch, 1 Pole and 1 Belgian

Russian POWs, Hungarian Jews and other forced laborers brought to Colditz to work in an arms factory didn't live in the Schloss and weren't treated like officers and gentlemen.

They were in the hands of the deadly Nazi SS troops and held in a camp that was a branch of the infamous death camp Buchenwald. They were beaten for as little as talking out loud and shot for attempting to escape, or for no particular reason.

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