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Last Updated: Friday, 3 August 2007, 00:12 GMT 01:12 UK
Colditz seeks to tempt tourists
By Steve Rosenberg
BBC Berlin correspondent

Alfred Heinrich during war and today
Mr Heinrich is one of the few former Colditz guards still alive

Sitting on the sofa in his tiny apartment, 86-year-old Alfred Heinrich shows me his wartime snaps: old portraits of himself as a dashing young soldier in the Wehrmacht.

Mr Heinrich was lucky to survive World War II. He lost an eye and received a serious leg wound on the Russian Front.

His combat days over, in 1942 Mr Heinrich began work as a guard at a prisoner-of-war camp for captured Allied officers. The camp was called 'Oflag 4C' - it is better known as Colditz.

"At Colditz it was always like cat and mouse," recalled Mr Heinrich, who is one of the few Colditz guards still alive.

He went on: "Prisoners kept escaping and we had to keep catching them. I remember one day I heard a kind of knocking noise. It was coming from a manhole. Together with my superior, we lifted up the manhole cover and there in the sewers were two English prisoners who'd been trying to escape!"

Colditz Castle
Colditz, in the heart of Hitler's Reich, became the stuff of legend
It is a 10-minute drive from Alfred's flat to Colditz Castle - once home to the Nazis' most secure PoW camp. Colditz was supposed to have been escape-proof.

But Allied officers made hundreds of attempts to break out. Some went through tunnels while others escaped by dressing up as women or as German officers. Most attempts failed, but 32 POWs got out and made it home.

Castle makeover

Colditz became a legend in Britain. Few Germans, though, have ever heard of the place. During the Cold War, this town was part of communist East Germany and the castle's wartime past was papered over.

"We knew about the concentration camps where people were killed," explained Renate Lippmann from the castle museum.

I believe that we should keep all the shafts and tunnels from the war
Renate Lippmann, Colditz Castle Museum

She added: "But I myself never knew there were prisoner-of-war (POW) camps where prisoners were treated fairly well, according to the Geneva Convention."

Today, though, Colditz Castle is trying to get itself noticed. With tourism the priority, it is encouraging more Germans - as well as holidaymakers from abroad - to escape to Colditz.

To bring in the tourists, the castle is carrying out a serious spring clean. Grey prison walls have been painted white, while solitary confinement cells have been turned into offices and toilets.

As for the camp commandant's quarters, they have now been transformed into an international youth hostel, with special family rooms. Amazing as it may seem, Colditz Castle is now being marketed as a holiday destination.

Critics believe the face-lift is going too far.

The transformation of Colditz has sparked controversy

"We estimate that in three years, everything from the Colditz prison camp time will be gone through the restoration," claimed Ralf Gorny, local hotel owner and member of the Colditz Appreciation Society.

He added: "The state of Saxony would like to create a fairy tale castle. But most of the overseas guests want to see the Colditz Camp time - the tunnels, the solitary cells. Colditz doesn't need a fairy tale castle."

Colditz, though, does not only want to be remembered as a prison. It has a colourful 500-year history. During that time it has been a poor house, a hospital, a mental institution - and, in the 17th Century, the hunting lodge of Augustus the Strong, Elector of Saxony - a man so virile, he is said to have had 365 children.

Ms Lippmann confirmed that the renovations would reflect all periods of the castle's history. But she is confident that the owner, the state of Saxony, will preserve the main features of the prison camp.

'Too sanitised'

"I believe that we should keep all the shafts and tunnels from the war. We have told the owner to do it and the owner has now understood," she said.

At the end of my visit, I enjoy a piano recital in the castle's concert hall - once the POWs' sick bay. As the Beethoven sonata echoes around the thick stone walls, the evening sunshine streams through the leaded windows, bathing the pianist and audience in red and gold.

This may not be the Colditz we remember from the stories, books and war films. It may at times seem a little too bright, too sanitised, too shiny.

But for the town of Colditz it must surely be good that life is finally returning to their castle, which for so many years sat abandoned and forgotten.

Frenchman who beat Colditz dies
07 Jun 07 |  Europe
Escape to Colditz
08 Aug 03 |  Magazine

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