Trapped in Leipzig, Escape to Colditz.

Trip Start Aug 18, 2006
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Trip End Ongoing


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Where I stayed
Colditz campsite

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Tuesday, September 12, 2006

Leipzig has much to recommend it, parks, a river, a canal. It is the spiritual home of Bach (he was Cantor at St. Thomas´s school in Leipzig) as well as Goethe (although most towns in East Germany seem to lay claim to Goethe and Bach) and Schiller. However, I arrived on a Sunday afternoon. By the time I had my bearings and a bed in a hostel it was too late to join the masses sunning themselves in the park (the only feasible recreation on a Sunday afternoon). I had a wander round the town centre, but Leipzig is not really a city of impressive architecture- odd buildings here and there, but not ganging up to overwhelm you like in Brussels, or, in a smaller way, Weimar and Maastricht. There were blue pipes running above ground all over the city centre, I think carrying drinking water. [Why they chose to have them above ground was nowhere made clear. A good photo of them can be found here http://ozlabs.org/~dgibson/gallery/Leipzig/20060513_170155 - I take the random scolding to heart too- though even google just gives a load of other blog sites with people asking why the bloody hell Leipzig is inside out.] There didn´t seem to be much nightlife, so I passed some time in an internet cafe before heading for bed.

The next day I left early and managed to navigate away from Leipzig in one attempt- maybe I´m getting the hang of this map-reading thing. I was quite excited about my destination for the day - Colditz! I arrived around 2pm, and to begin with was quite disappointed, as I was expecting a big open piece of land with huts and barbed wire surrounds and guard towers. It was only when I went to the Castle as a backup plan that I realised I was confusing ´Escape From Colditz´ with ´The Great Escape´, and the Castle was the prison.

Colditz is still in the early stages of being a tourist attraction, and is undergoing some extensive renovation to turn part of it into a hotel and youth hostel. This meant that some of the classic photos weren´t worth taking due to scaffolding, and that taking the guided tour really helped bring the place to life. It is, after all, the stories that make the place so interesting. To look at, its just a German Schloß, picturesque, light and functional.

For those who don´t already know...
Colditz was where the Germans sent the ´bad boys´ of the allied prisoners of war. Those who persistently escaped from other prisons. They thought it much better to have them all in one, top security prison. This of course meant that they brought all the most ingenious, skilled and determined escape artists to one place, where together they organised some of the most daring and incredible escape attempts of the war. The british even had an ´escape committee´ to whom ideas had to be submitted and approved before they could go ahead. The stories include physical feats, such as the Canadian olympic gymnast, who had a 30second window of opportunity to vault a wall, drop two stories, vault a barbed wire fence, slide down an almost verticle bank for 30 feet and scamper out of sight. He was recaptured before long, tracked with dogs. Think of his life story though- in 1936 he represents Canada in the Olympics, six years later he´s leaping over barbed wire and running from dogs. Crazy times.

At the other extreme, there were the hightly organised, long-term Shawshank redemption-stylie attempts. The French spent 8months digging a tunnel. (several of the ´bad boys´ were mining engineers- their professional expertise, rather than derring-do, making them skilled at escaping) The Germans knew they were digging a tunnel, they could hear the noise and at one point rubble hidden under floorboards caused a roof to collapse, but they couldn´t find it. Even when they knew for certain that the entrance was in the wine-cellar (where else would the French start) it took them four days of tapping every stone to find the entrance, so well was it disguised. Similarly some Brits (I think) spent months building a glider in an attic space, working four hours a night, which they planned to catapult accross the river Mulde to freedom, using a 2 tonne weight and a sloping roof as a runway. They never went ahead with this plan, as they had a secret radio, through which they learned that the allies were nearly there, so the escape committee rejected any risky escape attempts. (in the 1990s the BBC simulated the attempt to see if it would have worked, apparently the bodged glider flew perfectly.) The secret radio, incidentally, was discovered in 1993. There were also staggeringly simple ideas, like dressing up as a woman, or a guard, and just wandering out.

There seemed to be no ´allied´ escape attempts, as if it were really just a competition between the countries. It appears that escaping became a way of life and a means to pass the time. Colditz, because it was top-security and therefore home for ´Very Important Prisoners´ (those of high rank or who might be exchangable for German POWs- apparently Churchill´s nephew was held there) was run according to the Geneva convention. The only punishment for attempting to escape was solitary confinement, and there were so many attempts the cooler had a waiting list. The French made 24 escape attempts, with 12 ´home runs´ (successes). The Brits made 170 attempts. 11 home runs. Still, its all about the pluck, eh? The guide kept emphasising that Colditz was run according to the Geneva convention, saying ´it was a nice place´. You knew what she meant, and why she said it, but it was a funny thing to say of a prison.

Met some British bikers at Colditz campsite, so spent the evening smiling and nodding to the tune of international bike rallies and the relative merits of every bike they ever owned.
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