The SS left the castle early on May 4, 1945. The Schloss Itter, as it was known in German, now belonged to the prisoners. They broke into one of the rooms serving as the armory and retrieved rifles, pistols, and submachine guns. Despite the assurances of the former commandant – a sadistic Captain named Sebastian Wimmer – that he would do all in his power to see that they remained unharmed from the throngs of retreating German forces, none took any chances.

Even the arrival of the young SS officer who told them he had Wimmer’s orders to look after them brought little comfort. In the past weeks, they had seen several SS officers and their families stay at the castle before moving on. Each time it unnerved them. Such men were often bloodthirsty, and they killed at the drop of a hat. One German had even committed suicide just prior to Wimmer’s fleeing. Until all the Germans had left, inmates felt execution was always just an utterance away.

It is an understatement to say that these were no ordinary prisoners and their place of residence no ordinary prison. Some of these men once occupied the highest offices France. They included the former prime ministers, Edouard Daladier and Paul Reynaud; President Albert LeBrun; Generals Maxime Weygand and Maurice Gamelin; Ambassador to Germany and Italy Andre’ Francois-Poncet; tennis star Jean Borotra; anti-Communist organization leader Francois de La Rocque; Michael Clemenceau, son of World War I Premier Georges Clemenceau; trade union leader Leon Jouhaux; politician Alfred Cailiau; and Marcel Granger, relative of Free French General Henri Giraud.

Edouard Daladier (Courtesy
Edouard Daladier (Courtesy

Rounding out the men was Italian Prime Minister Francesco Nitti and a lone concentration camp inmate named Zoonimar ‘Andre’ Cuckovic, who remained at the facility to fix electrical wiring.

The women imprisoned were the wives of Weygand, Cailiau, and Borotra, along with the secretaries of Reynaud and Jouhaux.

They resided in the Schloss Itter, a fairy-tale looking castle meant to house prisoners of importance and located in Austria’s Brixental valley. Connected by a bridge to a mountain road, it sat beside a ravine, while the village of Itter unfurled out before it to the east. First mentioned in historical records in 1240, it changed hands numerous times through the centuries before being requisitioned by the SS in 1942. Afterward, it became part of the prison system under the charge of Dachau concentration camp, and in 1943, its most famous guests began arriving.

After the prisoners started congregating, one thing immediately became clear to the Germans: many of the prisoners hated each other. From opposite sides of the political spectrum, they sat in ideological groups whenever eating in the dining room and rarely spoke. When they did, arguments often erupted, and the French Prime Ministers and Generals often tried to scapegoat each other for their country’s quick defeat.

None was satisfied with the answers given. When things managed to simmer, each person tried to cope as best they could. Between their captors’ treatment, which varied from polite to severe, they struggled with the monotony and false hopes they garnered by learning of the Allies’ advances from east and west. Make no mistake though, none remained under any illusion that they were far better off than the inmates at Dachau. Cuckovic could testify to that.