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DEADLY DAMES – Ilse Koch

Ilse Koch

Ilse Koch is the name of the devil woman who used to make lampshades from the skin of the prisoners of the Buchenwald concentration camp. She was every bit an evil, she was rightly nicknamed ‘The Bitch of Buchenwald’ for her barbarism and sadism.

Born to a factory foreman in Dresden on 22 September 1906, Ilse Koch was a polite, unassuming and happy kid in her childhood. At the age of 15 she entered an accounting school and began working as a bookkeeping clerk.

That was the time, when Germany was struggling hard to rebuild itself after WW I. During those early days of 1930s, the Nazi Party and Hitler’s ideology attracted much young German blood, since it seemed to offer the right solutions to the extreme difficult situation of the country after losing the Great War. Adolf Hitler was a captivating orator and he vowed publicly time and again to annul the much criticized and deeply unpopular Treaty of Versailles, the treaty which demilitarized part of the country, and then, forced the country to pay the massive, unreasonable and unaffordable compensation while it was trying hard to recover from the calamities of the war. Hitler’s approach appealed to many Germans who were struggling for identity and making ends meet. It was therefore, quite normal for Koch and many of her friends to join the Nazi Party. As Koch was well aware about the extremely penurious condition of Germany, probably she felt that perhaps the Nazi Party would be able to restore and even revive the doomed economy of the country. Whatever may be, her involvement in the party induced her to be introduced with Karl Otto Koch, whom she married in 1935.

Young Ilse Koch
Young Ilse Koch

Within a year, Karl was posted as the Commandant of the Buchenwald concentration camp near Weimar, Germany. It was opened shortly after Dachau and was one of the first and the largest of the camps in the Nazi regime. The gruesome Iron Gate that led into the campus was inscribed with ‘Jedem das Seine’, which literally meant “to each his own,” but actually it was intended as a message to the prisoners: “Everyone gets what he deserves.” Ilse Koch immediately took the opportunity to become involved with the daily activities of the camp and over the next few years gained a reputation for being one of the most dreaded Nazis at Buchenwald. She used the money plundered from the poor prisoners to construct a $62,500 (around $1 million in today’s money) indoor sports arena where she could ride her horses. Often she used to ride in the proper camp, outside her riding arena, and used to taunt the prisoners till they take a glance at her — at which point she would whip them mercilessly. Much later, during her trial for war crimes, the survivors of the camp recalled that she always seemed to be extremely excited about sending children to the gas chamber.

During the Nuremberg Trials, her other hobby became a major point of contention. It was revealed that she had a good collection of lampshades, book covers, and gloves, which were said to be made from human skin. Witnesses later recalled that Koch often took her horse rides through the camps to spot prisoners with distinctive tattoos. The spotted prisoners were stripped of their skin before being incinerated, and Koch allegedly kept those skins as show pieces in her home with the Commandant. These artifacts were recovered after the liberation of the camp and served as key evidence during her trial.

Germans visit Buchenwald after its liberation.
Germans visit Buchenwald after its liberation.

Ilse Koch

Ilse Koch

Koch at her trial.
Koch at her trial.

Ilse Koch and her husband Karl Otto Koch were arrested at Buchenwald on 24 August 1943, on charges of misappropriation of money and murder of the prisoners of the camp. It was also alleged that Commandant Koch had ordered the execution of the orderly who had diagnosed and treated him for syphilis, so that the secret would never be revealed. However, it was an open secret that Frau Koch had taken several lovers at Buchenwald.

Commandant Koch was sentenced to death just a week before Buchenwald was liberated, but Frau Koch was acquitted, mostly due to lack of evidence. In fact, the investigators could not prove that the lamp shades and other items were actually made from human skin, while for her part, Ilse insisted those were made of goatskin. Following the camp’s liberation in 1945, word began to travel about Frau Koch’s sadistic involvement and the immense public pressure was created at the court to bring her to trial again. Ultimately, she was brought before the General Military Government Court for the Trial of War Criminals in 1947. On the stand, she announced that she was eight months pregnant. It was a real shock, since, before the trial, she had had no contact with any men except the American interrogators, many of whom were Jewish. However, she was charged with multiple crimes, which include participating in a criminal plan for aiding, abetting and participating in the murders at Buchenwald and despite her pregnancy, she was sentenced to life in prison for violation of the laws and customs of war.

         Tattoos & Lampshades

Tattoos & Lampshades
Tattoos & Lampshades

Ilse Koch gave birth to one son with Commandant Koch before their arrest, and the second child, whose father was unknown, was born while she was imprisoned. Both of her children were sent to foster homes.

After two years of her conviction, her sentence was reduced to four years by General Lucius D. Clay, the interim military governor of the American Zone in Germany. He remarked that, the reduction of her sentence was granted, since there was no convincing evidence that Koch had selected inmates for extermination in order to secure tattooed skins, or that she possessed any articles made of human skin. However, she was rearrested shortly thereafter due to public furore. During her second trial in 1950, she was not in good shape, collapsed repeatedly and had to be removed from the court. Four of the witnesses testified that they had seen Koch select prisoners specifically for their tattoos, or that they had seen or been involved in the manufacturing of the human-skin lampshades. But this time again, the charge was eventually dropped due to lack of concrete evidence.

Tattoos & Lampshades

Buchenwald Tattoos on display
Buchenwald Tattoos on display

Finally, on January 15, 1951, the Court, in the absence of Koch, delivered its verdict. Koch was convicted of  charges of incitement to murder, incitement to attempted murder, and incitement to the crime of committing grievous bodily harm, and again sentenced to life imprisonment with permanent forfeiture of any civil rights. After that, Koch petitioned for appeals several times, but was always dismissed. She even protested to the International Human Rights Commission, but was rejected.

While in prison, her son Uwe, whom she conceived during her imprisonment at Dachau, discovered that she was his mother. He used to visit her in prison often over the next several years at Aichach, the prison where she was serving her life sentence. On September 1, 1967, Ilse Koch committed suicide in prison. The next day, Uwe arrived to visit her and was shocked to find her dead. She was buried in an unknown, unmarked and untended grave at the cemetery of the prison.

Ilse Koch

Dibyendu Banerjee
Dibyendu Banerjee

Ex student of Scottish Church College. Served a Nationalised Bank for nearly 35 years. Authored novels in Bengali. Translated into Bengali novels/short stories of Leo Tolstoy, Eric Maria Remarque, D.H.Lawrence, Harold Robbins, Guy de Maupassant, Somerset Maugham and others. Also compiled collections of short stories from Africa and Third World. Interested in literature, history, music, sports and international films.

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