Ilse Koch

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Ilse Koch

Ilse Koch, née Kohler (September 22, 1906 - September 1, 1967), was the wife of Karl Koch, the commandant of the concentration camp Buchenwald. She is infamous for taking souvenirs from the skin of murdered inmates with distinctive tattoos. There is no conclusive evidence for the common claim that she made lampshades from human skin -- however, her family dinner table was decorated with shrunken human heads. She was known as "the Witch of Buchenwald" ("Die Hexe von Buchenwald") and dubbed "the Bitch of Buchenwald" by the inmates because of her sadistic cruelty toward prisoners.

Her history began in 1936 when she began working as a guard and secretary at the Sachsenhausen concentration camp near Berlin. There she met and married the commandant Karl Otto Koch. In 1936 she came to Buchenwald not as a guard, but as the wife of the commandant. In 1941 Ilse became an Oberaufseherin ("chief overseer") over the few female guards who served at the camp. In 1943 Ilse's husband was arrested for threatening officials, embezzlement and other offenses and was removed from the camp, while Ilse stayed behind - now romantically attached to Waldemar Hoven, the camp's doctor. After a lengthy trial Ilse was acquitted of embezzlement and returned to Buchenwald.

In 1944, with larger numbers of female prisoners entering the camp, Ilse continued her reign of terror and commanded twenty female overseers (Aufseherinnen) in Buchenwald. Her power over her subordinates was absolute. Ilse terrorized female and male prisoners at Buchenwald. She even had a whip fitted with razor blades at the end, which she used on pregnant women. In April 1945, Ilse walked out of the camp and continued living outside the camp wire in a well furnished home. When US GI's arrived at Buchenwald, they heard many stories about the former "wife of the commandant." When the soldiers arrested Ilse they were surprised that she didn't appear to be the sadistic monster the prisoners described.

After the war, Ilse was tried by a war crimes tribunal and sentenced to a life term in 1947, later commuted to four years because of doubts about some of the testimony against her. Konrad Morgen had testified at her tribunal that no evidence supporting the "lampshades and gloves" story had been found in an exhaustive search of her house, though his other testimony was damning. After serving two years of her four-year sentence, she was re-arrested and tried by a German court for killing German nationals, and sentenced to a life term. She committed suicide by hanging herself at Aibach prison in 1967.


  • Massimiliano Livi: Ilse Koch. In: War Crimes: A Historical Encyclopedia, by Elizabeth Pugliese and Larry Hufford. ABC-CLIO, Cremona (USA).

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