I apologize for the graphic nature of some of the text and accompanying photos, but feel they are necessary to illustrate the depth of Ilse Koch's depravity. This was not an easy answer to write, but I felt compelled to do so.
When you think of the Holocaust’s most villainous figureheads, you think of Adolf Hitler, Josef Mengle, and Heinrich Himmler. One rarely hears about female Nazis from the days of the Holocaust, but they did exist and one of the worst was undeniably Ilse Koch.
Ilse Koch, known as the “Witch of Buchenwald” was one of the most despicable individuals of the Holocaust. Infamous for her extremely evil and sadistic behavior, Ilse gained many nicknames during her stay at the concentration camps, such as “The Witch of Buchenwald,” “The Concentration Camps’ Killer,” “The Red Witch of Buchenwald,” The Butcher’s Widow:, and the “Bitch of Buchenwald”.
The daughter of a laborer, Ilse Koch was born in Dresden, Germany in 1906. Her childhood, for the most part, was a normal one. Teachers regarded her as being polite and happy, and at age 15, Ilse entered accounting school. She worked in a tobacco factory and joined the National Socialist German Workers Party (NSDAP) in April 1933. Soon afterwards she began working as a secretary for the party.
Koch worked in Sachsenhausen Concentration Camp and in May 1937, married Karl Koch, the commandant of the camp. In August, 1937, her husband was appointed commandant of Buchenwald. They lived in an elegant house on Buchenwald’s grounds and seemed like any ordinary couple with three children. However, their marriage and everyday life were far from normal.
She accompanied Koch to Buchenwald, eventually becoming a SS-Aufseherin (overseer) at the camp. Daily, she selected prisoners who displeased her to be whipped by Schutzstaffel (SS) guards.
According to Louis L Snyder (an American scholar, who witnessed first hand the Nazi mass rallies held from 1923 on in Germany), Koch was: "A strapping, red-haired woman of ample proportions. She liked to ride on horseback, with whip in hand, through the prison compound, lashing out at any prisoner unfortunate enough to glance in her direction. She randomly selected prisoners who displeased her to be whipped by Schutzstaffel (SS) guards”.
Ilse was a nymphomaniac who tortured prisoners in the concentration camp. She was notorious for her evilness and sadistic behavior, which she expressed while beating the prisoners and forcing them to perform sexual activities for her amusement. Ilse had several lovers at the camp, as it was widely accepted that her marriage to the Commandant was “open".
Besides the relentless torturing of the prisoners, she selected those who had distinctive tattoos and skinned them. On occasion, she gave orders for new prisoners with 'interesting tattoos' to be reserved for her." If she could not find a tattoo she particularly liked, she would sometimes make one of the prisoners tattoo another in a manner that pleased her. The tattooed prisoner would then be killed for their newly-inked skin. Until her suicide, Ilse clung desperately to her assertion that her “parchment collection” derived solely from goat hides.
Prisoners' tattooed skin
Maybe because of her close relationships to the doctors and guards of the camp, she began collecting human body parts and organs. She experimented with making shrunken heads and also collected preserved organs. Lungs, brains, hearts, livers, and more, were all preserved and used as decorations (lampshades, gloves, book covers) in her home and in the homes of other guards. Some say that she even had a purse made out of human’s tattooed skin.
Koch was very fond of horses and wanted a new place where she could ride them and hold other sporting events. She reasoned that the prisoners of the concentration camp had no need of their money anymore. So, right away, she stole the money collected from the inmates and used the funds to build herself a private stadium in which to ride. In the end, she spent $62,500 of prisoner money, which is about a million dollars by today's standards.
Despite the Nazis’ mass murder of prisoners and their tortuous medical experiments, even they did not find the Kochs’ methods of torment suitable to their ideology — although mainly because any punishments had to be cleared by the main office in Oranienburg, and the Kochs were acting of their own accord.
In August, 1943, Karl Koch was arrested by the Gestapo and charged with embezzlement and forgery. Otto was accused of corruption and stealing vast amounts of valuables and money from the murdered Jews. Ilse was arrested and charged with receiving stolen goods, while Dr. Hoven, one of her lovers and assistant in collecting tattooed skin, was also arrested for mistreatment and murder. Karl Koch was executed by the SS on April 5th, 1945.
While her husband was notorious for his materialist greed, his wife was famous for her inhuman cruelty towards the Jewish people. According to a Buchenwald Report, Ilse ordered the execution of a hospital orderly and his assistant. The two medical professionals had treated Karl-Otto Koch for syphilis and knew of the Kochs' atrocities at the camp. They and numerous prisoners were incinerated to prevent their testifying at her trial.
Ilse remained imprisoned until 1944, when she was released due to lack of evidence. However, at the end of the war, she and 30 other workers were arrested on June 30, 1945, by U.S. authorities. She was charged with ‘participating in a criminal plan for aiding, abetting and participating in the murders at Buchenwald”.
To escape the prison, she announced to the court that she was pregnant. Ilse was 41 years old. Because she had been held in isolated confinement for much of the time and authorities knew that her husband was dead, she came under suspicion for adultery. Ilse was finally sentenced to prison for violating the laws and customs of war, on August 19th, 1947.
After serving only two years, General Lucius D. Clay, the military governor of the American zone in Germany, ordered her release on the grounds "there was no convincing evidence that she had selected inmates for extermination in order to secure tattooed skins, or that she possessed any articles made of human skin".
As a result of the international condemnation this decision received, a United States Senate committee re-investigated her crimes. On December 27, 1948, the committee reported that she had taken part in killing or beating hundreds of prisoners: "This bestial woman's guilt in specific murders is irrefutably established."
Rearrested in 1949, Ilse Koch was brought to trial before a West German court for crimes against German nationals. Psychiatrists who examined her judged her to be "a perverted, nymphomaniacal, hysterical, power-mad demon". On the 15th of January, 1951, she was sentenced to life imprisonment.
Isle Koch committed suicide in Aichach Prison on 1st September, 1967. She suffered from delusions and had become convinced that concentration camp survivors would consistently visit her in her cell to enact their abuse ( Her body was buried in an unmarked grave in the women’s prison cemetery of Aichach.). In her last note to her son, Uwe, she wrote: "I cannot do otherwise. Death is the only deliverance”.
It is difficult to determine whether Ilse Koch was a product of Nazi ideology and anti-Semitism or rather found the Holocaust as an opportunity to indulge in her already sadistic nature. Because there is little available on her childhood and early childhood behaviors, it is difficult to attempt to make a definitive answer. What is clear is that this woman found, under the rule of Hitler, the capacity in herself to brutally torture her prisoners and keep pieces of them for her personal decoration.