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Ilse Koch

Buchenwald and Majdanek commandants wife
Buchenwald and Majdanek commandant's wife.

Ilse Koch, born Ilse Köhler (September 22, 1906 - September 1, 1967), was the wife of Karl Koch, the commandant of the concentration camps Buchenwald from 1937 to 1941 and Majdanek from 1941 to 1943.

Ilse is infamous for taking souvenirs from the skin of murdered inmates with distinctive tattoos. Claims that she had a lampshade made out of human skin have never been verified and were discounted at her post-war trial. . She was variously known as "the Witch of Buchenwald" ("Die Hexe von Buchenwald") and "the Bitch of Buchenwald" ("Buchenwälder Schlampe") by the inmates because of her sadistic cruelty and lasciviousness toward prisoners.


Born in Dresden, Germany, her father was a farmer. She was known as a polite and happy child in her elementary school. At the age of fifteen she left school and went to work at a factory. Later, she went to work as a librarian. At the time the economy of Germany had not yet recovered from Germany's defeat in World War I. While working as a librarian she began to become interested in the rising Nazism in Germany, and established (partly sexual) relationships with a few SA soldiers.

Her rise to infamy 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 1937 she came to Buchenwald not as a guard, but as the wife of the commandant. There, influenced by her husband and her power, she began torturing the inmates of the camp. In 1940 she built an indoor sports arena, which cost over 250,000 marks, most of which were taken from the inmates. In 1941 Ilse became an Oberaufseherin ("chief overseer") over the few female guards who served at the camp.

In 1941 Karl Otto Koch became the commander of Majdanek. In 1943 both he and Ilse were arrested by the Gestapo for embezzlement and other crimes. Ilse was imprisoned until late 1944 or early 1945 in Weimar. In early 1945 Karl Otto was sentenced to death by an SS court in Munich. He was executed in April 1945. Ilse was acquitted by the Nazis and went to live with her surviving family in the town of Ludwigsburg. She was arrested by U.S. authorities on June 30, 1945.

Collection of prisoners' tattoos Ph Jules Rouard -Buchenwald 1945
Collection of prisoners' tattoos Ph Jules Rouard -Buchenwald 1945.

She was tried by a war crimes tribunal and sentenced to a life term in 1947, later commuted to four years, by reason of "insufficient evidence". After being released in 1951, she was immediately re-arrested and tried by a German court again due to the large number of protests against the decision, and was sentenced to a life term. She committed suicide by hanging herself at Aichach women's prison on September 1, 1967 after writing a final letter to her son. She was sixty years old.


  • Massimiliano Livi, "Ilse Koch". In: War Crimes and Trials: A Historical Encyclopedia, from 1850 to the Present by Elizabeth Pugliese and Larry Hufford. ABC-CLIO: Santa Barbara (USA).
  • The Holocaust Chronicle, p. 117.
  • Israel Gutman (ed.), Encyclopedia of the Holocaust, p. 809-810.
  • Walter Lacqueur (ed.), The Holocaust Encyclopedia, p. 97.
  • William L. Shirer, The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich, p. 983-984.
  • David A Hackett (ed.), The Buchenwald Report, p. 43 n. 19.

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