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September 1, 2012

Did Ilse Koch really order human skin lampshades to be made at Buchenwald?

Filed under: Buchenwald, Germany, Holocaust — Tags: , , — furtherglory @ 9:33 am

My blog post today is in answer to a comment made by The Black Rabbit in which he gave a link to a post on his blog here.

This quote is from the blog of The Black Rabbit:

Jack Werber who survived in Buchenwald for over 5 years, writes in his 1996 book that Ilsa Kock’s human skin lampshade – was one of his friends

“One day, Ilse Koch passed by the building we were putting up and noticed a bare-chested man, a German prisoner named Hans, who was working with me on the scaffold. She became intrigued by his tattoos and wrote down his number. That evening, at the appel (roll call), his number was called and he was told to come to the gate. There, he was taken away and executed.

His skin was removed and brought to the tannery to be made into parchment for a lampshade. The Jehovah’s Witnesses were the only ones who worked there and they refused to do this. So the Nazis hanged three of them, one after the other, to scare the others into obeying but it didn’t help and they gave up in their efforts. Instead, the skin was taken to Weimar to be made up…”


Ilse Koch, shown at her trial, August 19, 1947
Photo Credit: INP Soundphoto

The photo above shows Ilse Koch at her trial before an American Military Tribunal in 1947. Ilse had somehow become pregnant while she was a prisoner of the Allies.  I previously blogged about Ilse Koch here.

After World War II ended, Ilse Koch did not go into hiding. When former prisoners in the camp began telling stories about her behavior to the American military, it was easy to track her down and arrest her as a war criminal. Starting on April 11, 1947, she was put on trial by an American Military Tribunal, along with 30 men associated with the Buchenwald camp, who were charged with participating in a “common design” to violate the Laws and Usages of war under the Hague Convention and the Geneva Convention of 1929. The specific charge against Ilse Koch was the crime of selecting Buchenwald prisoners to be killed by her alleged lover, Dr. Waldemar Hoven, in order to have lamp shades made from their tattooed skin.  Dr. Hoven was put on trial at a later date.

The American Military Tribunal proceedings against the staff at Buchenwald included only crimes committed against Allied nationals between January 1, 1942 and April 11, 1945, the day that Buchenwald was liberated. This was roughly the period of time during which America was at war with Germany. The charges against the accused in the proceedings of the American Military Tribunal did not include Crimes against Humanity, Crimes against Peace, nor War Crimes, as defined in Control Council Law No. 10 at the Nuremberg IMT.

The Buchenwald camp had been in existence since July 1937, and Ilse Koch had been at the camp since August 1937, but there were no charges against her that involved crimes committed in the camp before January 1, 1942, nor were there any charges involving crimes committed against German citizens at Buchenwald. Any lamp shades made from human skin that came from prisoners killed at Buchenwald before January 1, 1942, if any existed, could not be included in the evidence against Ilse Koch at Buchenwald.

According to Jack Werber’s story, Ilse Koch ordered a lampshade made from the skin of a German prisoner.  Would Ilse Koch have ordered a lampshade made from a German citizen, even though this was not a crime, according to the ex-post-facto laws of the Allies?

Frau Koch had been previously investigated for 8 months by Dr. Georg Konrad Morgen, an SS judge who had been assigned in 1943 to look into accusations of corruption and murder in the Buchenwald camp. She had already been put on trial in December 1943 in a special Nazi Court where Konrad Morgan was the judge. The rumor, circulated by the inmates at Buchenwald, that lamp shades had been made out of human skin, was thoroughly investigated by Dr. Morgen, but no evidence was found and this charge against Frau Koch had been dismissed by Morgen.

Even though Ilse Koch had been acquitted in Morgen’s court, the former inmates at Buchenwald were convinced that she had ordered prisoners to be killed, so that their tattooed skin could be made into lamp shades. When the American liberators arrived, they were told about the gory accessories found in Frau Koch’s home. A display table was set up and a film, directed by Billy Wilder, was made to document the atrocities in the camp.

The photograph below is a still shot from Billy Wilder’s film. It shows two shrunken heads, along with preserved pieces of tattooed skin laid out on a table, and a table lamp with a shade allegedly made from human skin.  Notice that there are no tattoos on the lampshade and the base is not made from a human bone.  This is not the lampshade described by Jack Werber.

Lampshades and shrunken heads made at Buchenwald

Ilse points to the location of her home on a map of the Buchenwald camp

In the photograph above, taken on July 8, 1947, Ilse Koch points out the location of the Commandant’s house, where she lived, just outside the Buchenwald camp. In the lower left-hand corner of the map, the buildings shown in a semi-circle are the barracks of the SS soldiers. To the right, down the hill from her home, are the barracks for the prisoners. Lt. Col. Denson, the chief prosecutor, is standing to her left, with his back to the camera. Members of the press are sitting at a table on the left. An interpreter is standing to the right of Frau Koch.

According to Joshua M. Greene, author of  the book Justice at Dachau, the prosecution introduced ten witnesses who testified against Ilse Koch. One of these witnesses, Kurt Froboess, testified that he had seen Frau Koch’s photo album, which he said had a tattoo on the cover. He said that he had seen this tattoo on a piece of preserved human skin, which he said had been removed from a fellow prisoner, in the pathology department at Buchenwald, and he later recognized this same tattoo on the cover of the photo album.

At least two witnesses testified about a lamp with a shade fashioned out of human skin and a base made from a human leg bone, which they claimed had been delivered to Frau Koch. One of these witnesses, Kurt Wilhelm Leeser, testified that he had previously seen the tattoos on this lamp shade on the arms of a fellow prisoner, Josef Collinette, before he died. This lamp was not introduced into evidence in the courtroom and there were no witnesses from the American military who testified about its existence.

The Jewish religion frowns upon tattoos and a Jew who is tattooed cannot be buried in consecrated ground, so it would have been unusual for a Jewish prisoner at Buchenwald to have had a tattoo. During the trial, it was pointed out by defense counsel that Dr. Wagner was doing a study of tattoos and criminal behavior at Buchenwald. Tattooed skin had been removed from dead criminals and preserved at the pathology department where autopsies were done.

Dr. Sitte testifies at the Buchenwald trial

In the photo above, prosecution witness Dr. Kurte Sitte identifies 3 pieces of tattooed skin

Three pieces of tattooed skin and a shrunken head were exhibited in the courtroom at Dachau as evidence of the ghastly crimes committed by the staff at Buchenwald. The photograph above shows Dr. Kurte Sitte, on the far right, who is identifying the three pieces of tattooed skin, found in the pathology department at Buchenwald. This same exhibit was shown at the Nuremberg International Military Tribunal on December 13, 1945 as evidence of Crimes against Humanity.

According to the forensic report prepared for the American Military Tribunal proceedings, the three pieces of skin were determined to be human. Joseph Halow, a court reporter for some of the other Dachau trials, claims that he saw a lamp shade that was part of the evidence at the proceedings against Ilse Koch, but if this lamp shade was tested, the results were not included in the forensic report. No one else, that I know of, ever mentioned seeing a lamp shade in the Dachau courtroom.

In the testimony given at Dachau, there was no reference by any of the attorneys to a lamp being on display in the courtroom during the proceedings. Dr. Sitte identified the shrunken head that was exhibited in the courtroom, but he did not mention a lamp being in the courtroom during his testimony.

Dr. Sitte, who had a Ph.D. in physics, was one of the star witnesses against Ilse Koch. He had been a prisoner at Buchenwald from September 1939 until the liberation. He testified that tattooed skin was stripped from the bodies of dead prisoners and “was often used to create lampshades, knife cases, and similar items for the SS.” He told the court that it was “common knowledge” that tattooed prisoners were sent to the hospital after Ilse Koch had passed by them on work details. Dr. Sitte’s testimony of “common knowledge” was just another word for hearsay testimony, which was allowed by the American Military Tribunal.

According to Joshua M. Greene, in his book Justice at Dachau, Dr. Sitte testified that “These prisoners were killed in the hospital and the tattooing stripped off.”

Under cross-examination, Dr. Sitte was forced to admit that he had never seen any of the lampshades allegedly made of human skin and that he had no personal knowledge of any prisoner who had been reported by Frau Koch and was then killed so that his tattooed skin could be made into a lampshade. He also admitted that the lampshade that was on the display table in the film was not the lampshade made from human skin that was allegedly delivered to Frau Koch. Apparently the most important piece of evidence, the lampshade made from human skin, was nowhere in sight during the trial.

During his cross examination of Dr. Sitte, defense attorney Captain Emanuel Lewis tried to introduce a plausible explanation for the removal of tattoos at Buchenwald when he asked:

“Is it not a fact that skin was taken from habitual criminals and was part of scientific research done by Dr. Wagner and into the connection between criminals and tattoos on their bodies?”

Dr. Sitte answered:

“In my time, skin was taken off prisoners whether they were criminal or not. I don’t think that a responsible scientist would ever call this kind of work scientific.”

American clergymen at the trial of Ilse Koch

The trial of Ilse Koch was a big event, which attracted world-wide attention.  I can remember seeing news reels about it.  The photo above shows 14 American Clergymen who traveled to Dachau, where the American Military Tribunal proceedings were held.

On April 16, 1947, five days after the start of the trial against the Buchenwald war criminals, an SS man named Werner Fricke took the stand to testify for the prosecution. Fricke had served as a clerk at Buchenwald from 1937 to 1945.

Fricke said the following in his testimony at the Buchewald trial, according to the book The Beasts of Buchenwald by Flint Whitlock:

When the action against the work slackers started in the fall of 1940, I believe, a prisoner was sent into the camp on account of Paragraph 175, Homosexuality. This prisoner, who was totally insane, did not, in my opinion, belong in a concentration camp but in an asylum.  That prisoner was tattooed all over his body from face to toe. In fact, even his sexual organs were tattooed.  Koch made a show out of this man in front of the camp gate, having him stand there nude.

About two or three weeks later, when I had to see the camp commandant on account of a matter of vital statistics [Fricke worked in the camp’s Vital Statistics office], I saw a book bound in human skin lying on his desk. The tattoos seemed so familiar to me that I suspected right away that it was the skin of the prisoner mentioned. The trusted friend of Koch, SS-Master SergeantMichael [and, according to Eugen Kogen, a nephew of Commandant Koch] confided to me upon a question after that prisoner that this book which I had seen in Koch’s place was actually bound with the skin of this prisoner. He said that the prisoner had died and that he had received instructions from Koch to have the skin tanned in camp and have a book bound with it.  I do not know about a lampshade or a hand bag, and I never saw those either.  However, I freely admit the possibility, for nothing was impossible with Koch.

Did I mention that hearsay evidence was allowed in all the trials before the American Military Tribunal, as well as at the Nuremberg IMT?

Apparently the infamous photo album, that was seen by the SS man and some of the prisoners, was confiscated by the American liberators, but it was not introduced into evidence in the courtroom.

In her plea for mercy from the court, Ilse Koch pointed out that Newsweek magazine had published an article in which it was stated that the US military government in Germany was in possession of her photo album. Frau Koch claimed that the album contained several photos of her home which showed lampshades made from dark leather; Frau Koch said the photos showed that the lampshades were clearly not made from human skin.