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September 14, 2010

Why did Ilse Koch (the human lampshade lady) hang herself in prison?

Filed under: Dachau, Germany, Holocaust, movies — Tags: , , , , — furtherglory @ 8:45 am

Ilse Koch, the wife of the Commandant at the Buchenwald concentration camp, was accused of ordering lampshades to be made from the skin of tattooed  prisoners.  If you believe that, I have another story to tell you:  After 20 years in prison, Frau Koch hanged herself in her prison cell, just after her son had started coming to visit her.  She was expecting his next visit the following day when she killed herself the night before.

Does this sound like a movie plot?  That’s because the same thing happened in the 2008 movie, The Reader, in which the character “Hanna Schmitz,” played by Kate Winslet, unexpectedly killed herself after serving 20 years in prison.

Ilse had become pregnant while she was in prison at Dachau, awaiting trial for allegedly ordering lamp shades to be made from human skin. At the age of 19, Ilse’s son, who had been born while she was in prison, found out that Ilse Koch was his mother, and he began visiting her regularly at the Aichach prison near Dachau. They got along well and Ilse wrote poetry for her son, according to Joseph Halow, the court reporter at the Dachau trials, who wrote a book entitled Innocent at Dachau.

On one of his scheduled visits, Ilse’s son was stunned to learn that his mother had killed herself the night before. Frau Koch never revealed the name of the man who impregnated her, except perhaps to her son, but if he knew, he never mentioned his father’s name. Today the body of the “Bitch of Buchenwald” lies in an unmarked and untended grave in the cemetery at Aichach. According to Joseph Halow, author of  Innocent at Dachau, her son disappeared after learning of his mother’s suicide.

Did Ilse Koch really kill herself, just when she had established a relationship with her son?  Why did her son disappear after learning of her alleged suicide?

Ilse Koch’s mug shot after she was arrested

The display table at Buchenwald after the camp was liberated

After the Buchenwald camp was liberated by American troops on April 11, 1945, a display table was set up and German civilians were marched at gunpoint to the camp to see the exhibits of atrocities committed at Buchenwald.  The photo above shows two shrunken heads and pieces of tattooed human skin removed from prisoners at Buchenwald, along with a lamp shade that is supposed to look like it was made from human skin.  The alleged lampshades made from human skin were either stolen by the American liberators, or they were never found.

Ilse Koch walks into the courtroom at the start of her trial, April 1947

Ilse Koch faces the judge to hear her sentence, August 1947

Notice that Ilse appears very arrogant as she walks into courtroom on April 11, 1947, wearing a nice dress with matching jacket.  She appears to be of normal weight and a little on the heavy side.  Contrast that with her appearance in the second photo, taken a month before her baby, conceived while she was in prison, was born in September 1947.  She appears to have lost weight, as well as her self esteem.

How did Ilse Koch become pregnant while being held as a prisoner at Dachau, awaiting her trial?  No one except the American military men who were involved in the proceedings of the American Military Tribunal had access to her prison cell.

I have been re-reading the book Justice at Dachau, written by Joshua M. Greene and published in 2003.  The following quote is from the book:

One of Ilse’s former lovers, an officer from Buchenwald, worked in the prisoner’s kitchen at Dachau. They met in the kitchen by chance, and Ilse told him where she was being held. The officer dug a hole to her barracks, and when she finally walked up to the witness chair in the Buchenwald trial, she was visibly pregnant. The press had a field day.

In his book, Greene did not identify the father, nor did he give a source for this information about how Ilse had become pregnant.

According to Dachau court reporter, Joseph Halow, in his book Innocent at Dachau, there were unverified rumors that Frau Koch had engaged in numerous affairs with SS officers, and even with some of the inmates, at the Buchenwald concentration camp. Halow also mentions that he was shocked to learn that Ilse Koch may have turned to other men because her husband was a “homosexual.” According to the Buchenwald Report, her husband had also suffered from syphilis, a sexually transmitted disease.

Frau Koch was 41 years old at the time she became pregnant, and she was being kept in isolation at Dachau, with no contact with any men except the American interrogators. According to Halow, there was speculation among the court reporters that the father was Josef Kirschbaum, a Jewish interrogator who was one of the few men who had access to her prison cell.

Halow wrote: “At Dachau many of them (the Jews) scarcely concealed their hatred for the Germans. Their feelings may have been understandable, but it was unconscionable for American authorities to put men such as Harry Thon, Josef Kirschbaum, and Lt. William Perl in positions where they had their enemies at their mercy.”

Frau Koch had been previously investigated for 8 months by Dr. Georg Konrad Morgen, an SS officer 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, 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, the prisoners told them about the gory accessories in Frau Koch’s home. A display table was set up to show a lamp shade, allegedly made from human skin, and a film, directed by Billy Wilder, was made to document the atrocities in the camp.

On August 14, 1947, Ilse Koch was found guilty of participating in a “common plan” to violate the Laws and Usages of War under the Geneva Convention of 1929 and the Hague Convention of 1907, by an American Military Tribunal at Dachau and sentenced to life in prison on August 19, 1947.

Ilse Koch was convicted by a panel of 8 American military judges on the charge of participating in a “common plan” to violate the Laws and Usages of War, but the specific accusation of ordering human lamp shades to be made from the skin of tattooed prisoners had not been proved in court.

In October 1948, General Lucius D. Clay, Commander in Chief of U.S. Forces in Europe and Military Governor of the U.S. Occupation Zone of Germany, commuted Ilse Koch’s sentence to four years, or time already served. This caused an international uproar.  There were rumors that General Clay was the father of Ilse’s baby and that is why he was so lenient in her case.

According to Jean Edward Smith, who wrote his biography, Lucius D. Clay, an American Life, the general maintained that the leather lamp shades were really made out of goat skin. The book quotes a statement made by General Clay years later:

There was absolutely no evidence in the trial transcript, other than she was a rather loathsome creature, that would support the death sentence. I suppose I received more abuse for that than for anything else I did in Germany. Some reporter had called her the “Bitch of Buchenwald,” had written that she had lamp shades made of human skin in her house. And that was introduced in court, where it was absolutely proven that the lamp shades were made out of goat skin.

Ilse Koch was tried again in a German court in 1951 and found guilty, but not guilty of ordering human lampshades to be made.

After serving over 20 years in prison for her second conviction, Ilse was founded dead in her cell at Aichach on September 1, 1967. Her death, by hanging, was ruled a suicide.