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Ilse Koch, born Ilse Köhler (September 22, 1906September 1, 1967), was the wife of Karl Koch, the commandant of the concentration camps Buchenwaldmarker from 1937 to 1941 and Majdanekmarker from 1941 to 1943. She was one of the first prominent Nazis to be tried by the US military.

After the trial was remitted under worldwide media attention, survivor accounts of her as a Satanic figure resulted in other authors describing her abuse of prisoners as 'sadistic'; a shadow image as "concentration camp murderess" transfixed itself to post-war German society. She was accused of taking souvenirs from the skin of murdered inmates with distinctive tattoos. She was known as "The Witch of Buchenwald" ("Die Hexe von Buchenwald") by the inmates because of her sadistic cruelty and lasciviousness toward prisoners. She is also called in English "The Beast of Buchenwald" and "The Bitch of Buchenwald."


Ilse Koch at the US Military Tribunal in Dachau, 1947
Ilse Koch at the US Military Tribunal in Dachau, 1947
Collection of prisoners' tattoos Ph Jules Rouard -Buchenwald 1945
Born in Dresdenmarker, Germanymarker, she was the daughter of a factory foreman. She was known as a polite and happy child in her elementary school. At the age of fifteen she entered an accountant school. Later, she went to work as a bookkeeping clerk. At the time the economy of Germany had not yet recovered from Germany's defeat in World War I. In 1932 she became a member of the rising Nazi Party. Through some friends in the Nazi organizations SAmarker and SSmarker she met Karl Otto Koch in 1934, whom she married two years later.

Her rise to infamy began in 1936 when she began working as a guard and secretary at the Sachsenhausen concentration campmarker near Berlin which was commanded by her soon-to-be husband. In 1937 she came to Buchenwald not as a guard, but as the wife of the commandant.

It was alleged there that, under the influence of her husband, she began torturing the inmates of the camp. It was alleged that she would often force prisoners to rape one another in plain sight and would later be disciplined by Nazi authorities for her sexual eccentricities.

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 of SS funds, and the murder of certain inmates in an attempt to cover up these crimes. Ilse was imprisoned by German authorities until late 1944 or early 1945 in Weimar. In early 1945, her husband was sentenced to death by an SS court in Munich and executed in April 1945. Ilse was acquitted by an SS court and went to live with her surviving family in the town of Ludwigsburg. She was arrested by U.S. authorities on June 30, 1945.

The most famous accusation against Ilse Koch was that she had selected inmates with interesting tattoos to be killed so that their skins could be made into lampshades for her home.

She was tried by a war crimes tribunal and sentenced to a life term in 1947. Prosecuting her was future U.S. Court of Claims Judge Robert L. Kunzig, shown seated in the lower right corner of the picture from the tribunal above. Koch was charged with "participating in a criminal plan for aiding, abetting and participating in the murders at Buchenwald." In 1947, an American military tribunal found Koch guilty and sentenced her to life-imprisonment.

After she had served a mere two years, General Lucius Clay, the interim military governor of the American zone in Germanymarker, issued her pardon. Due to international condemnation, however, Koch was re-arrested in 1949 and tried before a West German court for instigation to murder in 135 cases. She was sentenced to life-imprisonment on January 15, 1951.

She committed suicide by hanging herself at Aichachmarker women's prison on September 1, 1967. She was sixty years old.


The commandant in Lina Wertmüller's film Seven Beauties was based on Koch. So was the title character of the 1974 Nazi exploitation film Ilsa, She Wolf of the SS.

Some sources claim that the character of Hanna Schmitz played by English actress Kate Winslet in the critically-acclaimed film The Reader is also based on Ilse Koch . However, the author of the book on which the film was based has denied this in an interview .

The 22nd episode of the 5th season of CSI: New York, titled Yahrzeit centered on Holocaust items being sold at auction and later crimes committed during the Holocaust. Among the cache of Holocaust items recovered from the murder victim's home was a lampshade that DNA tests confirmed was made of human skin. Mac Taylor (the CSI crime lab supervisor) recounts the story of how the wife of the Commandant at Buchenwald made the prisoners line up naked so she could choose the tattoos she liked and those prisoners would have that portion of skin cut off and tanned to be made into lampshades. This is a reference to Ilse Koch.


  1. Heinz Höhne, "The Order of the Death Head" (subtitled: "A history of the SS"). The author notes the irony that the SS prosecutor, Konrad Morgen, investigated some cover-up murders of inmates in detail while being ignorant of, or willfully ignoring, the industrialized mass murder going on in the camps further to the East.
  2. New York Times, Sept. 24, 1948, p. 3
  3. Encyclopedia of the Third Reich, Macmillan, New York, 1991 p.43
  5. Bernhard Schlink author of 'The Reader' on Q TV


  • 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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