The Nazis Arrested One of Their Own Female Prison Guards, ‘the Witch of Buchenwald’, For Being Too Sadistic and Cruel

The Nazis Arrested One of Their Own Female Prison Guards, ‘the Witch of Buchenwald’, For Being Too Sadistic and Cruel

Natasha sheldon - July 14, 2018

Buchenwald Concentration camp was one of the biggest internment camps on German soil. It was established in July 1937 to imprison the political enemies of the Nazis- and any other groups who they considered ‘unfit.’ Jews, gypsies, homosexuals, resistance fighters, and communists were all interred at Buchenwald. The lack of gas chambers in the camp would have been small comfort to the prisoners as they acted as slave labor, were starved, beaten and used for experiments. These daily torments were made worse by the prospect of an encounter with one of the camps most sadistic overseers: Frau Ilse Koch, the ‘witch of Buchenwald”.

As the wife of the commandant Karl Otto Koch, IIse Koch did not need to work in Buchenwald. However, she saw it as less of a job and more of a sadistic hobby. An attractive redhead, she delighted in patrolling Buchenwald, tormenting the prisoners with her beauty while punishing any who reacted to her, earning herself the title the ‘bitch’ or ‘witch of Buchenwald.’ Koch even managed to cross the line with the Nazis, who arrested her and her husband in 1943. However, it was not until after the war that Koch was indeed made to face her crimes.

The Nazis Arrested One of Their Own Female Prison Guards, ‘the Witch of Buchenwald’, For Being Too Sadistic and Cruel
The young Ilse Kohler and her dog. Google Images

Life before Buchenwald

Margarete IIse Kohler was born in Dresden on September 22, 1906, the daughter of a factory foreman. Her early life was happy and normal. She grew up in a stable home and was popular and successful at school. At fifteen, she progressed onto an accounting college where she qualified as a bookkeeping clerk. However, some discontent was gnawing at Ilse because in 1932, when she was working for a Dresden accountancy firm that she developed an interest in the Nazi party and began to attend local meetings. It was there she met her future husband, Colonel Karl Otto Koch.

Koch was an SS officer, nine years older than Ilse. He had joined the Nazi party in 1924 after his first marriage failed. Koch was ‘a born criminal’ according to Dr. Georg Konrad Morgen who presided over Koch’s trial in 1943. “In his youth, he started with thefts of postal banks. Then he and his brother were stool pigeons for the police. The whole family is criminal, ” Dr. Morgan later declared. The SS, however, gave Koch a focus for his ‘talents’ and enabled him to let his brutal nature off the leash.

According to The Buchenwald Report, which was compiled by American officers from the testimony of prisoners after the War, Koch was particularly sadistic. While at the notorious Columbia Street Prison in Berlin, he had his prisoners locked in doghouses, chained by the neck and forced to eat out of dog bowls. “Anyone failing to bark when Koch walked by received twenty-five lashes with a cane, ” claimed the report. One prisoner was beaten senseless and had hot asphalt stuffed into his anus, after which he was forced to drink castor oil. In this way, Koch managed to “distinguish himself” and become commander of the Sachsenhausen concentration camp.

The Nazis Arrested One of Their Own Female Prison Guards, ‘the Witch of Buchenwald’, For Being Too Sadistic and Cruel
The Koch’s and their children. Google Images

If Ilse was aware of this side of Koch, it did not seem to bother her. In 1936, she abandoned her bookkeeping post to become first a secretary and later a female guard at Sachsenhausen. On May 29, 1937, she and Koch married. Only a few months later, in August 1937, Colonel Koch was assigned a brand new camp: Buchenwald. Opened in July 1937, it was situated 4.5 miles northwest of Weimar. Specifically designed as a work camp for political and social ‘undesirables,” the first thing that greeted new prisoners was the sign over the gate: “Jedem das Seine” -‘To each his own.” The implication was, everyone who entered Buchenwald got what they deserved.

For Ilse Koch, this initially involved a luxurious house out of sight of the camp’s barracks and her own horse-riding arena, built for her by her husband from funds stolen from the prisoners. During their time at Buchenwald, the Koch’s had three children: Artwin, Gisele, and Gudrun. However, IIse was not content to be a dutiful German housewife. With the approval of her husband, in 1941 she began to play a more active role in the camp as SS Oberaufseherin or overseer.

The Nazis Arrested One of Their Own Female Prison Guards, ‘the Witch of Buchenwald’, For Being Too Sadistic and Cruel
Ilse Koch, date unknown. Google Images.

The Witch of Buchenwald

IIse took a sadistic pleasure in her job. She rode about the camp on horseback, tormenting and brutalizing the prisoners. She deliberately wore tight sweaters or short skirts and behaved in an openly sexual manner to provoke a reaction in the men. “She was a very beautiful woman with long red hair,” recalled, Kurt Glass, one of the former inmates of Buchenwald and Ilse Koch’s gardener, “but any prisoner who was caught looking at her could be shot,” Ilse also took great delight in having the men beaten. Her cruelty earned her the name of Hexe von Buchenwald: The Witch of Buchenwald.

In 1941, Karl Otto Koch was transferred to Lublin, to help establish the Majdanek extermination camp. However, Ilse stayed behind, still living in the commandant’s house and continuing her duties at Buchenwald. By this time, she was reputedly having an affair with Buchenwald’s deputy commander Hermann Florstedt. However, IIse also had another reputed lover: Waldemar Hoven. For in 1942, Buchenwald had become a medical research center of the Waffen SS, run by Hoven. Its specialism was typhus and virus research- and the prisoners acted as human guinea pigs. Some of the doctors, however also had other interests.

One doctor, in particular, was researching links between tattoos and criminality. So Ilse was tasked with searching for prisoners with tattoos- and delivering them to the unit. Soon, sinister rumors began to spread amongst the prisoners that she was collecting tattooed human skin and making it into various personal articles. “She got the idea she would like lampshades made of human skin,” recalled Kurt Glass. “One day….we were all ordered to strip to the waist. The ones who had interesting tattoos were brought to her, and she picked out the ones she liked. Those people were killed, and their skin was made into lampshades for her. She also used mummified human thumbs as light switches in her house.”

The Nazis Arrested One of Their Own Female Prison Guards, ‘the Witch of Buchenwald’, For Being Too Sadistic and Cruel

Dr. Waldem Hoven, Ilse Koch’s reputed lover. Wikimedia Commons. Public Domain.

However, rumors of the cruelty of Ilse and her husband had begun to reach the Nazi authorities- and they were not amused. All punishments and executions had to be authorized by SS central office at Oranienburg, and it was becoming evident that the Kochs had been acting independently. So, the SS placed SS officer Dr. George Konrad Morgen in charge of investigating allegations of cruelty and fraud undertaken by the couple. In August 1943, the SS arrested Ilse and Colonel Koch for murder and embezzlement.

The charge against Koch was based on evidence that he had ordered the unauthorized execution of two hospital orderlies, to cover up his treatment for syphilis. Koch was found guilty. However, the investigation also revealed he was siphoning off vast sums of money from prisoners that should have ended up in Nazi party’s pockets. Koch was executed by firing squad on April 11, 1945. As for Ilse, Morgen investigated the charges of cruelty against her thoroughly. However, he could find no evidence of anything made of human skin. So she was freed and went to live with her surviving two children with family in Stuttgart.

The Nazis Arrested One of Their Own Female Prison Guards, ‘the Witch of Buchenwald’, For Being Too Sadistic and Cruel
Ilse Koch testifies in her own defense at the trial of former camp personnel on July 8, 1947. Wikimedia Commons. Public Domain

The Trials of Ilse Koch

However, there was nowhere for Ilse Koch to hide once the tales of former prisoners began to reach the ears of the Allies. On April 11, 1947, Ilse became the only woman amongst 31 accused war criminals from Buchenwald to be tried by the American Military Tribunal at Dachau. The tribunal was ostensibly only concerned with crimes committed against Allied Nationals between January 1, 1942, and April 11, 1945. Any offenses committed outside this remit were deemed to be within the jurisdiction of the German Courts. Ilse specifically was charged with cruelty and incitement to murder.

Once again, the charge of using tattooed human skin reared its head. Photographic evidence from Buchenwald was presented to the court, showing pieces of tattooed human skin and a table lamp. However, there was nothing specific to link them to Ilse Koch, and none of the actual artifacts appeared. One of the witnesses against Koch was Dr. Kurte Sitte, a physicist and prisoner at Buchenwald from 1937 until the camp’s liberation. He testified that human skin was used “to create lampshades, knife cases, and similar items for the SS.” However, the only thing he could say for sure against Ilse Koch was that she selected tattooed patients for the doctors.

Dr. Sitte admitted he had never seen any of the artifacts he described, nor did he know any of the victims personally. He had merely been told about it. However, Dr. George Konrad Morgan categorically denied Koch was guilty of the atrocity- although he happily admitted she was guilty of plenty of other crimes. Morgen had no reason to protect Koch. He had pursued her relentlessly in 1943 in an attempt to make the same charges stick. He had failed, and that convinced him of her innocence in that one regard. However, despite the inconclusive evidence regarding the tattoos, the tribunal found Ilse Koch guilty of “violation of the laws and customs of war. ” She was sentenced to life imprisonment.

The Nazis Arrested One of Their Own Female Prison Guards, ‘the Witch of Buchenwald’, For Being Too Sadistic and Cruel
An exhibit of human remains and artifacts retrieved by the American Army from a pathology laboratory run by the SS in Buchenwald. Wikimedia Commons. Public Domain

The following year, the American Military Authorities sensationally reduced this sentence to four years after a review. Headed by the Interim Military governor of the German American Zone, General Lucius Clay, this second tribunal found that Koch’s sentence had been influenced by the still unproven rumors regarding the human skin. However, General Clay was at pains to clarify his decision. “I hold no sympathy for llse Koch,” he explained.” She was a woman of depraved character and ill repute. She had done many things reprehensible and punishable, undoubtedly under German law. We are not trying her for those things. We are trying her as a war criminal on specific charges. “

General Clay’s words were a nudge in the direction of the German authorities. In 1949, Ilse was freed after serving her sentence. However, the German authorities immediately rearrested her. Koch stood trial in 1950, for crimes against German citizens. She was found guilty and again sentenced to life. She died in prison on September 1 1967 after committing suicide. Although no one doubts Ilse Koch was guilty of murder and extreme cruelty, the matter of the tattooed skin still remains unresolved. Certainly her former nemesis Dr.Morgen remained convinced of her innocence – on this matter at least. “She was no innocent angel,” Morgan said in an interview with New York times in 1971 “But she had nothing to do with the lampshade business.”


Where Do We get our stuff? Here are our Sources?

Buchenwald Concentration Camp, Germany, Michael Berenbaum and Flint Whitlock, Encyclopedia Britannica, December 19, 2017

The Female Concentration Camp Guard So Depraved Even The Nazis Arrested Her, Laura Allen, Ranker

Dachau Trials: The Trial of IIse Koch, Scrapbook pages

50 Years Later, a Visit With Buchenwald’s Ghosts, Stephen Kinzer, The New York Times, 1995

Ilse Koch, Nazi War Criminal, Flint Whitlock, Encyclopedia Britannica, April 6 2018

Ilse Koch’s Posthumous Rehabilitation Sought by Son, David Binder, The New York Times, May 7, 1971