Trial of Ilse Koch, continued...

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Ilse Koch was sentenced to life in prison, 8/19/47

Army Signal Corps photo

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.

In the photo above, Frau Koch was 8 months pregnant. Some members of the press thought that she had deliberately become pregnant in order to escape the death penalty.

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.

There was no appeal process for any of the judgments in the American Military Tribunals, but all cases were subject to review by a panel consisting of the same group of prosecutors who conducted other American Military Tribunal proceedings at Dachau. In 1947, the highest authority in the review phase was General Lucius D. Clay, Commander in Chief of U.S. Forces in Europe and Military Governor of the U.S. Occupation Zone of Germany, from 1947 to 1949.

In October 1948, General Clay commuted Ilse Koch's sentence to four years, causing an international uproar.

According to Jean Edward Smith in 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."

According to the Buchenwald Report, there was a factory at Buchenwald, which produced leather goods out of animal skins, but it had caught on fire during an Allied bombing raid on the camp on August 24, 1944.

General Clay made an error in referring to Frau Koch's sentence as a "death sentence." She had actually been sentenced to life in prison. His opinion that she was a "loathsome creature" was based on the sexually explicit testimony of ten prosecution witnesses. Lt. Col. Denson, who was the epitome of a Southern gentleman, was particularly repulsed by the stories of her provocative behavior toward the prisoners. Such behavior was uncommon among women of that generation.

Waiting outside the Dachau courtroom for the verdicts

After her life sentence was commuted to 4 years by General Clay, Ilse Koch was released from Landsberg prison because she had already served 4 years in prison from the time of her initial arrest.

The American public was outraged that justice had not been served in the case of Ilse Koch, the "Bitch of Buchenwald." Woody Guthrie, a famous American folk singer from Oklahoma, wrote a song in protest of Ilse Koch's release from prison. The lyrics of the song were written from the perspective of the Jewish prisoners who had suffered in the Buchenwald camp.

There was a general feeling among the American prosecutors and court personnel that Ilse Koch had committed the worst atrocity of all, the making of human lamp shades, and that even life in prison was too light a sentence for her fiendish crime. The prosecutor of the case, Lt. Col. William Denson, wrote a letter to the editor of the Washington Post, in which he complained about her sentence being reduced as a result of the recommendation of the Review Board.

Only four days after General Clay commuted her sentence, a U.S. Senate subcommittee began an investigation of the case. According to an article in the New York Times, the Senators criticized General Clay's actions and expressed amazement that Ilse Koch's sentence had been so drastically reduced. General Clay's decision had been based on nothing more than a document, prepared by two civilian attorneys on the review board, which stated that Ilse Koch did encourage, aid and participate in the common design of the Nazis. General Clay was of the opinion that Ilse Koch had participated in the common design, but not to the extent that it would warrant a sentence of life imprisonment.

In his autobiography, entitled "Decision in Germany," General Clay wrote the following:

Among the 1672 trials was that of Ilse Koch, the branded "Bitch of Buchenwald," but as I examined the record I could not find her a major participant in the crimes of Buchenwald. A sordid, disreputable character, she had delighted in flaunting her sex, emphasized by tight sweaters and short skirts, before the long-confined male prisoners, and had developed their bitter hatred. Nevertheless these were not the offenses for which she was being tried and so I reduced her sentence, expecting the reaction which came. Perhaps I erred in judgment but no one can share the responsibility of a reviewing officer. Later the Senate committee which unanimously criticized this action heard witnesses who gave testimony not contained in the record before me. I could take action only on that record.

According to Arthur Lee Smith, author of "Die Hexe von Buchenwald," the American government put pressure on the Germans to put her on trial again in 1949 on charges of ordering the murder of Buchenwald inmates. Her trial before the American Military Tribunal had only covered crimes committed between January 1, 1942 and April 11, 1945, and even then, only crimes against civilians and military personnel of the Allied countries had been included in the charges. Crimes that she might have committed between 1936, when she was a guard at Sachsenhausen, and January 1, 1942 and crimes against German civilians and soldiers at Buchenwald had not been included in the proceedings of the American Military Tribunal at Dachau.

Ilse Koch arrived in Augsberg, Germany, 10/17/49

AP Wire Photo

In the photo above, Ilse Koch is shown on October 17, 1949 as she leaves a police van in Augsberg, Germany where she was held in the women's prison at Aichach before her trial in a German court.

The German court found Ilse Koch guilty of one count of incitement to murder, one count of incitement to attempted murder, five counts of incitement to severe physical mistreatment of prisoners, and two counts of physical mistreatment. In January 1951, she was again sentenced to life in prison. While not finding her guilty of ordering prisoners killed for their tattooed skin, the court did take judicial notice that there was no doubt that lamp shades made from human skin had been found at Buchenwald, even though it had not been proved that Ilse Koch had ordered these lamp shades to be made.

Ilse protested her life sentence, to no avail, to the International Human Rights Commission.

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

Karl and Ilse Koch had two sons, including one who committed suicide after the war, allegedly because he couldn't live with the shame of the crimes of his parents. Ilse also had another son, the one that was conceived while she was in a prison cell at Dachau. He was born in the Aichach prison near Dachau where she was sent to serve her life sentence, and was immediately taken from her. At the age of 19, he found out that Ilse Koch was his mother, and he began visiting her regularly at Aichach. They got along well and Ilse wrote poetry for her son, according to Joseph Halow.

On one of his scheduled visits, Ilse's son was stunned to learn that she 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.

The name Ilse Koch will forever be associated with the epitome of Nazi evil, the making of lamp shades from human skin. But Joseph Halow, who claims to have seen a lamp shade which was displayed in the courtroom during Isle Koch's trial, thinks that it was not made of human skin. He wrote the following description in his book, "Innocent at Dachau":

During my time at Dachau, I saw one of the "human-skin" lampshades. It looked like translucent skin, approximately one-quarter of an inch thick, and was adorned with a tattoo somewhat fuzzy in outline, not at all like the distinct tattooed figures I was familiar with. The shade must have struck me as rather odd, for I recall some puzzlement at the look of the skin and the crude tattoo. In those days, it would never have occurred to me that the human lampshade was a cruel and vulgar hoax.

Today, visitors to the former Buchenwald concentration camp near Weimar can see a dimly-lit basement room, shown in the photograph below, with a display sign that says this is the very room where the skin was flayed from the dead bodies of tattooed prisoners. After being exhibited at various war crimes trials, including the Nuremberg International Military Tribunal, the three large pieces of tattooed human skin, but not the lamp shade, found at Buchenwald were sent in 1951 to the Army Medical Museum, now called the National Museum of Health and Medicine, in Washington, D.C.

Sign in Buchenwald autopsy room says tattooed skin was removed here

According to an article in the Washington Post on June 24, 2001, written by Jeff Leen, the lamp shade which was allegedly made of human skin is nowhere to be found. On June 23, 1995, Ken Kipperman, an American Jew who was born in Poland in 1946, requested to see the evidence from the Dachau trial of Ilse Koch and was allowed to view a piece of tattooed leather labeled "USA 258." According to the Post article, Kipperman had his picture taken with the skin, which he was told was part of the evidence shown at the Nuremberg trial. The tattoo showed a nude woman with butterfly wings. The Post article said that the tattooed skin "did not appear to be part of a lampshade, because it was not properly shaped and had no perforations for stitching."

In his quest to find the missing human lamp shade from the Ilse Koch trial, Kipperman located an article in the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, headlined "Ex-Officer Has Human Skin From Ilse Koch's Home." According to Jeff Leen's story in the Washington Post, "The article quoted Lorenz Schmuhl, who as a U.S. Army major commanded Buchenwald upon liberation. Schmuhl, the article said, had taken home camp souvenirs and kept them in a glass-covered bookcase in his basement in Michigan City, IN: two large tattooed skins, a human-skin book cover and "most pieces of the famous lampshade." Kipperman found a photograph of Schmuhl's souvenir skins that had run in the Indianapolis Star in 1949. The picture was blurry, but the skins, sectioned into trapezoids, appeared to have holes along the edges, as if they had been strung together around the frame of a lampshade. He found another picture showing the top of the lampshade on the table at Buchenwald. He could see two oddly cut corner pieces that clearly matched two of Schmuhl's souvenirs." According to the Washington Post, Schmuhl sold the lamp shade pieces to a collector who later got rid of them because he couldn't stand to look at them.

Jeff Leen wrote that he had also interviewed Robert Wolfe, who said that pieces of the lampshade are stored in Washington, DC. "The lampshade I certainly saw," said Wolfe, now 80. "Four pieces. They were shaped in a trapezoid form." Wolfe said he saw them 10 to 15 years ago at the main Archives. But Tim Nenninger, who replaced Wolfe, told the Washington Post reporter that no leather lampshade is stored in the Archives today.

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This page was last updated on June 8, 2009