Commandant Karl Otto Koch
The first Commandant of Buchenwald was SS
Colonel Karl Otto Koch. He was the head of the camp from 1937
to 1941, but was then transferred to the concentration camp called
Majdanek in Lublin, Poland after charges of non-payment of taxes
were brought against him by local authorities in Weimar. He was
replaced by Hermann Pister who was the commandant when the camp
Commandant Koch's second wife was Ilse Koch,
whom he married in 1936. They had met while Koch was the Commandant
at the Sachsenhausen concentration camp and Ilse was a guard
there. She was dubbed "the Bitch of Buchenwald" by
the American press after the camp was liberated; the prisoners
called her "Die Hexe von Buchenwald" (The Witch from
Buchenwald). Leather lamp shades found in her house were made
from the skin of dead prisoners, according to information at
the camp Memorial Site and in the camp guidebook.
An attractive redhead, Ilse was hated by the
prisoners because of the provocative way she used to stroll along
the fence around the prison enclosure, or ride her horse near
the camp. All the prisoners who came in contact with her had
to address her as Gnädige Frau, a term of respect for a
German lady. She had the reputation of being a hedonist who "took
baths in Madeira (wine) that was poured into the bathtub,"
according to the Buchenwald Report. A prisoner who worked in
the Koch home said in an interview for The Buchenwald Report
that Frau Koch was simultaneously having love affairs with Dr.
Waldemar Hoven and with Deputy Commandant Hermann Florstedt.
When Col. Koch was transferred to Majdanek, his wife stayed behind
and was with Dr. Waldemar Hoven "almost all day," according
to this prisoner who worked in her home.
In spite of the many atrocities known to have
been committed in the concentration camps, the Nazis did not
officially sanction cruelty to the prisoners. All punishments
and executions had to be cleared with the main office in Oranienburg.
An SS officer named Dr. Konrad Morgen, who was a judge in a local
court, was asked by a government official to investigate a possible
murder and black market activities in the Buchenwald camp. Col.
Koch had been engaging in both, and he was eventually arrested
in August 1943 for inciting the murder of two prisoners and for
embezzlement. According to The Buchenwald Report, the murder
charge against Col. Koch was that he had ordered the execution
of hospital orderly Walter Krämer and his assistant, who
had treated him for syphilis, so that they would not reveal his
secret, but had falsely claimed that they were executed for political
Ilse Koch and Dr. Hoven were also arrested
in August 1943 for mistreatment of the prisoners. After a six-month
investigation, Karl Otto Koch was condemned to death on both
counts, but his wife was acquitted. According to The Buchenwald
Report, on April 5, 1945, one week before the American liberators
arrived, Col. Koch was executed by the Nazis at the German Armament
Works near the camp, thus saving them the trouble of putting
him on trial. However, in a footnote in the book, Death Dealer,
editor Steven Paskuly wrote that "he was shot in Buchenwald
in September 1944."
Dr. Konrad Morgen was asked by the American
prosecutors at Nuremberg to sign an affidavit that his investigation
in 1943 had determined that Ilse Koch had ordered lamp shades
made from human skin, but he refused even after several beatings.
Ilse's lover, Hermann Florstedt, was later transferred to Majdanek
and became the Commandant there. He was also executed by the
Nazis after he was convicted by Dr. Konrad Morgen. Under their
strict policies, the Nazis did not tolerate wanton cruelty to
the concentration camp prisoners. Another camp commandant, who
was arrested for stealing from concentration camp factories and
food supplies, was SS Major Amon Göth, the commander of
the Plaszow camp of Schindler's List fame; he was awaiting trial
when the war ended.
Dr. Hoven was tried in Dr. Morgen's court,
convicted and sentenced to death for murder. He spent 18 months
in jail but was then reprieved because of the critical wartime
shortage of doctors. He was tried again by a U.S. military tribunal
at Nuremberg and executed on June 2, 1948. According to an official
U.S. Army Report on April 24, 1945, Dr. Hoven was an important
Communist ally who killed numerous anti-Communist political prisoners
in Buchenwald with lethal injections.
Commander Koch had an indoor arena built in
1940, where he and his wife could ride their horses. Located
outside the camp, the riding hall was a 1600 square meters wooden
structure covered with a steeply pitched slate roof. It was exclusively
reserved for the use of the commandant and his wife. This caused
great resentment in the camp and Ilse was severely criticized
for the imperious way that she rode her horse around the arena.
According to the camp guidebook, "Horses and a private riding
hall were part of the status symbols the Camp Commandant Karl
Koch surrounded himself with. His stately and lordly way of life
was well-known in SS circles. He paid for it with money extorted
from the prisoners and with large-scale embezzlement."
According to Dr. Eugen Kogon, one of the famous
prisoners of Buchenwald, "Construction work had to be stepped
up in such a way that about thirty prisoners suffered fatal injuries
or were driven to death in the process. Building costs amounted
to roughly a quarter of million Marks. Mrs. Koch made her morning
rides in this place after its completion. This took a quarter
or half an hour several times a week and had to be accompanied
with music played by the SS band standing on a special platform."
After Frau Koch was arrested and jailed in
Weimar in August 1943, the riding hall was used for storage.
Following her acquittal, Frau Koch moved out of the Commandant's
house, but left at least one of the infamous leather lampshades
behind. After the American liberators arrived on April 11, 1945,
the prisoners wasted no time in bringing new accusations against
Ilse, who was soon to become the most infamous person associated
Ilse was tried before an American military
tribunal at Dachau in 1947 where she was convicted and sentenced
to life in prison. Her sentence was reduced to time served, or
four years, and she was released in 1949 after General Lucius
B. Clay, the highest authority in the American occupation forces
in Germany, reviewed her case. General Clay claimed that the
lamp shades had been made from goat skin. Ilse Koch was then
retried in a German court on charges of cruelty to the prisoners
and incitement of murder. She was convicted and sentenced again
to life imprisonment. Frau Koch committed suicide in prison in
Hermann Pister, the second and last Commandant
at Buchenwald, was convicted by an American military tribunal
in Dachau in 1947 and executed in 1948.
In 1938, as soon as the Buchenwald camp opened,
Koch ordered the construction of a park area for the SS guards,
just outside the camp fence, which featured a birdhouse, a water
basin, and a zoo for four bears and five monkeys. The bears were
in full view of the prisoners, and there was also an elaborate
falconry in another area outside the camp where the SS kept birds
of prey. The Jewish prime minister of France, Leon Blum, was
kept as a prisoner in the falconer's house, until he was transferred
The press was appalled by the incongruity of a bird
house at Buchenwald
"Water basin" in the SS park just outside
the camp fence
Commandant Koch may have been a cruel, ostentatious
embezzler, but he was soft hearted when it came to animals.The
camp guidebook contains the following order by Commandant Koch,
concerning the animals at Buchenwald:
Commanders's Order No. 56 dated 8th September
"1. Buchenwald zoological gardens has
been created in order to provide diversion and entertainment
for the men in their leisure time and to show them the beauty
and peculiarities of various animals which they will hardly be
able to meet and observe in the wild.
But we must also expect the visitor to be
reasonable and fond of animals enough to refrain from anything
that might not be good for the animals, cause harm to them or
even compromise their health and habits. (...) In the meantime,
I again received reports saying that SS men have tied the deer's
horns to the fence and cut them loose only after a long while.
Furthermore, it has been found that deer have been lured to the
fence and tinfoil put in the mouth. In the future, I will find
out the perpetrators of such loutish acts and have them reported
to the SS Commander in Chief in order to have them punished for
cruelty to animals."
The Camp Commandant of Buchenwald Concentration
signed by Koch
Note that "loutish" behavior by
the SS guards was not tolerated. The German army was the best
disciplined of all the armed forces fighting in World War II,
and the elite SS troops were held to an even higher standard.
Note that the Commandant is threatening to report them. He did
not have the power to punish the guards or the prisoners without
approval from headquarters.
Bears were kept in zoo just outside camp, near east
gate guard tower
According to "Time 'Too Painful' to Remember"
by Aril Goldman, published in the New York Times on November
10, 1988, Buchenwald survivor Morris Hubert was quoted as follows:
"In the camp there was a cage with a bear and an eagle.
Every day, they would throw a Jew in there. The bear would tear
him apart and the eagle would pick at his bones."
The camp inmates were not allowed to visit
the zoo, but they could see the bears and monkeys through the
fence, and there were plenty of other diversions for them. Buchenwald
was the first German concentration camp to have a movie theater
which showed full-length regular films to the inmates. There
was an admission charge of 30 pfennings, later reduced to 20
pfennings; the prisoners could receive money from relatives outside
the camp or earn money by working in the camp. After the liberation,
the prisoners got to see their first American film on April 26,
According to The Buchenwald Report, the prisoners
had a camp library with 13,811 books. They were also allowed
to organize variety shows and concerts. Art work was encouraged
as long as it was not "degenerate art," and some of
the prisoner's paintings are shown in the museum art gallery.
Like all the other Nazi concentration camps, Buchenwald had a
camp orchestra made up of inmate musicians who wore red pants
and green vests, representing the triangle colors of the two
main groups in the camp, the Communists and the criminals. The
Communists also had their own orchestra which played Communist
songs. Another facility which was common to all the main concentration
camps was the camp brothel for the inmates; there were 15 prostitutes
employed at Buchenwald when the American liberators arrived.
The Jews were not allowed access to the brothel because this
would have violated the Nuremberg Law of 1935 which forbade sexual
relations between Jews and Aryans.