January 15

This Day in History

World War II

Jan 15, 1951:

The "Witch of Buchenwald" is sentenced to prison

On this day, Ilse Koch, wife of the commandant of the Buchenwald concentration camp, is sentenced to life imprisonment in a court in West Germany. Ilse Koch was nicknamed the "Witch of Buchenwald" for her extraordinary sadism.

Born in Dresden, Germany, Ilse, a librarian, married SS. Col. Karl Koch in 1936. Colonel Koch, a man with his own reputation for sadism, was the commandant of the Sashsenhausen concentration camp, two miles north of Berlin. He was transferred after three years to Buchenwald concentration camp, 4.5 miles northwest of Weimar; the Buchenwald concentration camp held a total of 20,000 slave laborers during the war.

Ilse, a large woman with red hair, was given free reign in the camp, whipping prisoners with her riding crop as she rode by on her horse, forcing prisoners to have sex with her, and, most horrifying, collecting lampshades, book covers, and gloves made from the skin of tattooed camp prisoners. A German inmate gave the following testimony during the Nuremberg war trials: "All prisoners with tattooing on them were to report to the dispensary... After the prisoners had been examined, the ones with the best and most artistic specimens were killed by injections. The corpses were then turned over to the pathological department, where the desired pieces of tattooed skin were detached from the bodies and treated further."

Karl Koch was arrested, ironically enough, by his SS superiors for "having gone too far." It seems he had a penchant for stealing even the belongings of wealthy, well-placed Germans. He was tried and hanged in 1944. Ilse Koch was tried for crimes against humanity at Nuremberg and sentenced to life in prison, but the American military governor of the occupied zone subsequently reduced her sentence to four years. His reason, "lack of evidence," caused a Senate investigation back home. She was released but arrested again, tried by a West German court, and sentenced to life. She committed suicide in 1967 by hanging herself with a bedsheet.

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