News & Events

Tales from the Archives: Ilse Koch Correspondence Folder

Donated by Steve Brownstein

1990.001.0001 Mann Collection
By Charlotte Decoster, PhD

The DHM/CET archive contains a plain and ordinary leather correspondence folder. It is without engraving, adornment or contents. However, it is not ordinary. It holds a horrendous past because it is the correspondence folder of Ilse Koch.

Today, many people recognize Ilse Koch as the notorious “Witch or Bitch of Buchenwald” (deriving from the German word Hexe). Ilse Koch received this name for her cruel and sadistic treatment of prisoners at the Buchenwald concentration camp. Born Ilse Köhler in Dresden in 1906 and a secretary by profession, she joined the Nazi party in 1932 and soon after married Karl Otto Koch.

Karl Koch was first the head of the Sachsenhausen Concentration Camp and later became the head of the newly built Buchenwald Concentration Camp. As the wife of Karl, Ilse was assigned as SS-Aufseherin (SS-overseer) at Buchenwald.

It is at Buchenwald that her cruelty became evident. She was fond of riding her horse through the camp, whipping any prisoner who attracted her attention. She targeted prisoners with distinctive tattoos. She ordered them killed and their skin tanned and stored for later use by the SS guards. She is alleged to have made handbags and lampshades.

In 1942, the reign of the Kochs came to an abrupt end. The Gestapo arrested them on the charge of unauthorized killing of prisoners and embezzlement. While Ilse was acquitted, the SS convicted Karl and executed him in April 1945.

After liberation, Ilse Koch was arraigned before the American military court at Dachau in 1947 and prosecuted for “participating in a criminal plan for aiding, abetting, and participating in murders at Buchenwald.” The tribunal found her guilty and sentenced her to life in prison. After a long string of legal battles, Koch committed suicide at the Aichach Women’s Prison on September 1, 1967. She was 60 years old.

The correspondence folder at the DHM/CET archive was obtained by Seymour Mann, the first American soldier to find and interrogate Ilse Koch shortly after VE Day in 1945. The folder originally contained letters and other correspondence by Koch which were ultimately turned over to the War Crimes Commission.
While the leather correspondence folder is empty now, its existence reminds us of the horrendous acts that people committed during the Nazi regime. The correspondence folder can be temporarily viewed on display at the DHM/CET.