One morning, he put the lampshade in a box and shipped it to a drum-maker he knew, a person with a taste for the macabre. A few days later, the lampshade came back. “I’ve been beating on skins my whole life,” the drum-maker told Skip, “and I never saw anything like this. The animal that came from never had any fur on it.”
A few days later, Skip packed up the lampshade again and sent it to a pathologist he’d known for years. Once more, the lampshade came back. “Don’t send me stuff like that,” the pathologist said.
It was around then that I happened to call Skip on the phone and he told me about the lampshade, the whole saga more or less.
“That’s a weird story,” I said.
“Well,” Skip replied. “It isn’t my problem anymore.”
“Because I just sent it to you. You’re the journalist, you figure out what it is.”
A few days later, a box arrived at my door in Brooklyn. It came U.S. Mail, covered with 40 or so first-class stamps bearing the likeness of the great boxer Sugar Ray Robinson. Sugar Ray was Skip’s way of saying he was sorry. He knew Ray was my all-time favorite, the way he moved. Like that was supposed to soften the blow. I opened the box and looked inside.
“Gevalt,” I said.
The first published mention of a Nazi lampshade made of human skin appeared in the U.S. Army publication Stars and Stripes on April 20, 1945, Adolf Hitler’s 56th birthday. Nine days after the liberation of the Buchenwald camp by American soldiers, Ann Stringer, a United Press correspondent, filed a story saying she had seen a lampshade, “two feet in diameter, about eighteen inches high and made of five panels … made from the skin from a man’s chest. Along side were book bindings, bookmarkers, and other ornamental pieces—all made from human skin, too. I saw them today. I could see the pores and the tiny unquestionably human skin lines.”
This was also the first time most had heard of Ilse Koch, wife of the notoriously brutal and corrupt camp commandant and SS officer Karl Koch. The two had married in a verdant grove of trees one midnight in 1937, surrounded by a contingent of white-gloved officers, in accordance with the Engagement and Marriage Order aimed at ensuring that the elite SS corps would remain “a hereditarily healthy clan of a strictly Nordic German sort.” After Karl Koch’s appointment to Buchenwald, the famously voluptuous Ilse was appointed Oberaufseherin, or “chief overseer,” and given free run of the place. If she desired to take a bath in Madeira, as she reportedly did, the wine was provided. In 1939, thinking his wife might like to learn to ride a horse, Karl Koch commissioned the construction of a private riding hall with mirrored walls and a 60-foot-high vaulted ceiling outfitted with dramatic skylights. The prison band was made to play each time she exercised her milk-white charger. But it was Frau Koch’s reported taste for making lampshades out of the skin of prisoners that made her famous.
One captive, identified in Stringer’s story as “a Dutch engineer,” described how Ilse Koch “would have prisoners with tattoos on them line up shirtless. Then she would pick a pretty design or mark she particularly liked. That prisoner would be executed and his skin made into an ornament.”
Ilse Koch’s wartime trial was a worldwide sensation. She was, after all, the perfect defendant, perfectly sourpussed, with the perfect nickname, “The Bitch of Buchenwald,” a cannily alliterative mistranslation of her prison epithet, Die Hexe—or “witch”—von Buchenwald. She was the “Lady of the Lampshades,” whose crimes—the blithe defilement of the human body—struck many as the perfect symbol of Nazi disregard for those thought to be less than human. The fact that Koch was a woman (the only female to be tried for war crimes at the Dachau trial), a red-haired black widow, only made the horror more shocking.
The testimony was properly lurid. Kurt Froboess, a prisoner at Buchenwald from its opening in 1937 until liberation, said, “It was a hot day. Some prisoners were working without a shirt. Mrs. Koch arrived on a horse. There was a comrade there—his first name was Jean, he was either French or Belgian—and he was known throughout camp for his excellent tattoos from head to toe. On his chest he had an exceptionally well-tattooed sailboat with four masts. Even today I can see it before my eyes very clearly. Mrs. Koch rode over … She took his number down. Jean was called to the gate at evening formation. We didn’t see him anymore.”