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Now, I’m no Holocaust denier. I firmly believe the Holocaust occurred and the Nazis committed great atrocities during WWII. What I have a hard time believing is the accusation that Nazis made lampshades from human skin. Genocide is repulsive, but making lampshades out of human skin is more in line with what crazy serial killers do. I can see Nazis experimenting on Jews for their research and stealing their gold teeth for money, but what would they do with a lampshade made from human skin? Bring it back home as a gift to the hausfrau? Is this just an urban legend born out of Allied propaganda, or is there any truth to this? –Andres, via e-mail

At first I was skeptical about your skepticism, Andres. You’re saying that methodically exterminating five to six million people, performing bizarre experiments on them, and plundering their bodies is, at some level, comprehensible, but making lampshades out of their skin–now that’s crazy. Personally I wasn’t seeing any great leap, depravitywise. However, on investigation, I think you may be right. While the Nazis kept many grisly mementos of their victims, including tattooed skin, the lampshade claim may be a myth.

By far the best-known account of human souvenirs comes from the camp at Buchenwald. Here’s the story as best I can piece it together:

(1) Even by Nazi standards, Buchenwald was out of control. Its original commandant, Karl Koch, was by all accounts corrupt and cruel. Inmates loathed him and his apparently sadistic wife, Ilse, whom they dubbed “the Witch of Buchenwald.” Meanwhile, medical personnel were keeping human souvenirs–in 1942 SS higher-ups ordered them to quit making “gifts” such as shrunken heads. A story arose that Ilse had had tattooed prisoners killed so lampshades and other articles could be made from their skin.

(2) In 1943 the SS conducted an internal investigation and tried the Kochs on charges including embezzlement and incitement to murder. (Karl had arranged for the shooting of two inmates who knew he’d contracted syphilis–the SS brass, if not necessarily the rank and file, paid at least lip service to the notion that prisoners weren’t to be killed frivolously.) The SS judge, Konrad Morgen, found Karl guilty and ordered his execution, but acquitted Ilse. Later at her war crimes trial Morgen testified that a thorough search of her home found no human-skin lampshades or the like. Ilse didn’t live at Buchenwald after 1943.

(3) Shortly after U.S. troops liberated Buchenwald in 1945, director Billy Wilder made a documentary about the camp to publicize Nazi atrocities. A widely circulated still photo from the film showed a table covered with preserved human remains, including two shrunken heads; several pieces of what appears to be tattooed skin; and an ordinary-looking table lamp. The film’s narration says that among the items found was “a lampshade, made of human skin, made at the request of an SS officer’s wife.” The press went nuts, and soon the lampshade became emblematic of Nazi barbarism.

(4) Ilse Koch and others from Buchenwald were tried in 1947 for war crimes. Prosecutors submitted as evidence a shrunken head and three pieces of tattooed human skin but apparently no lampshade. Much of the testimony against Koch was hearsay, although at least one former inmate said he’d seen a tattooed-skin lampshade. Koch was convicted, but her life sentence was commuted on review, in part because of doubts about the witnesses’ credibility. She was later tried by a German court, again sentenced to life, and committed suicide in prison in 1967.

(5) Five pieces of tattooed skin are kept at the National Museum of Health and Medicine (NMHM) and one at the National Archives (NA). All six are from Buchenwald; three have been positively identified as human, and another is now being tested. The NA item was once labeled “human skin lampshade,” but an archivist there says it has no perforations or other indications of such use. Two of the NMHM items have holes on the left side as though from a hole punch. A third, which is large and irregularly shaped, has pinholes around the perimeter at one- to three-centimeter intervals. How the holes got there is unknown, but a photo shows the skins stuck up on an exhibit board at Ilse Koch’s 1947 trial. The NMHM curator reserves judgment, but to me nothing suggests these items were part of a lampshade. The lamp from the movie still has vanished; however, as photographed it doesn’t match the lamp described by witnesses at the trial–it has no visible markings at all.

Absent compelling evidence to the contrary, it may be that appalled liberation forces heard the inmates’ stories, saw the tattooed-skin souvenirs, and thought, Whoa, lampshades. In short, the story may be a legend. Does this prove the Holocaust didn’t happen? Of course not, whatever deniers claim. But there’s no need to exaggerate one of history’s most infamous crimes.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): illustration/Slug Signorino.