Did the Nazis make lampshades out of human skin?
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 is the story:
(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 Bitch 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), both federal facilities in the D.C. area. All six items 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 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.
Occasionally you hear about human-skin lampshades in private collections Norm Sauer, a professor of forensic anthropology at Michigan State University, was part of a team of experts that a few years ago examined a number of alleged human souvenirs that had been donated to the Holocaust Memorial Center, now located in Farmington Hills, MI. Among the items were a lampshade (and it really was a lampshade, consisting of panels on a wire frame), two chess sets, and a bar of soap, along with some collections of ashes, bone fragments, and so on. Although some of the bone fragments did appear to be human, most and possibly all of the household objects were not. The chess sets were made of animal but not human bone; the lampshade possibly was deer or goat but not human skin. Tests of the soap were inconclusive. (The alleged practice of rendering human fat into soap is a story unto itself; the common opinion now seems to be that while it may have been made experimentally once, human soap was never produced in quantity).
Gen. Lucius D. Clay , United States Military Commander in post-war Germany, in 1976 was supposed to be a speaker at a conference at the George C. Marshall Research Foundation in Virginia. In poor health, he sent last-minute regrets. A month later, he and General Mark W. Clark gave videotaped interviews to a member of the Foundation:
We tried Ilse Koch....She was sentenced to life imprisonment, and I commuted it to three years. And our press really didn't like that. She had been destroyed by the fact that an enterprising reporter who first went into her house had given her the beautiful name, the "Bitch of Buchenwald," and he had found some white lampshades in there which he wrote up as being made out of human flesh.
Well, it turned out actually that it was goat flesh. But at the trial it was still human flesh. It was almost impossible for her to have gotten a fair trial.
Similar words were said to Jean Edward Smith in the interview he took:
That was one of the reasons I revoked the death sentence of Ilse Koch. There was absolutely no evidence in the trial transcript, other than she was a rather loathsome creature, that would support the death sentence. I suppose I received more abuse for that than for anything else I did in Germany. Some reporter had callled her the "Bitch of Buchenwald," had written that she had lampshades made out of human skin in her house. And that was introduced in court, where it was absolutely proven that the lampshades were made out of goatskin.
~Lucius D. Clay, An American Life, p. 301. New York: Henry Holt and Company, 1990.
Soap and Lampshades: The Lies Persist
by Richard A. Widmann
In his recently published book, Why People Believe Weird Things, Skeptic editor Michael Shermer recounts an exchange from the Phil Donahue show. On that particular episode, CODOH director Bradley Smith stated, "It [is] a lie that Germans cooked Jews to make soap from them." Shermer, who is skeptical of many things, but generally a believer in the Holocaust story, replied, "No, not a lie. It's a mistake."
For some the tales of vicious Germans manufacturing Jews into bars of soap and lampshades are indeed a lie, for others, like Shermer, they are the products of innocent mistakes; for still others, the stories remain an unassailable truth. In fact, these propaganda lies have been dispelled many times, but continue to be repeated frequently in establishment sources. It is no wonder that many people still believe these horror stories.
General Lucius Clay, the military governor of the US zone of occupied Germany, explained the lampshade story,
Well, it turned out actually that it was goat flesh [sic --clearly the general meant skin]. But at the trial [of Ilse Koch] it was still human flesh.
~Interview with Lucius Clay, 1976, Official Proceeding of the George C. Marshall Research Foundation
In regard to the human soap story, darling of the establishment media and virulent anti-revisionist Deborah Lipstadt noted in 1981:
The fact is that the Nazis never used the bodies of Jews, or for that matter anyone else, for the production of soap.
~"Nazi Soap Rumor During World War II," Los Angeles Times, May 16, 1981, p II/2.
Michael Berenbaum, former director of the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, now supervising Steven Spielberg's taxpayer-funded Holocaust remembrance project, admitted in 1994, "there is no evidence, despite widespread reports, that human fat was used for soap. The United States Holocaust Memorial Museum tested several bars of soap reported to be composed of human fat but no such fat was found." (Y. Gutman, M. Berenbaum, Anatomy of the Auschwitz Death Camp, Indiana University Press, Bloomington and Indianapolis, 1994) One would clearly think that the case is closed, and that further repetition of these propaganda stories would constitute nothing more (and nothing less!) than arrant anti-German bigotry.
Still, the lies persist. On May 10, 1997 the New York Times ran an article entitled, "Holocaust Collection Is Educator for Young." The story concerns Milton Kohn, the owner of the world's "largest private collection of Holocaust memorabilia." Kohn wanders the world repeating anti-German hate stories to children. Part of his traveling collection includes an alleged "bar of soap rendered from human fat [which]was bought from a third party in Eastern Europe in 1968." Surely the New York Times, which prides itself on reporting "all the news that's fit to print," is aware that the soap story has been discredited.
The month of May also saw a revival of the hateful story of human lampshades. In a mailing from Time-Life Video designed to hawk their "World at War" series of videos, the advertisement reads:
More than 60 million people were shot, hanged, bombed, starved, gassed, frozen or drowned. Nazis turned humans into lampshades... Now you can see what hell is really like in the most definitive war footage you can find today!
Obviously, anti-German hatred still sells. Those who profit from spreading these hateful lies should be called to account. It's up to those with a sense of justice and respect for the truth to let the offenders know that countenancing, let alone spreading, such lies can't and won't be tolerated.
New York Times
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The American Hebrew, New York, December 4, 1942
Report on Extermination
Existence of an official order by Adolf Hitler  calling for the extermination of all Jews in Germany and the territories occupied by the Nazis which, if carried out, would mean the death of five million Jews, has been confirmed in documents made available by the State Department to Dr. Stephen S. Wise.
The documents submitted by the State Department were received, following the effort undertaken at the request of Dr. Stephen S. Wise, President of the American Jewish Congress, to authenticate reports from abroad that mass massacres were occurring or were about to occur. In making this request Dr Wise acted in behalf of a special conference which was attended by representatives of the American Jewish Committee, American Jewish Congress, American Jewish Labor Committee, Agudath Harabonim, Agudah Israel, B'nai B'rith, Synagogue Council of America, and the World Jewish Congress.
The confirmatory reports were made public recently in behalf of all the organizations. The reports received indicate that the Hitler policy of decimation of the Jews has already advanced so far as to have resulted in the mass massacre of more than 1,500,000. According to these documents, made available through the State Department, confirmation of the Hitler order was obtained from high German officials. This information, supplementing advices first received from the European offices of the World Jewish Congress, and transmitted to its American offices through the State Department, indicates that mass deportations have been taking place to Eastern Europe from all countries under Nazi domination.
Since the beginning of August, according to these reports, trains en route to the East have arrived at the German frontier filled with corpses.
The corpses are used in special factories for the manufacture of soap , glue, and train oil. Jews have been killed according to a new procedure. Gas chambers have been replaced by the injection of air into the veins. The injection of the air leads to general poisoning. One hundred injections per hour is the record of German physicians.
Since the end of 1932, it is further revealed, Nazi Party physicians have been experimenting in scientific methods for the "extermination and utilization of corpses. The value of corpses is now estimated at 50 Reichsmarks."
These advices simplified the information with respect to Hitler's order of extermination. This order has been discussed, according to these advices, since August 1942. The plan was originally submitted to Hitler's general headquarters by Herman Backe, Secretary of State for Economics . Under the plan, "all Jews living in Germany and German-occupied and controlled countries, numbering some five million, should, after deportation and concentration in certain regions of Eastern Europe, be exterminated at one stroke, in order to solve once and for all the Jewish question in Europe."
The time of execution was set for the fall of 1943. In anticipation of the execution of this plan, large-scale deportations from all European countries began. The plan of Herman Backe, submitted directly to Adolf Hitler, was based on economic reasons, in order to ease in part the difficult food situation buy the annihilation of at least four million persons who would otherwise have had to be fed.
The adoption of this plan was delayed through the opposition of a number of leaders of the Nazi Party. These include Dr Frank, Governor-General of the occupied Polish territories, who opposed the plan, not on humanitarian grounds, but on the grounds that the Jews were artisans or specialists in industries and could ease the shortage of labor in Poland. The plan was also opposed on the same grounds by Heinrich Himmler, Chief of the Gestapo. Despite this opposition, however, the plan was finally accepted, and Hitler signed the order calling for the mass deportation ofd Jews, with a view to their ultimate extermination.
In making these facts public in behalf of the conference Dr. Wise, as its chairman, stated:
It is our purpose in making these facts known to accomplish two purposes: One, to acquaint the world at large with the exact nature of Nazi bestiality; and two, to insure, as already pledged by our Government and the United Nations, that the perpetrators of the anti-Jewish crimes shall be held to strict accountability by the tribunals which the United Nations, are already setting up.
In East European countries, says the reports, particularly in Poland, "pogroms and mass-executions on a large scale are constantly taking place." Thus the policy of extermination of European Jews is systematically carried out in accordance with the pronouncements made in the last speeches of the head of the German Government. Those unfit for work are killed. Those engaged in slave labor are worked to death. Persistent reports have it that young Jewish girls and women having been sterilized are brought to the military brothels."
The information received through the State Department cites the actual condition of the Jews in various countries under Hitler since the outbreak of the war in 1939.
Taken country by country, the reports indicate:
GERMANY. Of the 200,000 Jews who lived in Germany at the outbreak of the war in 1939, mass deportation, suicides and starvation have reduced their number to 40,000.
AUSTRIA. Of 75,000 Jews in Austria at the outbreak of the war, no more than 12,000 to 15,000 remain.
BOHEMIA AND MORAVIA. Of the 80,000 in the Protectorate of Bohemia and Moravia, 15,000 Jews remain; the remainder have been deported either to Poland or Terezin.
POLAND. Of the 3,300,000 Jews living in Poland at the beginning of war, there were left following the German invasion 1,300,000 in the General Government and 700,000 in the Polish towns annexed by Germany, the remainder having fled to Soviet Russia or remained in the territories occupied by Russia, which have been reoccupied by Germany. The total number of Jews under German domination in Poland, after a deduction of 500,000 refugees in Russia, therefore, should have approximated 2,000,000. At the beginning of the Summer of 1942, there were still in Poland only 2,200,000, 600,000 having perished, but in the meantime large scale evacuations and massacres took place so that, for instance, the Ghetto of Warsaw, with a normal population of at least 550,000 harbors today not more than 100,000.
BELGIUM. It is reported that only 5,000 Jews remain in Brussels, and 3,000 in Antwerp, of the 85,000 who resided in Belgium at the beginning of the war in 1940.
HOLLAND. Sixty thousand of the 180,000 Jews of the Netherlands have already been deported
1. The origin of the spurious "official order by Adolf Hitler" was a story from Switzerland telegraphed by Dr Gerhart Riegner, the World Jewish Congress representative in Switzerland, to London and New York in August 1942... (See British Foreign Office papers in the Public Record Office, file FO.371/30917)
2. The "Jewish soap" legend was finally refuted by Israeli historians in 1990.
3. "Herman Backe" is a reference to Dr Herbert Backe, Under-Secretary for Agriculture; his widow Ursula confirmed that the allegations against him are ludicrous -- as ludicrous as the suggestion that Frank (hanged at Nuremberg in 1946) and Himmler were opposed to the Final Solution.
The Northern California Jewish Bulletin
April 27, 1990
Holocaust expert rejects charge that Nazis made soap from Jews
by Hugh Orgel
Tel Aviv (JTA) -- Professor Yehuda Bauer, head of the Hebrew University's Holocaust history department and regarded as one of the foremost researchers of the Holocaust, has denied the frequently quoted charge that the Nazis used the bodies of Jewish death camp victims to make soap.
The technical possibilities for transforming human fat into soap were not known as that time, Bauer said Sunday at a Holocaust memorial meeting for Yom Hashoah.
"The Nazis did enough horrible things during the Holocaust. We do not have to go on believing untrue stories," Bauer said.
Unsubstantiated rumors about the use of bodies of British soldiers to make soap had circulated during both World War I and World War II, he said.
Historian Yehuda Bauer said many Jews believed their murdered families and friends had been turned into soap because the Nazis themselves propagated the idea.
Nazis told the Jews they made soap out of them. It was a sadistic tool for mental torture.
~- Reuters. April 25, 1990
Heinrich Himmler and the
Raoul Hilberg, professor of political science at the University of Vermont and a pre-eminent historian of the Holocaust, agrees that the soap rumor, although widespread, was probably unfounded.
"There were all kinds of rumors," he said, noting that a New York Times article during the war suggested that Jews were given lethal injections before deportation and arrived at the extermination camps already dead.
Other rumors speculated that Jews were killed in the Belzec camp by electrocution in water; some thought the Jews were gassed in the trains.
"All of these rumors are untrue, based on nothing at all," Hilberg said. "No evidence has turned up" to suggested that the Nazis used human fat to make soap.
In Danzig, Germany (now Gdansk, Poland), pictures of dead, heavyset people cut into pieces and a recipe for soap were discovered in 1945 at the Stutthof camp. "But we don't know that the bodies were of Jews, or that the pictures and recipe went together," said Hilberg.
Moreover, the rumor was being circulated as early as 1942, according to documentary evidence.
"It's fairly reliable that the story was circulated, but I can't say whether or not it is true," said Hilberg.
JTA staff writer Elena Neuman in New York contributed to this report
Wartime Codebreakers Missed Clues to Holocaust
Coded Nazi messages intercepted by Britain could have exposed the scope of the Holocaust years before the liberation of the death camps, but Allied codebreakers failed to fully understand the information they had, according to United States government analysis of intelligence from the era.
In what is being likened to the intelligence failures before the September 11 attacks, German military and police communications from as early as 1941 provided lurid but fragmentary accounts of the massacres and deportations, and later even statistics on the numbers killed in concentration camps.
According to the report titled Eavesdropping on Hell, by Robert Hanyok, a historian with the National Security Agency's centre for cryptologic history, British and US efforts to sort evidence were hampered by case backlogs and a shortage of translators, as well as the two allies' reluctance to share information about German communications.
According to a summary of the report in the New York Times, one of the most harrowing messages codebreakers overlooked was intercepted on January 11, 1943 and detailed the 1,274,166 Jews killed under Operation Reinhard at four death camps - Lublin, Belzec, Sobibor and Treblinka - during 1942.
The report notes: "The message itself contained only the identifying letters for the death camps followed by the numerical totals."
The only clue that they were death camps was the reference to Operation Reinhard, a tribute to the SS general Reinhard Heydrich, who had been charged with organising the Nazis' plan to eliminate Europe's Jews. But that was probably "unknown at the time" to the British codebreakers, the report says.
However, British analysts must have considered the message important, because it was classified "Most Secret" and marked: "To be kept under lock and key. Never to be removed from the office."
The report also suggests that anti-Semitism may have created an atmosphere that affected how the intelligence was handled.
"Both President Roosevelt and Prime Minister Churchill were often hampered in their limited efforts to alleviate some of the suffering by the general anti-Semitic sentiment in both nations," the report says.
Just how much British signals intelligence analysts, either individually or as a group, held this attitude is unknown. And how much it affected their reactions to the intelligence is likewise unknown. But it must be considered in any discussion about how Comint [communications intelligence] was received.
One particularly chilling memorandum, written by a British official on September 11 1941, refers to German massacres in the Soviet Union and concludes: "The fact that the police are killing all Jews that fall into their hands should now be sufficiently well appreciated. It is not therefore proposed to continue reporting these butcheries unless so requested."
Mr Hanyok attributed the British official's response to "either his inability to appreciate the implications of the massacres, or his willingness to ignore what the Nazis were doing".
The one area where the report does absolve the Allied codebreakers from blame is for not having obtained evidence of the Nazis' genocidal plans before the war. The author observes: "Allied communications intelligence discovered nothing of the prewar and early wartime high-level Nazi planning for the general campaign against Europe's Jews and other groups ...
Orders to carry out these operations were not communicated in a means such as radio that could be intercepted by Allied monitoring stations.
Historians quoted by the New York Times were divided on whether the missed intelligence could have made a difference. Peter Black, a senior historian at the Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, told the newspaper:
Even in the unlikely event that the decipherers and translators had figured out what this all meant, there was nothing the Allies could have done militarily.
"If they announced it, would it have saved lives?" asked Aaron Breitbart, a senior researcher at the Simon Wiesenthal Centre in Los Angeles. "I think so, because there would have been greater pressure to bomb Auschwitz in 1944, at least the rail lines on bridges.
But saving Jews was not a priority. Jewish leaders were told that the best way to stop the Holocaust was to defeat Germany.
Could a photograph have saved thousands from the gas chamber?
A train convoy can be seen bearing thousands of new inmates to the site; there are five crematoria, in which corpses from the gas chambers were burnt, and a huge plume of smoke spews from bodies burning in open pits.
Yet the picture, from 23 August 1944, was taken by accident, and Britain's war leaders did not realise what it meant. Allied air reconnaissance planes flying at 15,000ft had been on a mission to photograph the Nazis' IG Farben chemical factory, four miles away near Monowitz. The images were examined by Allied interpreters, who studied the plant in minute detail but failed to identify the rows of huts, gas chambers or crematoria. They then filed away the image without further analysis.
Sixty years on, the set of pictures is being brought into the spotlight by Auschwitz: The Forgotten Evidence, a documentary which interviews Holocaust survivors and historians and reopens the controversy about whether the Allies could have done more to stop the killing of up to 1.5 million people at Auschwitz, the huge majority of them Jews. Professor Richard Overy of Exeter University is among the experts interviewed. He says:
You have to remember that there were thousands and thousands of images being put in every day, and for those whose task it was to look at the IG Farben plant at Monowitz, which they wanted to bomb because of its part in the German war effort, that was what they focused on.
They may have seen some of the surrounding camps and thought they were simply labour camps, like thousands of labour camps in Germany. The terrible tragedy is that they had the camp in their sights but they didn't realise what they were looking at.
Yet in July 1944, even before the pictures were taken, Britain and America had already been urged to bomb the Auschwitz camp and the railway lines leading to it by the Jewish Agency, which had received reports of 400,000 Hungarian Jews being sent there.
David Cesarani, professor of Modern History at Royal Holloway College in London, explains: 'By the summer of 1944, the British government knew that Auschwitz was a place of mass murder. Why, given this information, didn't the Allies act sooner, and why specifically didn't they bomb Auschwitz?'
The Allies considered sending low-flying Mosquito bombers on a 1,200 mile mission to target the camp but rejected the plan after three months of deliberation, partly because they feared killing the camp's inmates. Soviet troops finally entered the camp in January 1945. But Trude Levi, a Hungarian Jew who was interned at Auschwitz, says: 'We were waiting for, hoping for bombs - even though it could have hit us we were hoping. I didn't mind dying. For me it was more important that something happened from outside, that somebody was doing something.'
However, Professor William Rubinstein, author of The Myth of Rescue, backs the allies' decision: 'Bombing an extermination camp is quite different from bombing a military industrial target. Planes flying over at 30,000ft with the technology that existed in 1944, which consisted of simply pushing a button and dropping a bomb on a target, plainly and obviously would not have had the precision to do this.'