World War II veteran keeps camera, photos as mementos of service

CNJ staff photo: Eric Kluth

By Marlena Hartz: CNJ staff writer

Barely larger than the palm of his hand, Ivan Strickler’s spoil of war is a black Zeiss Ikon camera. The World War II veteran, his legs stricken useless by a bout with polio, several knee surgeries and two hip replacements, stared at the 60-year-old unlikely memento on his living room table.

The camera was a weapon, Strickler explained. It could have been used by Germans after the Allied invasion to take pictures and replicate American superior weaponry — including the Browning semi-automatic rifle, the rifle Strickler used to break open the gates of Germany’s infamous Dachau concentration camp, which was, according to one Web Site, the first concentration camp under Hitler’s regime. Built around an unused gunpowder factory, the camp is near Munich in southern Germany.

A lifetime later, Strickler is still trying to come to terms with the horrors of Dachau. A retired infantryman, Strickler was in his mid-20s when he enlisted to avenge the death of his elder brother, a World War II tank driver who perished fighting in Italy.

“I must have fired about 20 rounds and that gate still didn’t come open,” said Strickler, his eyes ringed with red, a pile of photos, including a shot of him dressed in his military uniform, youthful and free from the confines of the wheel chair that he now depends on for mobility.

“Three prisoners,” said Strickler, Italians who were recent prisoners of war, “helped the captain open the gate. Then the prisoners grabbed him and hugged him and kissed him.”

The three upright and rejoicing prisoners were the exception that day, said Strickler. The majority of those liberated were Jews, wasted away from months of mistreatment and malnutrition. Strickler and his unit discovered two box cars of executed Jews, now a documented finding at camp Dachau. It was the condition of those inside the camp, said Strickler, which is hardest to forget.

“Their faces looked like skulls with two marbles for their eyes,” Strickler said, and with two hands, pointed to his belly. “You could see their vertebrae through here.”

After four years in the service, spent battling in Nuremberg and Munich, Strickler was discharged. Much like Hemingway’s Nick Adams, in “Big Two-Hearted River,” Strickler, born in South Dakota, bought a strip of land in Minnesota. There, he raised cattle with his wife, admired the birds that populated the land, and fished from the lake that first attracted him to the property.

His son, Randy, heard little about his father’s memories of liberation as a boy.

“He was a standard father, a hard-working man,” said his son, who is employed with Clovis Concrete. “It was tough to get him to talk about it a lot. It was tough what he went through. They don’t teach you that stuff in school. A lot of younger kids can’t tell you the dates or who was in World War II … I don’t think we are doing anyone justice by not talking about what happened. People need to know the history. People need to know it could happen again.”

The cold Minnesota winters, and the passing of his wife, drew Strickler to Clovis. His haunting memories came along with him.

He recalls his wife’s family and others with whom he crossed paths who refused to believe the reality of concentration camps, some denying their very existence, Strickler said.

Peppering his stories with German, a language he learned in the forests during the war, Strickler is vocal about his role as living evidence of Dachau and more.

“It happened,” Strickler said, a fist planted on the pine living room table where he had scattered a few souvenirs of days gone by: two tin cans of 10-cent coffee, a photo of himself as a young man, the Zeiss Ikon Camera. “I was there. I saw it.”

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