Gustav Klieger was born on September 14th, 1916 in New York City. Born to and likely raised by a single Jewish mother, Rose Switzky, Gustav attended high school for only two years before becoming a seaman at the age of 15. An active member of maritime strikes, Klieger was also a member of the Youth Communist League, which he joined no later than May of 1937. The Great Depression and the turn towards the “Popular Front” and anti-fascist unity caused the YCL to grow greatly in numbers throughout the 1930s, the heart of such growth located in New York City. At that time, Klieger lived in the South Bronx at 560 Fox Street, and shortly after joining the YCL, he decided to go to Spain to fight in the war, almost certainly emboldened by anti-fascist ideology.
On May 29th, 1937, Klieger sailed on the Britannic to France. Once in France, he boarded the Espolla to Spain, arriving in Albacete on June 16, 1937. Klieger, like many international volunteers after a tough journey, arrived sick and unfit for service in Spain, and was sent to the Huete Hospital, where it is likely that British Medical Mission volunteers took care of him, until he was fit to serve. After recovery, Klieger served with the 35th Division Service Sanitaire, which together with the 11th Division would take part in the Zaragoza Offensive, which was a major attempt by the Republicans to slow down the Nationalist advance in the north. The 35th Division, under the leadership of Juan Modesto, included Soviet-made tanks, as well as cavalry and artillery. Whilst Klieger was sick, the 35th Division took over a town named Codo, fighting against heavy resistance from Carlist troops, and by the time Klieger had joined the fighting, the focus of the 35th Division had shifting to aiding other divisions in attempting to capture Belchite, a town which resisted Republican attacks for months. However, by September 1937, the Republican offensive in the North lost steam, and the 35th Division, likely Klieger with it, withdrew from fighting to regroup after many casualties.
Soon after Belchite, Klieger was once again sick, recovering at American Hospital Villapaz, but this time did not return to the 35th Division. Rather, Klieger snuck off without permission to meet Comrade John Gates, a very highly ranking American Communist political commissar in Albacete to ask personally for repatriation to the USA, and was denied. Such a denial of repatriation is not unexpected for John Gates, who was known as a disciplinarian, who even once controversially decided to execute a deserter named Paul White. Klieger then transferred to the 15th Brigade, serving 17 days at the Teruel front, a grueling defense against the Francoist counterattack, where many divisions suffered extreme casualties against the rebels led by General Antonio Aranda.
After 17 days in Teruel, Klieger was once again hospitalized, and sent this time to the 15th military hospital in Barcelona. After weeks of fierce fighting at Teruel and Belchite, two of the fiercest fronts of the war, noticing large casualties all around, it can only be assumed that Klieger was no longer motivated to fight in the Spanish Civil War. In addition, Klieger’s step-father passed away around the same time, leaving his mother alone with two children (a one year old girl and a twelve year old disabled boy). Months earlier in November 1937, John Gates had denied Klieger repatriation to the US based on a medical recommendation from Len Crome, the Chief Medical Officer of the 35th Division, which stated that Klieger was in a “highly nervous state and unfit for any work,” leading Klieger to fight on with the 15th Division at Teruel. However, after weeks of hospital stay in Barcelona, Klieger was done fighting the war, and entirely deserted during the spring of 1938, boarding a ship in Barcelona, and finding his way back to NYC on the SS Pilcut, alongside fellow deserter Karl Reed.
Despite deserting, the Spanish Civil War did not mark the end of Klieger’s military service. He went on to serve in the second World War as a seaman, fighting against fascism yet again, as many Spanish Civil War Volunteers would. Not much is known about his later life until his death on August 10th, 1987 in Brooklyn. Klieger was buried in Mount Carmel Cemetery, a Jewish cemetery in Glendale, Queens County, New York.
Crome, Len. “Medical Recommendation for Repatriation of Gustav Klieger” Documents of The Soviet Era, November 6, 1937. Ф.545,оп.6,д.923 - Case 923. Personal Files of American Volunteers (Kl-Kn). Accessed June 9, 2023. https://sovdoc.rusarchives.ru/Final_s/KOMINT00913/DIR0012/IMG0011.JPG.
Klieger, Gustav. “Repatriation Request Letter to Comrade Gates” Documents of The Soviet Era, November 6, 1937. Ф.545,оп.6,д.923 - Case 923. Personal Files of American Volunteers (Kl-Kn). Accessed June 9, 2023. https://sovdoc.rusarchives.ru/Final_s/KOMINT00913/DIR0012/IMG0012.JPG.
“Klieger, Gustav.” The Abraham Lincoln Brigade Archives, 16 Sept. 2022, https://alba-valb.org/volunteers/gustav-klieger/.
“Report on Gustav Klieger” Documents of The Soviet Era, February 24, 1938. Ф.545,оп.6,д.923 - Case 923. Personal Files of American Volunteers (Kl-Kn). Accessed June 9, 2023. https://sovdoc.rusarchives.ru/Final_s/KOMINT00913/DIR0012/IMG0010.JPG.
“The Spanish Civil War, 1936-1939.” Imperial War Museums. Accessed June 9, 2023. https://www.iwm.org.uk/collections/item/object/205093397.
Young Communist League/Young Workers League (1921-1946) Organizational History, http://www.marxisthistory.org/subject/usa/eam/ycleague.html.
“35th Division (Spain).” Wikipedia, December 20, 2022. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/35th_Division_(Spain).