John Rujevcic Gerlach
John R. Gerlach, former Intelligence Officer of the 15th Brigade, which included the Abraham Lincoln Battalion, died on August 12 at the age of 93 in Camarillo, California.
Born Ivan Rujevcic in Vurota, Croatia, where he lived until the age of 13, John came to the U.S. in 1928. In Detroit he reunited with his mother, Maritza Rujevcic, and his stepfather, Anthony Gerlach, then a labor union organizer and a national Croatian political leader as well as Secretary of the International Workers Order. Under the guidance of his stepfather, John became a union organizer himself at the age of 20, and he organized the restaurant workers on Greek Street in Detroit. Soon after, he traveled to Moscow with a scholarship to study at Moscow’s University of the National Minorities of the West in 1935 and 1936, where he gained skills in engineering and political science, encompassing Marxism and Leninism—skills that would permanently and dramatically inform and alter his life.
In December 1936, back in New York City, John R. Gerlach was recruited by his former Moscow professor, Mirko Markovic, to serve in the International Brigades defending the Spanish Republic. In Spain, John was immediately named Lieutenant and Intelligence Officer responsible for English-speaking and South-Slav-speaking Affairs, working at the International Brigade base in Albacete. Using the nom de guerre of “Ivan,” he later served as 15th Brigade Staff Officer and Head of Intelligence and Counter-Intelligence at the front, where he personally took Ernest Hemingway, Martha Gellhorn and Herbert Matthews to the front lines in his staff car.
John is listed and pictured in history books alongside prominent Lincoln Brigade officers Major Robert Merriman and Commissar Dave Doran. He is cited in many books for his heroic role in leading a column of some 100 top Americans out of a fascist encirclement toward the Ebro River, which many of them lived to cross. At that time, John also guided two Americans to the banks of the Ebro, where he spotted a canoe and rowed them across the swollen river at dawn, only to be greeted by foreign correspondents Hemingway and Vincent Sheean. Hemingway recorded John’s account in the New York Times, citing the “Scout Officer Ivan” as his source of information. John is also described as a Croatian Hero in a historical work by the Croatian historian Juro Gajdek. His war memoir, “Behind Enemy Lines,” was published in the VALB anthology, Our Fight.
- By Quentin Guerlain
ALB Archival Materials
Brigade Roster February 1938, Estado Mayor; Biographical Sketch John Peter Kraljic
Full Database Record