How does one begin the story of a hero? A man who was liberated from a hellish camp in Austria called Mauthausen by American soldiers – the same soldiers he swore to join if he made it to America. I begin by telling you the story of Tibor Rubin, a Hungarian-born Jew, who joined the greatest army in the world, held off platoons of the enemy on a single hilltop, said Kaddish for the dead soldiers he collected after a particularly brutal battle and risked his life to feed and care for his fellow prisoners (who were too week to care for themselves) in a Chinese prisoner-of-war camp. Having spent 14 months in a Nazi concentration camp, Rubin knew what it took to stay alive. But Rubin was not trying to be a hero, nor was it about pikuah nefesh (risking one’s life to save another); he was offering hope to his fellow soldiers, the same hope he had been given years before when his life had been saved by soldiers of the same army. But the making of a hero goes back even farther than a lice-ridden POW camp in Pyoktong.
Rubin’s story begins with his family – a family that raised him to be the man he is today: a recipient of America’s highest military award, the Medal of Honor. Rubin lost his parents and sister to the Nazis (his brother joined British fighting forces), yet he maintained a will to live. There was something out there for him – a meaning to stay alive. Viktor Frankl, the renowned neurologist and psychiatrist who survived Auschwitz and Dachau, would have said it was meaning in life that kept him alive. Rubin would probably say the same.
To meet Rubin is nothing short of remarkable. He is a slight man, five feet and seven inches tall, thin and carries his 60-year-old wounds with him today. Wounded twice during action in Korea while serving with the 8th Cavalry Regiment, 1st Cavalry Division, Rubin also received two Purple Hearts and other notable commendations for his service. Though Rubin never admitted it to me, he is indeed a hero. He does not boast about the action that earned him the Medal of Honor. A matter of fact, the research done on what happened during those 30 months was collected through other articles and collateral interviews – not from Rubin. The years have also faded the history, and some events were hard to discern from others. Yet it was clear that no day has ever made Rubin more humbled than the day when President George W. Bush presented him with the Medal of Honor.
It has been a long road to receiving the citation for “…conspicuous gallantry and intrepidity at the risk of his life above and beyond the call of duty…” Rubin received the honor in 2005 for action that took place between July 23, 1950, and April 20, 1953. What held up three nominations was Rubin’s sergeant who made it clear that if it were up to him, “No Jew was going to receive this honor…” This was confirmed through fellow service members’ confirmations and sworn affidavits. Few Jews have received the Medal of Honor. Of the 3,465 members of the military (and nine civilians) who have received the Medal since 1861, only 18 have been Jewish. Medals of Honor are awarded sparingly and are bestowed only to the bravest of the brave; and that valor must be well documented. Since 1993, 39 other Medals of Honor were awarded to correct past administrative errors, oversights, follow-ups on lost recommendations or as a result of new evidence, including Rubin. Finally, Rubin is one of only eight Korean War Medal of Honor recipients and the only Jewish recipient.
Rubin never spoke against those who did not believe in him – he continued to believe in the country he truly loves and protected – payback from a grateful son of Hungary and an American by choice. “My wife told me to ‘give it [receiving the medal] up,’” says Rubin. “I wasn’t even born here, I wasn’t a citizen during the war and I’m Jewish!” But in the end the call came, 52 years after the fact.
On a summer day Rubin’s wife answered the phone – it was a call from a man at the White House. “My wife started screaming,” says Rubin. “I picked up the phone and thought it was a prank. I thought one of my friends was playing a joke on me.” But the man on the other end of the line made it very clear he was not joking around. After 52 years Corporal Tibor Rubin’s nominations cleared – he would receive the Medal of Honor. And receive it he did! Some officials present that day said they had never seen so many high-ranking officials at a medal presentation. Rubin was moved beyond words, and at one point his daughter Rosie joined him at the podium to ensure he could finish his speech. From the White House to the Pentagon, it was a whirlwind of military officials, speeches, uniformed escorts and the well-deserved recognition that had eluded Rubin for more than 50 years. “There is no way to describe it,” says Rubin. “It was such a celebration, and to give it to a little Jewish man!”
It is a beautiful medal: a gold star surrounded by a wreath, topped by an eagle on a bar inscribed with the word “Valor.” Holding the medal is a sky blue, silk ribbon, with a prominent cluster of white stars on the front. Along with the Legion of Merit, which is awarded to foreign dignitaries, it is one of two medals awarded to wear around the neck; since 2002 recipients have also received a flag matching the blue silk portion of the ribbon. The medal is significant enough that members of the military are encouraged to render salutes to recipients of the Medal of Honor as a matter of respect and courtesy regardless of rank or status. There are few words that can truly describe how the author of this article, a former Marine corporal, felt in meeting a Medal of Honor recipient – especially Tibor Rubin.
Rubin carried his valor with him to Orange County. He has been a longtime friend to the Jewish community, especially Rabbi Moishe Engel of Hebrew Academy. Engel accompanied Rubin and his family to Washington, DC, when Rubin received the medal. Says Engel, “Ted, I call him Ted, is not a religious man… But he sent his kids to a fledgling school 41 years ago to keep the school alive. That is the kind of man he is… He is honorable and proud to be a Jew.”
Rubin is an honorable man. He greets one like an old friend – even if he is meeting you for the first time. He is familiar, warm and welcoming – walking into his home, seeing his memorabilia, it is as if you have known him a lifetime. True heroes rarely discuss their heroism – Tibor Rubin is among that genre. He is also a member of an endangered generation; not only as a Korean veteran and Medal of Honor recipient, but he is part of a declining generation of Jews who survived the Holocaust. Time does not stop – not even for the heroes.
Tibor Rubin will be given the honor of Grand Marshall at Orange County’s Israel Expo on Sunday, May 22. Please join Corporal Rubin and the rest of Orange County as we share our Jewish pride!