This Day in Jewish History

1929: Holocaust Survivor, Korean War Hero Is Born

A victim of anti-Semitism, Tibor Rubin waited over 50 years for official U.S. recognition of his bravery.

Today is the birthday of Tibor Rubin, the Hungarian-born Holocaust survivor who later, as a U.S. soldier in Korea, performed one heroic feat after another – but because of the anti-Semitism of his immediate commander, had to wait 60 years to receive proper recognition.

Tibor Rubin was born in the Jewish village of Paszto, Hungary, on June 18, 1929, one of six children of Ferenz and Rosa Rubin. Ferenz, a shoemaker, had served in the Hungarian army during World War I, much of that time as a prisoner of war in Russian captivity.

During World War II, Tibor was deported to the Mauthausen concentration camp in Austria, from which he was liberated by American troops in 1945. His father died in Buchenwald, and his mother and a sister were murdered in Auschwitz. One of his brothers fought with the Allies.

In 1948, Rubin was able to emigrate to the United States. He settled in New York, and tried to find work as a shoemaker or butcher. The following year, he decided to enlist in the U.S. Army, with the hope that this would speed up the process of naturalization; he also intended to enroll in a butcher’s course in Chicago. He failed an English-proficiency exam the first time he took it, but two years later, with the help of others taking the test, he made the grade.

Rubin volunteered for service in Korea, where the U.S. was engaged in a war with the communists over control of the peninsula. He arrived there in July 1950, assigned as a rifleman to the First Cavalry Division. During one battle, Rubin held down a hill single-handedly over a 24-hour period, thus keeping open a road while the rest of his regiment was able to withdraw safely. Later, as American troops entered North Korea, he was personally responsible for the capture of several hundred enemy soldiers.

According to a number of Rubin’s comrades, he had to contend not only with the communist foe, but also with an anti-Semitic sergeant, who repeatedly sent him out on the most dangerous assignments. First Sgt. Artis Watson also seemed determined to prevent Rubin from receiving due recognition for his acts of bravery. Watson, said one of Rubin’s fellow soldiers, in a sworn affidavit to the army, “would have jeopardized his own safety rather than assist in any way whatsoever in the awarding of the medal to a person of Jewish descent.”

Four times, senior officers recommended Ted Rubin, as he was known by his comrades, for the Congressional Medal of Honor, the highest honor a soldier can receive, and four times, Sgt. Watson is believed to have seen to it that he received lesser recognition.

On October 30, 1950, Rubin’s company was attacked by invading Chinese forces in Unsan, Korea. Rubin fought until he ran out of ammunition and was seriously wounded, at which point he and his surviving comrades were taken prisoner.

In captivity over the next 30 months, at a North Korean prisoner camp nicknamed “Death Valley,” Rubin again distinguished himself with the selflessness he displayed vis-à-vis his fellow prisoners. Every night, he is said to have snuck out of the camp and stolen food from the Chinese and North Korean storehouses, and brought it back to the other prisoners. One of his comrades testified later that Rubin “also took care of us, nursed us, carried us to the latrine ... He did many good deeds, which he told us were mitzvahs in the Jewish tradition.”

Rubin was liberated in April 1953. Returning to the U.S., he finally received American citizenship that year. He married a Dutch Holocaust survivor, moved to Garden Grove, California, near Los Angeles, and worked as a butcher, until his injuries forced him to retire. He and his wife, Yvonne, had two children, Frank and Rosalyn.

It was only in 2005, after 42,000 Jewish war veterans had signed a petition requesting that Rubin receive the Medal of Honor – and after Congress passed an act requiring the military to review the issue of discrimination against minority soldiers in the matter of citations – that Tibor Rubin finally received the long-awaited distinction.

On September 23, 2005, Rubin received the medal from President George W. Bush, in a ceremony at the White House.