It’s hard to imagine the horrors the survivors of the Third Reich’s concentration camps had to endure. Imagine the relief they felt when the Allied forces arrived and opened the gates to their freedom. Hungarian Jew Tibor Rubin knew precisely just that. That’s why he vowed to join the Army if he made it to the United States of America when he got liberated. He did so and more.
Rubin was born to Jewish parents in Hungary in 1929. His parents had six children, three daughters and three sons. His mother, Rosa, was the third wife of his World War I veteran father, Ferenc. In early 1944, Rubin’s elder brother, Miklós, was drafted for forced labor, so his other brother, Imre, left with a friend, afraid that he would be forced to work. Unfortunately, they were captured at a train station and sent into a forced labor camp anyway. Later on, they were sent to the Mauthausen concentration camp.
Ferenc did not want his third son to have the same fate. So, in March, Rubin, who was not 15 years old yet, left his home and hoped to reach the neutral land of Switzerland. He went with a group of Polish men running away from the Nazis. They were two weeks into their trip near the border of Italy and Switzerland when they were captured and deported to Mauthausen. Although Imre was there, too, it was not until the winter that they could see each other.
Later that same year, his parents and two sisters, Edith and Ilonka, were sent to Auschwitz, while his other sister, Irene, managed to survive the war in Budapest. Unfortunately, Rubin’s parents and Edith all perished in the Auschwitz camp that same year. (Some sources say that his father, Ferenc, was transferred to and died in Buchenwald.)
Into the US Army
Things seemed hopeless for Rubin until the US Army arrived on May 5, 1945, and set them free. Right then and there, he swore to himself that he would serve in the Army if he ever got the chance to live in America. To him, it was a debt that he had to pay.
Rubin and Imre reunited with Irene in their hometown in Paszto before deciding to leave Hungary. They went to a displaced person camp in Germany before Rubin could finally immigrate to the US all by himself in 1948 aboard the SS Marine Flasher. There, he settled in New York. Imre settled in the US the following year, while Irene used a deceased Czech woman’s identity to immigrate to Canada and then to the United States.
Rubin initially worked as a shoemaker and then as a butcher for a year before he tried to enlist in 1949. However, he failed the English language test and had to try again in 1950. This time, he passed with some help from his two fellow test-takers.
The Korean War broke out in June 1950, and Private First Class Rubin was one of the troops who fought on the front lines when the United Nations agreed to provide military assistance to South Korean forces against the North Koreans. At that time, he was not required to go to war as he was not an American citizen yet, but he volunteered anyway. He did not want to sit while his “brothers” were fighting on the battlefield.
Prejudice in the Army
Fighting in the war was already hard enough, but it was extra hard for Rubin, who was assigned to an antisemitic sergeant who would always volunteer him in the most dangerous missions. This was sworn and submitted by almost a dozen men who served alongside Rubin and witnessed the unfair treatment. “He used to call me such bad names that I forgot my name was Tibor Rubin,” he said in an interview.
In one instance, he was assigned to single-handedly defend a hill near Pusan for 24 hours against waves of North Korean soldiers while his rifle company retreated to a more defendable position. He did this by filling all the foxholes with grenades, rifles, and carbines while praying to all the gods to take him away from that hill at that very moment. In the end, he successfully stopped the North Korean attack.
“I didn’t have too much time to get scared, so I went crazy. I was like a machine, a robot. I ran around to every foxhole on the hill and started throwing hand grenades and shooting my rifle to make as much noise as possible.”
Later on, during an assault by the Chinese, Rubin was taken prisoner after an hour of exchanging gunfire and grenade blasts with them. For the next 30 months, he spent his life as a POW in North Korea. He refused multiple repatriations offers to Hungary, where he would stay as the war continued. Instead, he stayed and risked his life by sneaking almost every night to steal food from the enemy’s supply and feed his fellow GI prisoners. In addition, he used his prior experience as a prisoner at Mauthausen to help his fellows. For that, he was credited with saving the lives of 40 American soldiers while imprisoned.
After being freed in 1953, Rubin returned to California and spent his time and energy volunteering to help local veterans. He was recommended multiple times for the Medal of Honor, but his very same sergeant didn’t bother pushing through with completing the paperwork.
Getting The Medal of Honor
In the 1980s, the soldiers who served with Rubin and became his friends protested to the US Army about the lack of recognition for his actions during the war. They gained the interest of Congressmen, and they began to take steps to have him recognized.
As Cpl. Harold Speakman, who served with Rubin, wrote in a notarized affidavit, “I really believe, in my heart, that [the sergeant] would have jeopardized his safety rather than assist in any way whatsoever in the awarding of the medal to a person of Jewish descent.”
And so, on September 25, 2005, Rubin finally received his Medal of Honor at a White House ceremony led by then-President George W. Bush. Rubin was 76 years old at that time. Regardless, he was proud as he knew the award meant a lot to the Jewish community.
Rubin died in 2015 at the age of 86 at his home in California.