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Holocaust Survivor Who Saved POWs Receives Medal of Honor from President

Allan C. Brownfeld, Editor
Special Interest Report
November - December 2005

Tibor Rubin, a survivor of the Holocaust who went on to join the U.S. Army, fought in Korea, and spent 30 months in a prisoner of war camp, was awarded the Medal of Honor, the nation’s highest award for gallantry in combat, at a White House ceremony on September 23, 2005. President George W. Bush draped the medal around the neck of the 76-year-old Rubin.  

U.S.A. Today (Sept. 22, 2005) reported that, “Tibor Rubin was 14 when his family was rounded up by the Germans during World War II. His mother and a little sister were killed in Auschwitz, his father in Buchenwald. Rubin survived Mauthausen, and when Americans liberated the camp in 1945, he took a vow. ‘It was like angels coming,’ he said. ‘That’s why I promised, If I go to the United States one day, I’m going to join the Army and try to pay back that beautiful country.’ Rubin followed through. He joined the Army, fought in Korea and spent 30 months as a prisoner of war ... Rubin is credited with saving as many as 40 American lives in POW camps run by North Korean and Chinese captors.”  

U.S. Army spokeswoman Maj. Elizabeth Robbins reports that at the camps, Rubin nursed the sick and raised morale. He stole food for his fellow soldiers, hopping fences and crawling on his belly for handfuls of barley and bunches of turnips. “What else could I do?” asked Rubin. “They were weak and dead and dying. I was taking care of them like a mother.”  

According to Robbins, it has taken more than five decades for Rubin’s heroics to be recognized by his adopted country, partly because one of his superiors held up the necessary paperwork for the medal. “He answered the call of duty in gratitude to the nation that rescued him,” she said.But “within his company, the first sergeant was not amenable to a Jewish soldier receiving the Medal of Honor.”  

Rubin says he harbors no ill will against the government for the delay. In recent years, fellow soldiers and the Jewish War Veterans revived the campaign for his recognition and succeeded.  

A native of Hungary, Rubin came to the U.S. in 1948 and enlisted in 1950. He was soon fighting on the front lines with the infantry. During one battle, Cpl. Rubin was hailed for single-handedly defending a hill and allowing his regiment to withdraw. “I ran from one foxhole to the next throwing hand grenades, shooting my rifle and carbine, because I wanted them to believe there was more than one of us up there,” he said. “I didn’t even know where I was throwing.”  

According to U.S. Today, “Later in 1950, Chinese troops invaded North Korea. During an intense battle, a hand grenade exploded near Rubin, blasting shrapnel into his hand and chest. He was captured with other soldiers and marched to a POW camp known as ‘Death Valley.’ As a POW, Rubin employed survival skills he had learned at Mauthausen. He knew what kinds of herbs and roots were edible. He stole flour and vegetables from his captors, hiding them in his pants. He entertained his friends with jokes and helped bury the dead. Once, he said, he jumped into a latrine to gather maggots, which he used to clean a comrade’s wounds.  

Sgt. Leo Cormier met Rubin on the brutal march to the camp. At the camp, he attested, Rubin saved many lives, including his own. Sick with dysentery, Cormier was losing his will. But Rubin force-fed him and carried him to the latrine. “He saved my life over there,” said Cormier, 79. “He kept saying, ‘Come on, sergeant, you’ve got to hold on.’ The guy was so devoted to his fellow Americans.”  

Cormier noted that, “He did many good deeds, which he told us were ‘mitzvahs’ in the Jewish tradition ... He was a very religious Jew, and helping his fellow men was the important thing to him.”  

Senator John McCain (R-AZ) introduced a special bill on Rubin’s behalf in 1988. Former Rep. Robert Dornan (R-CA) pleaded for his constituent. Rep. Robert Wexler (D-FL) and former Rep. Benjamin Gilman (R-NY) kept urging the Pentagon to act. Finally, in the mid-1990s the Pentagon began to revisit its record of discrimination against minorities during World War II and the Korean War.  

At a dinner in Washington, D.C. in September celebrating 350 years of Jewish life in America, President George W. Bush called Rubin “one of the greatest Jewish soldiers America has ever known.”

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