Tuesday 20 February 2018

Obituary: Tibor Rubin Holocaust survivor

Born: June 18, 1929; died: December 5, 2015

Highest honour: George W Bush gives the Medal of Honor to Tibor Rubin during a ceremony at the White House in 2005
Highest honour: George W Bush gives the Medal of Honor to Tibor Rubin during a ceremony at the White House in 2005

Tibor Rubin was a ­teenager in 1944 when he was deported to Mauthausen, a concentration camp in Austria. A Hungarian-born Jew orphaned in the war, he developed a keen survival instinct. He stole food, raided dustbins and learned improvised medical techniques such as maggot therapy for gangrene. He called himself, with pride, 'Little Rat'.

He was a disease-ridden skeleton when US troops liberated the camp. He vowed, he later said, "If the Lord have me, if I ever go to America, I gonna become a GI Joe." He cheated his way into the US army and landed on the frontlines as the Korean War began.

His sergeant, a sadist and anti-Semite, repeatedly sent him on seemingly certain-death assignments. In 1950 he was "volunteered" to defend a strategic hill while the rest of his company withdrew to safety amid an onslaught by North Korean troops. He armed himself with grenades and guns and waited, knowing the sergeant had no intention of relieving him.

The attack began at dawn, the enemy, he recalled swarming over the hill "like ants". He fired repeatedly, throwing grenade after grenade to create the impression of more than one defender: "Pull the pin, boom, pull the pin, boom." Unable to see through the smoke, he kept up the defence for a full day, defending his post until Corsairs repelled the remaining North Koreans from the air.

"He inflicted a staggering number of casualties on the attacking force during his personal 24-hour battle, single-handedly slowing the enemy advance and allowing the 8th Cavalry Regiment to complete its withdrawal successfully," read his citation for the Medal of Honor, the military's highest award for valour. President George W Bush bestowed the award in a 2005 White House ceremony, part of a congressionally mandated effort to identify veterans who might have been overlooked because of racial, ethnic or religious discrimination.

Rubin said that after the battle, he staggered down the hill and saw countless maimed and lifeless bodies. He heard agonised screams in Korean from the wounded. "I had the guilt feeling what I did here," he later recalled.

"I killed somebody's father, brother, and all that... But then again, the truth is that if I don't kill him, he kill me and vice versa. It's war. War is hell."

Tibor Rubin was born in Paszto, a Hungarian town with a small Jewish community, in 1929. His father Ferenc, a cobbler, was something of a tyrant, frequently belittling his son for being a slow learner in school. But Ferenc had been shaped by tragic times. He and a twin brother had served in the Austro-Hungarian military in World War One. Captured by the Russians, they were sent to a labour camp in Siberia, but only Ferenc survived. He walked the entire distance home to discover that his wife, the mother of his four children, had remarried and that he had been long been presumed dead.

Ferenc married twice more and raised two children, Tibor and a daughter. They spent part of their childhood in a home that Ferenc eventually opened to Polish refugees escaping the Nazi threat. In spring 1944 it was decided that Tibor would accompany a small group of Poles making their way to neutral Switzerland. They were caught and handed over to the Gestapo. He would never again see his father, stepmother or younger sister, all of whom died in the war. After Mauthausen was liberated in May 1945, Rubin spent three years in a displaced persons camp in Pocking before reuniting with older half-siblings who had settled in the US.

Working as a cobbler and butcher, he twice failed the US army entrance exam because of the language barrier, until a recruiter advised him to steal glances at other candidates' papers.

Rubin's 8th Cavalry Regiment was part of a massive counter-offensive pushing deep into North Korea. The regiment came under fierce attack in October 1950 by the Chinese, who had crossed the Yalu River en masse and overwhelmed Rubin's thinly stretched unit. Many in his group were killed over days of fighting, but Rubin was credited with slowing the advance with a machine gun. By the time he was taken prisoner by the Chinese, he had been wounded by shrapnel in his hand, chest and leg.

His captors repeatedly offered to repatriate him to Hungary, but he chose to stay on in the camp the Americans called 'Death Valley'.

Unlike many young GIs, Rubin could draw on the experience of wartime adversity. He repeatedly sneaked out and brought back food stolen from local farms and storehouses, and did his best to raise morale when other soldiers were paralysed by fear or freezing weather during the brutal winter of 1950 and 1951.

"Some of them gave up, and some of them prayed to be taken," Rubin recalled. He did his best to rally them, reminding them of relatives praying for their safe return. One comrade, Leo Cormier, recalled how Rubin carried sick men to the latrine and spent hours picking lice from the hair of listless soldiers. "He was a very religious Jew and helping his fellow men was the most important thing to him."

In April 1953, Rubin was suddenly returned to the US in an exchange of sick and wounded prisoners, and he settled with his half-siblings in California. He became a US citizen and a partner in a family-run off-licence. In 1963 he married Yvonne Meijers, a Dutch Holocaust survivor he met at a dance for Jewish singles.

'Teddy', as he became known, largely avoided talking about World War Two and Korea. But in the 1980s he attended a reunion of veterans, who were shocked that he had not received the Medal of Honor.

He was told that he had been nominated four times by grateful comrades - efforts, it emerged, that had been blocked by the anti-Semitic sergeant.

The Jewish War Veterans of the US began lobbying in the late 1980s for recognition of his heroism, and in 2005 he received his award. "I waited 55 years," he said of the ceremony. "I said listen, yesterday I was just a schmuck. Today, they call me 'Sir.' How I made it, the Lord don't even know."

© The Independent

Indo Review

Promoted Links

Life Newsletter

Our digest of the week's juiciest lifestyle titbits.

Promoted Links

Editors Choice

Also in Life