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The Medal of Honor was first established during the American Civil War on Dec. 21, 1861, for "petty officers, seamen, landsmen, and marines" who distinguished themselves by their gallantry in action. A Medal of Honor for Army privates was authorized seven months later on July 12, 1862. Since 1991, the Medal of Honor has been bestowed by the president, on behalf of congress, to certain deserving individuals who were unjustly deprived of receiving their rightful honor in the past because of racial, religious, or other prejudices. Tibor Rubin, Holocaust survivor and Korean War hero was one of those individuals. He is the only Holocaust survivor to receive a Medal of Honor.
Tibor "Ted" Rubin was born in Paszto, Hungary on June 18, 1929, and by the age of 13 his country and heritage were caught up in World War II and Adolph Hitler's quest for Lebensraum. He and his family were Jews and they, along with millions of others, were loaded onto trains and sent to Nazi concentration camps under false pretenses during the war. Once in the camps, they were systematically stripped of their humanity and belongings, starved, tortured, abused, experimented on, or murdered. Tibor was sent to the Mauthausen camp in Austria, where he remained for more than two years. Coming of age in a concentration camp taught young Tibor resourcefulness and survival skills such as no one at that young an age should ever have to learn. He managed to stay alive and helped scrounge scraps and other needed items for other prisoners until May 5, 1945, when the Mauthausen concentration camp was liberated by U.S. troops. Tibor was finally free, but he had lost his parents and two sisters while there.
On Dec. 22, 1945, President Harry Truman issued a directive to aid and relocate thousands of concentration camp survivors, especially children, and other people displaced by the war in Europe. In the directive he said, "I consider that common decency and the fundamental comradeship of all human beings require us to do what lies within our power. . . to reduce the human suffering." Tibor was among the tens of thousands of Jews and other war refugees who came to the U.S. to live under Truman's directive.
Tibor Rubin greatly admired the American troops who had rescued him and wanted to be one of them. On Feb. 13, 1950 he enlisted in the U.S. Army to fight in the Korean War. He was a rifleman with Company I, 8th Cavalry Regiment in the 1st Cavalry Division. While patrolling the Pusan perimeter in Korea, his unit was attacked by North Korean troops, and he ended up defending a hill all by himself. For 24 hours he was trapped in a personal battle with the enemy that allowed his unit to withdraw, but left him injured and exhausted. He was eventually captured on Nov. 2, 1952, and for the second time in his life he became a prisoner of war. He was held in the Pyok-Dong prisoner-of-war camp and instinctually put the skills he'd learned in the Nazi concentration camps to use. Just as before, he risked torture or death to find food, medicine, and supplies for himself and fellow prisoners, saving himself and at least 40 other lives in the process. He and the other prisoners were freed on April 21, 1953. He was discharged from the Army on July 20, 1953 and in November of that year, he officially became a U.S. citizen.
Tibor Rubin's heroism in battle and selfless acts while being held captive earned him the respect of his fellow comrades, and he was recommended for the Medal of Honor in 1953. However, a superior officer who was believed to be anti-Semitic, did not sign the recommendation, and it failed to move forward. Rules for awarding the Medal of Honor require that recommendations be submitted within two years of the event, but the president can make exceptions. On Sept. 23, 2005, more than 52 years after Tibor Rubin walked out free from the second prison in his lifetime, President George W. Bush bestowed him the long-deserved award.