Medal of Honor recipient Tibor Rubin wanted to show that Jews could fight as well as die.
Ted’s story is one of the most remarkable in U.S. military history. It is a story of daring and determination not quite like any other. It is a story given flesh and bones by simple human decency.
Voluble and mordantly funny, Rubin, a thick and powerful man even in old age and still speaking an immigrant’s eccentric English, told me about it a few years ago during a couple of interviews I conducted with him for a book I was doing on the Medal of Honor.
The story begins in Hungary where he was born in 1929 in the small town of Paszto. His family were Jews, but this didn’t matter to their neighbors—not yet, anyhow. “We have a beautiful life there,” Rubin said. “We didn’t bother nobody and nobody bothered us.”
As World War II approached, things changed as the Hungarian government, Hitler’s ally, passed a series of anti-Jewish measures imitating those the Nazis had used in laying down a foundation for the Holocaust. When he was 13 and they sensed that night was falling, Rubin’s parents sent him to Budapest in the hope that he would be absorbed by the big city. He survived on his own for a couple of years, but when the round up came, he couldn’t hide. He was arrested and packed with hundreds of others into cattle cars headed for the Mauthausen camp in Austria. He never forgot the German commandant’s chilling greeting upon their arrival there: “You Jews, none of you are going to get out of here alive.”
The rest of his family were arrested too, although It was several years before he learned what happened to them. His father (a hero in the Austria-Hungarian Army in World War I who had been captured by the Russians and spent several years in one of their prisons) died at Buchenwald. His mother and two sisters were sent to Auschwitz. While being processed there, the youngest of the two girls, 10 year old Elonja, was taken away and put into a line headed for the crematorium. His mother, who had been selected for forced labor, ran to join the girl, yelling back at her older daughter (who would survive to tell the story), “I’ll go with Elonja. She shouldn’t have to die alone.”
Emaciated and diseased, Rubin managed to survive until May 5, 1945, when Malthausen was liberated by the U.S. 11th Armored Division. “When they picked me up I was a sack of bones,” he told me. “I was covered with lice and it didn’t seem that I could live.” Fed and given medical attention, he slowly returned to the world of the living. During his recovery, he was sustained by the image of the American soldiers breaking down the gates of the death camp: “Now I have a debt to pay. I make a promise. If, Lord help me, I ever go to America, I’m gonna be a GI Joe.”