This is the story of a camp, a boy, another camp and the courage and faith to face evil.
Mauthausen concentration camp was situated on a hill, roughly 12 miles east of Linz, Austria, where Adolf Hitler grew up.
It was a camp where murder was a way of life.
During World War II the camp housed men, women and children. One of these children was 13-year-old Tibor Rubin, who was sent to Mauthausen in March 1944, when the Nazis began rounding up Hungarian Jews. He was alone, his parents and siblings had already been killed by the Nazis.
At the time of Rubin’s arrival, Mauthausen was known as one of the most brutal and severe camps. The reason for this was the “Stairs of Death,” where prisoners were forced to carry stone blocks, many weighing more than 100 pounds, up 186 stairs from morning to night.
Many of the times the guards would force prisoners to
race each other up the stairs, carrying the stones. The racers would then be taken to a cliff known as the “Parachutists Wall,” where the winner would be given the option of being shot or pushing the loser off the cliff.
Malnutrition was rampant. By 1945, most inmates were “existing” on less than 1,000 calories, and many grown men weighed less than 90 pounds. By the time Rubin arrived, life expectancy was less than three months. He would survive for 14 months until he was liberated by American Soldiers from the 11th Armored Division, Third U.S. Army on May 5, 1945.
Rubin was so grateful and impressed by the kindness of his liberators that he vowed to emigrate to America and become a U.S. Soldier to pay back the debt he felt to these men.
“They saved me from this nightmare,” said Rubin during an interview in 2005. “I want to save others.”
In 1948, at the age of 19, Rubin, now calling himself Ted, achieved his dream and moved to America. Two years later he became an American Soldier serving with the 8th Cavalry Regiment, 1st Cavalry Division during the Korean War.
During his time in Korea, Rubin’s platoon sergeant was a man named Arthur Peyton who made his antisemitism well known. As an extension of Peyton’s prejudice, he assigned Rubin the most dangerous duties.
One of the duties Rubin was assigned was to single-handedly defend the Taegu-Pusan Road link so his company could retreat safely and breakout from the Pusan Perimeter.
Even though he was terrified and felt abandoned by his sergeant, Rubin remembered the promise he made to save others.
Bolstered by his promise and his faith, Rubin stood alone in the darkness and fought off waves of North Korean soldiers while his comrades escaped to freedom. For this deed he was recommended for the Medal of Honor, however, Sgt. Peyton refused to submit the paperwork.
In October 1950, Rubin’s unit had pushed far into North Korea when Chinese soldiers attacked. Most of his unit was captured or killed by the onslaught. Rubin, who had been wounded in the attack, was captured and spent the next 30 months in POW camp.
In some ways the camp was like Mauthausen. Hunger, filth and disease were rampant. Most of the Soldiers either gave up or would only help themselves. The exception was Rubin, who used the knowledge that kept him alive during the Holocaust to help himself and his fellow Soldiers.
Almost every night Rubin snuck out of the camp, but instead of making a run for it, he stole food from the Chinese and North Korean supply depots to bring back to his fellow prisoners and cared for the sick.
He kept his comrades’ spirits up by telling them, “Eat. Drink. Your family is waiting for you. You will go home. This will pass.”
When the Chinese found out Rubin was originally from Hungary, they offered to release him and repatriate him back to his native land. He refused, saying he was an American.
His commitment saved the lives of at least 40 American Soldiers.
Rubin said he did this because it was his mitzvah, or commandment by God, to help his fellow prisoners, just as the American Soldiers helped him in 1945.
In 2005, 52 years after the end of the Korean War, Ted Rubin was finally presented with the Medal of Honor for his actions in Korea. Though he died in 2015, he left behind an inspirational legacy. He said that throughout the horrors of his life, even when he lost everything, he still clung to hope.
To this date, Rubin has been the only survivor of the Holocaust to have received the Medal of Honor for service in combat. His story is being told as part of this year’s Yom HaShoah, or Holocaust Remembrance Day.
Yom HaShoah is observed in April because it is the month that most of the camps were liberated by the Allied armies, and because it commemorates the start of the Warsaw Ghetto uprising, which began on April 19, 1943.
This year, Remembrance Day will be on Tuesday April 18 and the entire week, April 16-23, will be observed as the Days of Remembrance.