Tibor Rubin looked down at his emaciated body and had a hard time imagining that he was still a human being, likening himself to a sack of bones. He promised himself that if God would save him from the confines of a Nazi concentration camp, he would kiss the feet of his liberators and join them in their fight.
Rubin was 15 when U.S. soldiers opened the camp at Mauthausen, Austria, and he recalled yesterday that his 14 months there ended with a solemn promise: "I was going to go to the U.S. and join the U.S. Army to show my appreciation. . . . It was my wish to fight alongside them."
More than half a century later, President Bush yesterday bestowed the nation's highest military honor on Rubin, who not only joined the U.S. Army but also saved the lives of dozens of fellow American soldiers during the Korean War. Rubin used his survival skills from the brutal concentration camp to help nurture his U.S. comrades in a communist prisoner-of-war camp in the early 1950s, the White House said, giving hope and sustenance to soldiers who otherwise would likely have died in the custody of Chinese troops.
Rubin, 76, once a corporal, received the Medal of Honor for a series of courageous acts while he was fighting in Korea as a member of the 1st Cavalry Division. He is credited with going back to save a soldier who had been left for dead on the battlefield, single-handedly staving off a relentless attack on his unit, and later with saving lives in the desperate confines of the POW camp.
Receiving the coveted award from the president was the end of a long journey for the Hungarian-born Jew, whose opportunity to get the medal decades ago was thwarted by a discriminatory sergeant who did not like Rubin's religion or nationality, officials said. In an interview yesterday, Rubin said he was often given the most dangerous assignments. He noted that he was so often referred to by a derogatory phrase that he nearly forgot his own name.
But the Army has been reevaluating cases of heroism -- particularly involving members of minority groups -- to see whether Medals of Honor should have been given, and officers discovered Rubin and his story.
Yesterday, Bush said Rubin exemplifies what it means to be an American, praising his selfless courage and calling him a "true son of liberty."
"By repeatedly risking his own life to save others, Corporal Rubin exemplified the highest ideals of military service and fulfilled a pledge to give something back to the country that had given him his freedom," Bush said at a White House ceremony.
For Rubin, who goes by "Ted," having the Medal of Honor ribbon placed around his neck was beyond his dreams.
"I was just a small country boy from the Old Country, and now everyone is calling me 'sir,' " Rubin said in an interview. "A three-star general called me sir. Only in the United States could a little guy go to the White House and the president give me the highest medal in the country. Only in the United States."
Army officials credit Rubin with saving at least 40 lives, in part because he was able to keep soldiers' spirits up as they faced brutality similar to that in Mauthausen.
Rubin said that he stole food from his captors to feed his sick friends, and that he nurtured the weak through the hardest times. He said he knew that survival was mostly mind over matter, and that he tried to get his fellow soldiers to think positively.
"I tried to brainwash them, telling them they had to stay strong, not to forget their parents, that they have to get home and to not give up," Rubin said. "It wasn't easy on them. For someone that young, it's a nightmare. But I had been through it once, and that's why I came through and helped them.
"My mother used to tell us that we're all brothers and sisters, and in the Jewish religion, if you do a mitzvah -- nothing but a good deed -- that's better than if you go to temple and beat your head and ask the Lord to help you," he said. "I helped people because I could."