By: Cory Bilicko
It literally took an act of Congress, but the hospital at the Long Beach Veterans Administration is now the Tibor Rubin VA Medical Center, in honor of the late Holocaust survivor and Medal of Honor recipient.
The local VA hosted a renaming ceremony Wednesday morning to honor the Jewish– and previously unsung– foreign-born hero who would eventually step up to serve in the US Army.
Born in Hungary in 1929, Rubin, as a teenager, would endure 14 months in the Mauthausen concentration camp in Austria during World War II. His parents and younger sister were killed, but he was among those whom the US Army eventually liberated on May 5, 1945.
That rescue inspired Rubin to enlist in the US Army, and he was eventually deployed in 1950 as a member of the 8th Cavalry Regiment, 1st Cavalry Division as a rifleman during the Korean War.
Despite facing religious discrimination from a sergeant who sent him on the most dangerous assignments and then withheld his commendation, Rubin fought “valiantly in several notable engagements,” according to the office of Congressmember Alan Lowenthal (CA-47), who introduced legislation last year to rename the VA center in Rubin’s name.
Eleven years before Lowenthal’s effort to honor Tubin, President George W. Bush had honored him with the Medal of Honor, saying that “Rubin’s many acts of courage during the Korean War saved the lives of hundreds of his fellow soldiers.”
Among Rubin’s engagements that eventually earned him posthumous recognition was his enabling the complete withdrawal of his fellow soldiers by alone defending a hill under an assault by North Korean troops. While his regiment retreated to the Pusan Perimeter, Rubin stood alone and protected the Taegu-Pusan road from attacking forces and maintained his position for 24 hours, slowing enemy advance and allowing for the regiment’s successful withdrawal.
“One night near the Pusan Perimeter, Corporal Rubin had been assigned to hold a hill that was essential to the 3rd Battalion safe withdrawal,” Bush said in his speech. “For 24 hours, this lone rifleman would defend the hill against an overwhelming number of North Korean forces. By his actions, Corporal Rubin inflicted heavy casualties on the enemy, saved the lives of countless soldiers, and gave the unit time to withdraw.”
Bush continued with another of Rubin’s heroic acts.
“When Corporal Rubin’s battalion found itself ambushed by thousands of Chinese troops, the Americans’ firepower soon dwindled to a single machine gun,” Bush said. “The weapon was in an exposed position and three soldiers had already died manning it. That was when Corporal Rubin stepped forward. He fought until his ammunition was gone… He risked his life that day to protect his fellow American soldiers, and his heroism helped many of them escape.”
On another assignment, after being seriously injured and captured, Rubin was held in a prisoner-of-war camp, where he risked personal safety to sneak out at night in search of food for his fellow prisoners. He would later be credited for saving the lives of as many as 40 of his comrades.
Rubin’s army service ended in July 1953, and he became a US citizen about a year later.
After the war, he moved to Long Beach, married a woman named Yvonne and had two children, Frank and Rosie. He became a butcher but found it difficult to continue because of war injuries. He then worked at a liquor store owned by his brother, Emery, and later became a partner. Rubin and his family eventually settled in Garden Grove.
In early December of last year, Lowenthal’s bill, H.R. 6323, garnered the support and backing of the entire 53-member California House delegation. California’s two senators, Diane Feinstein and Barbara Boxer, also supported the renaming effort, along with numerous veterans groups in California, including the American Legion, AMVETS, Disabled American Veterans, Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America, Jewish War Veterans of the USA and the Veterans of Foreign Wars.
On Dec. 16, 2016, President Barack Obama signed the legislation into law.
At Wednesday’s renaming ceremony at the Long Beach VA, Lowenthal spoke, not only about Rubin’s achievements, but also about his personality.
“He brought so much joy to so many people,” Lowenthal said. “He had a great sense of humor. A man that moved through life with a strength and character that everyone around him recognized, despite the adversities and the horrors that he lived through, he did not let that darkness dim his character. That’s not who he was. He refused to let it define him.”
Rabbi Moishe Engel also spoke at the event, saying Rubin’s self-sacrifice proved him worthy of the great honor that came much later in his life.
“His comrades recommended he receive the Congressional Medal of Honor for his bravery and his dedication to his comrades in arms,” Engel said. “The sergeant’s response was, ‘No Jew will ever receive this honor under my watch.’ His risking his life again and again for his fellow soldiers went unrecognized. Many of the soldiers whose lives he had saved, as well as the Jewish war veterans, were on a campaign for America to recognize this hero. And, so, in 2005, 55 years after the Korean War, he received his due– the Congressional Medal of Honor. President Bush acknowledged at his presentation that it was due to prejudice that he received this honor 55 years late.”
At the culmination of the ceremony, a portrait created by artist Stewart Wavell-Smith was unveiled. The painting shows Rubin wearing his Medal of Honor, in front of the VA Medical Center that will now bear his name.
In an email to the Signal Tribune this week, Wavell-Smith explained the connection he felt to Rubin. He said that, at 19, he had visited the concentration camp where Rubin was interred, and that experience has stayed with him through the years. Also, like Rubin, Wavell-Smith himself had received treatment at the Long Beach VA.
“In researching Tibor, and him surviving that death camp, I was moved to thank him by painting him and the place of healing that saved my life in 2015,” the artist said. “This small token of my appreciation to Long Beach VA and being able to honor Tibor has been a blessing. Since 1965, I have had the honor to serve my country through my God-given gift.”
Wavell-Smith’s portrait– a two-foot-by-three-foot acrylic painting titled “Shalom Tibor”– will reside in the restored lobby of the medical center upon completion of a construction project to seismically retrofit and upgrade the building.
The artist-veteran also has the distinction of having his work on display in one of the nation’s most important buildings.
“I also have had the honor to recognize young Americans in a mural that resides on the fifth floor on ‘A’ ring between corridors 1 and 10 in the Pentagon in Washington DC, that is called ‘Operation Enduring Freedom,’” Wavell-Smith said. “A reproduction of the mural resides near the emergency entrance of the [Long Beach VA] medical center. I feel very fortunate that I can thank Tibor and the VA Medical Center at the same time.”