Tibor Rubin could be the poster boy candidate for all immigrants, anywhere. He embraced his adopted country with a devotion right out of the U.S. national anthem: to him America literally was the Land of the Free and Home of the Brave.
He died December 5th, at 86.
Tibor was a Holocaust survivor from Hungary who made his way to the US after the World War Two … joined the American Army when the Korean War broke out … and became a real-life, certified war hero.
Well, not quite certified.
Despite his valour on the battlefield and later as a POW; despite recommendations four separate times for a Medal of Honor; despite praise from his fellow GI’s … despite all this, Rubin didn’t get his medal. He was Jewish. A superior who was an anti-Semite stonewalled the paperwork and Tibor’s valour went unrecognized for decades because of his religion.
In the early 1990s, the US Army came to grips with this outrageous injustice, opened an inquiry (other GIs were also affected) and in 2005 at a White House ceremony President George W.Bush awarded Tibor Rubin his much-delayed Medal of Honor.
It was a grand moment and a tribute to a nation’s ability to self-correct its misdeeds.
But before we Canadians get too smug about being so morally superior, Canada too has had at least one such Tibor Rubin moment. And in the same war.
Mike Levy was the son of a geologist who worked for an oil company in China.
Mike and his parents were interned by the Japanese in Shanghai when war broke out. He escaped, and assisted by guerrillas made his way through occupied China, was flown over the Himalayas by the Americans to India where (at 18), joined the secretive, blow-things-up group called Special Operations Executive and was parachuted behind the lines into Burma. He specialized in harrowing sabotage and ambush missions. One report in his file says he “led his guerrillas with flying colours.”
Levy ended up in Canada, and joined this country’s first unit to see combat in Korea, the 2nd Battalion, Princess Patricias Canadian Light Infantry (2PPCLI).
In their first battle, in April 1951, near a nowhere village called Kapyong 2PPCLI, surrounded and outnumbered, beat back a Chinese mass attack and helped save the South Korean capital, Seoul. Levy’s platoon was clinging to an isolated position and in danger of going under. In desperation, he called in artillery fire on his own foxholes and the Chinese were driven off.
The Battalion was awarded a U.S. Presidential Citation for its stand at Kapyong. And five soldiers were (rightly) decorated for bravery that night. But not Levy.
It was a mystery. Everyone in the battle knew that Levy’s desperate heroism probably helped save the battalion. Years later, another soldier who was at Kapyong that night, Hub Gray, tracked down a member of the unit’s Intelligence section. He told Gray he’d overheard the commander, Col. Jim Stone (a brilliant combat leader and an authentic war hero himself), declare privately:
“I will not award a medal to a Jew.”
Gray fought for years to get recognition for Levy. Finally in 2003, the then Governor General Adrienne Clarkson, took up the cause and awarded Levy a coat of arms for his heroism at Kapyong a half century before. (At the time of the battle, she was a 12-year-old school girl. Today, she is the Patricias Colonel-in-Chief). Levy stayed in the Army, and died in 2007, after a highly successful military career.
We’ll never know now how many other unknown Rubins or Levys went unhonoured, thanks to bigotry. It’s hard to imagine that in today’s universe the injustices to such heroes could be remotely possible. Then was then; and now is now. We hope.
But at a time when immigration and religion have become topics so toxic and flammable in some quarters in both America and Canada it’s helpful to reflect that where you were born, or what faith you follow (or don’t follow), should matter not one iota.
The patriotism and heroism of a Rubin or a Levy are not the stuff of religion or origin. Their qualities spring from character. It’s all that matters. Or all that should matter. Something to contemplate in a season that revolves so much around sentiments of harmony and community.