Finding our heroes: San Jose man turns a spotlight on Jewish Medal of Honor recipients

There’s a joke in the movie “Airplane!” about a passenger asking for something light to read being handed a copy of “Famous Jewish Sports Legends,” a mere leaflet.

Although Jewish sports legends abound, the stereotype persists that there haven’t been very many — and a similar situation exists in regard to Jewish American war heroes.

Herbert Kwart speaks at the Saratoga Historical Foundation. photo/courtesy of shf/jim sorden

So San Jose’s Herbert Kwart decided to do something about it.

After listening to a talk by a Jewish Medal of Honor recipient in 2006, Kwart became curious and started researching Jews and the Medal of Honor. He went on to learn that 18 Jews have been awarded the Medal of Honor, the highest military award bestowed by the U.S. government.

“It’s the best-kept secret in the Jewish American community,” says Kwart, 88. “I was really surprised.”

A bombardier with the Air Force in World War II, Kwart spent most of his working years at Xerox. After retiring, he began a business buying and selling rare gold coins and rare paper money. It’s only been in recent years that he developed an interest in Jewish war heroes.

“I was astounded to find out that there was a vicious rumor traveling around: that the American Jewish serviceman [was avoiding] frontline combat,” Kwart says, “and that there was a large preponderance of Jewish servicemen that were in the medical and quartermaster corps.”

Herbert Kwart during World War II

Kwart says his research, done mostly via the Internet and interviews, has revealed quite a different story.

“I put that rumor to bed,” he says. “It’s just not so.”

He quickly points to what his research has revealed about Jewish servicemen in World War II: “Over 500,000 served, over 35,000 were wounded, over 19,000 were killed in action, and a large number served with distinction and honor.”

The Medal of Honor is awarded by the president in the name of Congress to “a member of the Armed Forces who distinguishes themselves conspicuously by gallantry above and beyond the call of duty,” according to a White House release. “The meritorious conduct must involve great personal bravery or self-sacrifice so conspicuous as to clearly distinguish the individual above his or her comrades and must have involved risk of life.”

From its inception in 1862, the Medal of Honor has been bestowed to more than 3,400 individuals, many posthumously.

One of the 18 Jewish honorees is Cpl. Tibor “Ted” Rubin, the man whose story piqued Kwart’s interest when he met him four years ago. A Hungarian Jew and a survivor of the Mauthausen concentration camp, Rubin received his medal in 2006 for his actions during the Korean War.

“In Ted’s calvary unit, he had a sergeant who was, unfortunately, very anti-Semitic,” Kwart says. “When he wanted to see Ted, he would say to his company clerk, ’Get me that Jew boy.’ That’s how he addressed him — not by his rank. He had to go through this aggravation, but still wanted to serve.”

Rubin, now a resident of Orange County, earned his medal for a couple of reasons, Kwart says.

In one situation, he single-handedly fought off a North Korean attack after his entire company had retreated down a mountain in Busan. Somehow, Rubin never got word of the retreat, and “was manning the machine gun on top of the mountain when the North Koreans attacked very heavily,” Kwart says. “He managed to hold on and continued to fire his machine gun, even though he was slightly wounded. He stopped the enemy from taking that mountain.”

At dawn, Rubin looked around and didn’t see any of his comrades. Puzzled, he returned to headquarters, where his fellow soldiers were astounded to see him. The next day, the company returned to the top of the mountain and “discovered a large number of North Koreans dead in Ted’s sector,” Kwart says.

Later in the war, “Ted was in a prisoner camp for about 18 months,” says Kwart. “He used his survival tactics that assisted him in Mauthau-sen. On many occasions, he went out of the camp and came back with fruit [for other prisoners]. He also showed them how to make soup out of grass. Due to those efforts, he saved their lives.”

Kwart loves talking about Jewish Medal of Honor recipients, a select group that includes only one other living member besides Rubin: Col. Jack Jacobs, a much-decorated Vietnam War veteran who wrote “If Not Now, When?: Duty and Sacrifice in America’s Time of Need” and is a military analyst for MSNBC.

Although Kwart can spin tale after tale about all 18 Jewish recipients, he has no plans to write a book on the subject — even though he has done a lot of research. But he does enjoy speaking before groups on the topic, as well as talking about his own World War II experiences (he flew the famed B-17 Flying Fortress bomber and had 35 missions over Germany).

He recently gave a lecture at Temple Emanu-El in San Jose, and also was featured last December at a Saratoga Historical Foundation event marking the 68th anniversary of Pearl Harbor.

Herb Kwart is available to speak to groups about Jewish Medal of Honor recipients. Contact him at (408) 629-0544.