97-year-old Herb Rubenstein has survived Nazis, war and a wonderful world
EDWARDS — Herb Rubenstein is so all American, he was born on Flag Day.
You’ve seen Herb. He rides in the VFW Jeep at the head of Vail’s Fourth of July parade.
Herb turned 97 years old on Flag Day, June 14, 2017. He sat down with us for a visit, during which he occasionally paused to ask for chocolate. Like all of us, he’s supposed to drink more water. But like most of us, he prefers chocolate.
And what are the water-pushing people going to do to him that hasn’t already been tried? He’s 97 and has survived Nazi attempts to kill him several times a day. He served in the 89th Infantry and saw action at the Battle of the Bulge and many, many other battles.
The Jewish kid from Brooklyn helped liberate a Nazi death camp. They had no idea what they were seeing. No one had warned them. The camp turned out to be a feeder camp for Auschwitz. Those who lived long enough were often sent there to be killed.
Before Supreme Allied Commander Gen. Dwight Eisenhower toured that camp, Allied soldiers marched the Germans from the surrounding villages through to see the stacks of emaciated bodies, some living, but barely.
“They claimed they never knew anything. They smelled the gas. They saw the trains pull in full and leave empty, but no one saw anything,” Herb said.
Herb served in the combat infantry, with a detour through the Army Air Corps after college where they trained him as a navigator. Late in the war, the Allies knocked out the Luftwaffe, so back to the infantry he went.
He grows quiet as he recalls the day they found that Nazi death camp.
“You see these guys in these trenches. All the bodies. The remaining people were like corpses, no meat on them. They weighed 40 or 50 pounds,” Herb said.
The soldiers’ first impulse was to feed them, but they dared not, Herb said.
“If they digested too much food, they would die, and a lot of them did die,” Herb said.
Herb brought home a huge Nazi flag. Eventually, his wife Thelma threw it away.
Every story is history
If Herb Rubenstein had gotten on the Swiss watch-making tour in the waning days of World War II, then he would never have learned to ski, and he would never have landed in Vail.
He’ll tell us that story, he says smiling, as soon as he has some more chocolate.
Everything is a story, and every Herb story is a delight. Like the time the Army gave him a month and a half to finish his senior year at Ohio University before shipping off to the war. Or that time the Army sent him skiing in Arosa, Switzerland.
His first time on skis he rode a J-bar lift up a steep incline with a cliff on one side and trees on both sides.
“I said, ‘I survived combat, and I’m gonna get killed falling off this thing!” Herb said.
He didn’t, of course.
“I fell in love with skiing, which was very important in my life,” Herb said.
Then he fell in love with Thelma.
She was a reporter with the Newark Star-Ledger, meeting troop ships as they returned stateside after the war at New York’s Pier 44 and collecting stories. As a journalist, her stories tend toward the factual, and the facts are that Thelma was 22 years old and adorable. Herb noticed, as did the hundreds of other soldiers returning home through New York’s Pier 44.
“After the war, I met Thelma. That’s that goddess sitting there,” Herb said, nodding across the table at his bride.
“He picked me up at a gas station,” Thelma said, smiling.
On that part they agree.
Herb was on his way to a date with a girl named Bernice. His gas tank was empty, so he stopped for fuel. Thelma wandered over to tell him that the service station attendant was fixing her car and would be along in a moment. People did not pump their own gas in those days.
Herb was driving either a new convertible or an old jalopy, depending on who’s telling the story.
They talked, as folks will do, and she left him with her business card. He left her with a big piece of his heart.
It took a month for him call her, Thelma said.
“I had to get rid of all my other girlfriends,” Herb said, smiling.
They met in December or January, he called her in April, and they got married in July.
“What took me so long?” Herb said, laughing.
“I said to Thelma, ‘I could get you a ring, but you can’t do anything but look at the ring. I’ll get you a pair of skis and boots at Macy’s, and we could have a lot of fun,’” Herb said.
If you’ve survived combat, helped liberate Nazi death camps and unloaded troop ships, then fun is the meaning of life. The skis won that day, but for the record Thelma wears a beautiful wedding ring.
When she spoke with her parents, her mother asked, “Did he get you a ring?”
“No,” Thelma replied. “He got me a pair of skis.”
Her mother said, “Get rid of that guy. He’s a loser.”
She didn’t, of course. They got married and have two beautiful kids. Thelma left journalism to become an English teacher. They migrated to Vail when Herb hit 65 and retired.
The Army wanted him to stick around after the war, and offered him a job as a land accountant in upper Austria, at a full colonel’s salary. Home beckoned when his brother sent word from New York, “Get your ass over here. We have a company to build.”
So, Herb and his brother Ed took over his father’s Levittown, New York, Central Dental Supply Co.
“Herb was an aggressive and smart businessman,” Thelma said proudly.
They sold it to some high rollers, who put it the hands of what Thelma calls “Harvard paper pushers,” who ran it into the ground in three years.
Matters of the heart
Along the way, Herb had some heart trouble. One of his best friends was Dave Grayson, who owned First Investors. Grayson convinced Herb to start running, and at the tender age of 56, Herb did.
“His doctor told him not to do it, but was so impressed with the condition of his heart that the doctor started running,” Thelma said.
He ran his first marathon at 57 and ran five until he quit running at age 62.
“I lost all of them,” Herb deadpanned. “You know Bill Rodgers, the running guru? I ran against him and I didn’t beat him.”
He’s a businessman, so when it comes to a decision between money and accolades, he says; “I’ll take the money.”
There’s a Herb Rubenstein bench in Freedom Park.
“It’ll only cost you a dollar an hour to sit on it,” Herb said, laughing.
Staff Writer Randy Wyrick can be reached at 970-748-2935 or email@example.com.