Noble: although never charged with any crime, he was kept on a starvation diet for seven months

Daily Telegraph, 17/11/2007

John Noble, who died on November 10 aged 84, spent several years in the Soviet gulag system despite being an American citizen, and later wrote about his experiences in two books of memoirs.

Noble's father, Charles, was a German missionary who had moved to Detroit, Michigan, where John was born on September 4 1923. Later, Charles Noble left the church and took over an ailing photo-finishing company for which his wife worked and whose owners had moved to California.

The Nobles eventually built the company into one of the largest in the United States.

Due to his contact with photographic chemicals, Charles Noble became ill and spent much time visiting health spas in Europe. On a visit to Germany during the 1930s he met a half-Jewish businessman who was anxious to leave the country.

The man offered to exchange his business, the Kamera-Werkstaetten Guthe & Thorsch camera factory at Niedersedlitz, near Dresden, for the Nobles' photo-finishing company. The deal was signed and the Nobles moved to Dresden.

The factory, which manufactured Praktica cameras, was run down, but the Nobles soon began to turn things round. After war was declared in September 1939, however, the family was put into local internment, their movements restricted to the city of Dresden.

From 1941, when America entered the war, restrictions became even more severe.

In February 1945 the Nobles watched the RAF's carpet-bombing raids on Dresden from their home in the suburbs. Most of their windows were blown out, while the firestorm raging in the heart of the city sucked sparks through the gaps. The camera factory, however, remained largely undamaged. Then, in May 1945, the Red Army arrived.

"The Soviets in Dresden were worse than the air raids," Noble recalled. Murders and looting were widespread - as were rapes, which were sometimes carried out in public on mattresses thrown down in the streets.

But the soldiers had orders to protect the camera factory. The Soviet army wanted 50,000 cameras, and the military assisted in obtaining the raw materials needed to produce the camera bodies. However, Noble's father had to visit West Germany to obtain the lenses.

While there, he sought advice from the American authorities about his family's safety. Comforted by their reassurances - the Soviets were allies, after all - he returned to Dresden, where he and John were arrested as the Communist authorities moved to take over the camera business. They were thrown into prison.

Though they were never charged with any crime, they were incarcerated in tiny adjoining cells "two to three steps long by one and a half to two steps wide", and kept on a starvation diet for seven months. "Don't expect justice," a guard told them. "Justice doesn't exist."

Close to despair, John Noble prayed to God to take his life, but as he did so he became convinced that God would protect him and that the Communists had no power over him.

He spent 14 months in the prison in Dresden before being transferred for another 14 months to Mühlberg (Special Camp I) and then to Buchenwald (Special Camp II), where he was separated from his father.

After Buchenwald was closed in 1950, John's father was released in 1952, returning to his family in Detroit a broken man. John, however, was sentenced to a further 15 years' imprisonment and transferred to the Soviet gulag system. First he was sent to a camp at Voloda, where the underground cells were overrun with rats; then he was transferred to the notorious Siberian camp complex at Vorkuta to work in the coal mines.

Temperatures in the camp averaged minus 50 to minus 60F, falling to as low as minus 90F in winter. The urinals were wooden boards placed against the outside walls of the sleeping huts; prisoners would watch how far the urine flowed before it froze for an indication of the temperature.

Noble spent six months working in the mines before being given a job in the laundry and officers' bathhouse. Although now weighing less than seven stone, he felt convinced that God meant him to survive and he took the appearance of the Northern Lights as a sign of divine protection.

In July 1953 he took part in the Vorkuta uprising when - inspired by reports of uprisings in East Germany - inmates, aided and abetted by some of the camp guards, went on strike over demands for improved camp conditions. It was some weeks before the uprising was bloodily suppressed.

Of the thousands of inmates in the camp, a few were allowed to send the occasional postcard, but only to relatives living in the Soviet Union or Soviet-occupied areas. The cards and replies were censored by the camp guards. Somehow, in 1954, Noble managed to smuggle out a note loosely glued to a card sent by another prisoner. Addressed to a distant cousin, it was signed "your noble nephew".

The message eventually found its way to West Germany and was sent on to Detroit, where his family gave it to the State Department - though it was only when President Eisenhower intervened personally that things began to happen.

Noble was released from detention in January 1955 along with a number of American military captives.

He returned to America where, after briefing government officials about his experiences, he turned to lecturing and writing. He wrote two books about his ordeal, I Found God in Soviet Russia (1959, co-written with Glenn Everett) and I Was a Slave in Russia (1961), and founded and served as director of the Faith and Freedom Forum.

He also worked with Andrei Sakharov's organisation, Memorial, to establish the fate of other missing Americans from the post-war gulag period. In 1990, after the fall of the Berlin Wall, Noble returned to live in Dresden, where he succeeded in regaining ownership of the family camera factory, though not the Praktica trademark.

John Noble was twice married, and is survived by his second wife and by five children of his first marriage.