John Noble, Gulag Survivor, Dies at 84

By Douglas Martin
Published: November 26, 2007

John H. Noble, an American who never knew why the Soviets imprisoned him in their notorious gulag, but not only lived to write books on the grim, decade-long experience but also recovered his family's company and castle in the former East Germany, died on Nov. 10 in Dresden, Germany. He was 84. His family announced the death.

Mr. Noble's story surfaced in the early years of the cold war, as the United States repeatedly asked the Soviet Union about him, only to be told that the Russians knew nothing. President Dwight D. Eisenhower personally intervened and won his release in January 1955 after nine and a half years of captivity. His incarceration included backbreaking labor; minimal water and food; temperatures that regularly plunged 50 degrees below zero; and solitary confinement - first in Russian prisons in Germany, including Buchenwald, the former Nazi concentration camp. Then Mr. Noble was sent to Russia's slave labor camps, the notorious gulag. He was Slave No. 1-E-241.

For all the physical pain, the most agonizing experience was never being told why he was arrested in 1945 on charges of espionage. When he was finally tried in 1950, he was summarily sentenced to 15 years of hard labor and given a confession to sign. If he refused, he was told, someone else would sign it.

Mr. Noble's path to freedom began with smuggling out a cryptic message taped to the postcard of a prisoner with mailing privileges. His family enlisted the help of a Michigan congressman who met with President Eisenhower, who leaned on the authorities in Moscow.

Soon after Mr. Noble's release, The New York Times reported on his reunion with his family in Manhattan on Jan. 17, 1955. Contrary to his later accounts, he said he had been treated well, and the article said he appeared to be in excellent health.

But he soon spoke more darkly of his experiences in many interviews, speeches and writings, which included a series of articles in The New York Times and books that included "I Was a Slave in Russia" (1958) and "I Found God in Soviet Russia" (1959), written with Glenn D. Everett, with an introduction by the Rev. Billy Graham.

He long charged that the Soviet Union continued to hold many American prisoners. In 1968, he said at a mock trial of international Communism organized by anti-Communist groups that the Soviets had held 3,000 Americans in 1955 and still had many. The State Department replied that it knew of no such captives.

He fueled his message with religious conviction annealed in Soviet jails, and an anti-Communism so fierce that he went on a speaking tour for the ultra-right-wing John Birch Society in the mid-1960s. He was founder and director of the Faith and Freedom Forum, which sold recordings of his books, among other things.

Mr. Noble was born on Sept. 4, 1923, in Detroit, where his father, a former Christian missionary, had moved from Germany, the British newspaper The Daily Telegraph reported in its obituary. In Detroit, his father, Charles, took over a photo-finishing company that became large and profitable. Because of poor health, Charles took his family to Dresden to be near German hot springs. In 1938, the elder Mr. Noble bought a camera manufacturer in Dresden, exchanging his own American company as part of the deal. The German company's two founders were Jewish and no longer felt safe in Nazi Germany.

The company, Kamera Werkstatten, in 1939 introduced an early 35 millimeter single-lens reflex camera, the Praktica. Partly because the new camera was immediately popular, the Germans permitted the company to operate through the war. The Nobles, though, were restricted to Dresden.

The family tried to leave under a Swiss-brokered exchange of nationals but were inexplicably turned back at the border, BusinessWeek reported in 1994. When the war ended, the Soviets seized the plant and merged it with other German companies.

The Nobles were advised by the American military to sit tight because the Soviet Union was an ally. They did, and Charles and John were arrested as spies. John's brother and mother were not.

As father and son were shuttled among prisons in eastern Germany, John came up with religious services, exercise programs and other activities to occupy fellow prisoners. One pastime involved counting the number of bodies hauled away, 200 one Christmas Day, BusinessWeek reported.

"It was impossible to block out the screams," Mr. Noble said.

His father died in 1952. Mr. Noble is survived by his wife and five children, The Telegraph reported.

Money grew tight in the 1970s, and he reluctantly set up an Amway distributorship. He had less and less time for speeches.

"I was trying to save the country," he told BusinessWeek. "I had no intention of selling soap."

In 1990, after the Berlin Wall fell, Mr. Noble regained control of part of the German company, but not of its Praktica trademark. He recovered the family castle overlooking Dresden. He introduced new products, including the Noblex, a new panorama camera with a lens that rotates 360 degrees. He was honored with a French knighthood.

But he failed in his attempt to build a robust capitalist enterprise in the former Soviet bloc. In 1997, as his company teetered on the brink of bankruptcy, he sold it to his employees.