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John H. Noble; Survived, Denounced Soviet Captivity

By Adam Bernstein
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, November 17, 2007

John H. Noble, a Detroit native who languished for nearly 10 years in Soviet penal labor camps after World War II and spent the rest of the Cold War lecturing and writing about his captivity, died Nov. 10 at his home in Dresden, Germany, after a heart attack. He was 84.

Mr. Noble's gulag ordeal -- including four years in the Vorkuta coal mine and prison complex near the Arctic Circle -- began in 1945 when he was swept up by Soviet forces in Germany at the end of World War II.

In 1938, the teenage Mr. Noble had gone to Dresden to help his German-born father revive a camera factory. At the war's end, they were captured by the Soviet troops occupying the city. Mr. Noble's mother and a brother were released, and his father spent seven years in detention. Mr. Noble's fate remained a mystery until 1953, when he managed to smuggle a postcard to a distant relative.

The Soviets had denied for years knowing anything of Mr. Noble. Under pressure from President Dwight D. Eisenhower, he was released to American authorities in Berlin in January 1955. About the same time, two U.S. Army soldiers in Soviet internment were also handed over.

Mr. Noble spent decades on the speaking circuit, usually hosted by evangelical, conservative and human rights organizations. He worked to publicize his belief that countless American GIs were held as ghost prisoners in communist prisons.

As recently as 2005, an official with the American side of the U.S.-Russia Joint Commission on POW/MIAs estimated that hundreds of U.S. citizens -- servicemen and civilians -- had been incarcerated in the Soviet Union. But a "good number" were Americans who had gone voluntarily in the 1930s, said Larry Greer, a spokesman for the Defense Department's POW/MIA office.

Mr. Noble was the author of three books, including "I Was a Slave in Russia" (1958) and "I Found God in Soviet Russia" (1959). The second, written with journalist Glenn D. Everett and with an introduction by the Rev. Billy Graham, referred to Mr. Noble's religious epiphany during solitary confinement.

John Helmuth Noble was born Sept. 4, 1923. His father, Charles, a one-time Seventh-day Adventist missionary, left the church and took over a near-bankrupt Detroit photo-finishing company.

The elder Noble reversed the business's bad fortunes but, after years of exposure to photographic chemicals, was ordered by his doctors to a health spa. He took the family to Europe and wound up in Dresden, an eastern German city long known as a camera-production center.

Answering an advertisement, he took over a camera factory that became known for manufacturing an early and popular single-lens reflex camera.

After U.S. entry into World War II, the Nobles were restricted in their ability to travel but retained their company. John Noble, who trained as an efficiency expert, said the factory survived the war intact, suffering the loss of only one window during the Allied firebombing of the city in February 1945.

Mr. Noble said worse was to come, under Soviet occupation. Despite the Swiss consulate's promises of protection after the German surrender in May 1945, Mr. Noble was held in a Dresden prison for 15 months, a period during which he nearly starved to death with hundreds of other detainees.

He later was transferred to other camps, including Buchenwald, the former Nazi concentration camp.

He recalled that at one point, his head newly shaven, he was taken to a courtroom, where a young Russian interpreter told him to sign a statement sentencing him to 15 years of hard labor. After shouting in protest, he was stopped by the interpreter, who told him it was useless to argue because "someone will just sign it for you."

In 1950, he was transported in a train marked "postage" to Vorkuta, where he worked in the coal mines and also in a washroom for "free workers," Russian bureaucrats either assigned to the town or those who came for "Arctic bonus pay."

Stalin's death in March 1953 helped spark a strike among Vorkuta prisoners, including Mr. Noble. Soviet troops ended the strike by gunning down hundreds of prisoners.

The next year, he managed to spirit a postcard out of the camp through a barber. He signed the note "your noble nephew," to tip off German relatives. His parents, who had returned to Detroit, received the note and began an ultimately successful campaign for his release.

Mr. Noble began a long career of denouncing communism. But to support his growing family -- he had five children -- he reluctantly became an Amway distributor. "I was trying to save the country," he told Business Week in 1994. "I had no intention of selling soap."

After the unification of Germany, he returned to Dresden in 1990. He successfully reclaimed the company property but not the trademark to one of its most popular camera models. For several years, he manufactured a well-received panoramic camera but was forced out of the business because of a conflict with a bank, according to a family member.

In recent years, he wrote another book about the gulag whose German title translates to "Banished and Vanished."

His marriage to Ruth Hedstrom Noble ended in divorce

Survivors include a companion, Katherine F┬┐rsterof Dresden; five children from his marriage, Becky Noble of Sarasota, Fla., Christa McMullen of Nazareth, Pa., Peter Noble of Nashville and Beth Fritz and John Noble II, both of Montoursville, Pa.; a brother; and nine grandchildren.

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