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John H. Noble, 84; chronicled his 10-year ordeal in a gulag

Email|Print|Single Page| Text size + By Adam Bernstein
Washington Post / November 18, 2007

WASHINGTON - 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, as a teenager, 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 Eisenhower, he was released to American authorities in Berlin in January 1955. About the same time, two US 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.

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 onetime 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 the United States entered World War II, the Nobles were restricted in their ability to travel but retained their company.

Mr. Noble said the 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.

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 spirited 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.

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