Sir John Noble and Dresden

An American Survivor of the Post-war Gulag

By Hugh S Galford

John Noble’s life story is intimately related to Dresden’s World War II and post-war history. Dresden, one of the pre-war jewels of German cities, was utterly destroyed by the Allied bombing campaigns at the end of the war, and then suffered from neglect under the Communist East German regime. It is only now, 15 years after German reunification, that the city is beginning to regain some of its lost splendor. For Noble as well, the struggle to regain his family’s pre-war standing is on-going.

Noble was born in Detroit, Michigan, in 1923. His father, born in Germany, came to the US as a missionary in 1922. Finding contradictions in church teachings, he eventually left the church. His mother, a photographer, worked in a photo-finishing company in Detroit. When the owners left for California, the banks wanted his father to take over the company — at that point, his mother was the sole remaining employee. The Nobles eventually built the company to become one of the top ten photo-finishing companies in the US.

His father developed liver and gall bladder problems, and was ordered to avoid chemicals for two years. He visited health spas in the US, Czechoslovakia and Germany. On one of these trips, he made the acquaintance of a German camera manufacturer, who offered to trade his camera factory for the Nobles’ company.

In New York to board the ship to Germany, the news of Hitler’s invasion of Czechoslovakia was flashed on Times Square. The German, who was half-Jewish, was desperate to leave, so the Nobles went through with the trade, despite any misgivings. When they arrived in Dresden, they found the cameras were a little out-dated and the company was limping along. Again, through much hard work, the Nobles turned the company around, turning the Praktica into a major international brand, and employing 600 workers at the business’ peak.

All this was to change in 1939 when, on September 1, war was declared on Germany after their invasion of Poland. On September 3, Britain entered the war and the Nobles were put into local internment, which limited their movements to the city of Dresden itself. Noble says that this early period of the war was easy for him, but difficult for his father, who could no longer conduct business in person outside of the city. In 1941, with the US entry into the war, the restrictions on the Nobles’ movement and financial dealings became much more severe, but nothing was confiscated — there was very little going on with the business.

The first major change in Noble’s life came on January 25, 1945. In a Swiss-brokered agreement, 1800 US Germans were to be exchanged for 900 Americans held in Germany. The agreement was clear on one point in particular: there was to be no cherry-picking of exchangees — it was all or none. At the train, Noble remembers, the Gestapo held his family back. It had been a huge strain to get to the station, and another to get home. The Swiss launched an investigation into their detention, but all traces were destroyed in the bombing of Dresden.

The air raids on Dresden lasted only two days, but did incalculable damage. The first two waves — carried out mainly by the RAF — occurred on Tuesday, February 13, 1945: the first at 9:00 pm and the second at midnight. At 10:00 am on the 14th, a third, all-US raid occurred. From their home on the outskirts of town, the Nobles witnessed the extent of the destruction. Most windows in the home were blown out, and the resulting firestorm sent sparks into one window and out the other side of the building. Noble remembers his mother losing her nerves, utterly terrified. The factory, on the other hand, suffered only one blown-out window. The Allies ignored the industrial areas to the east and west of the city, targeting instead the population and cultural areas in the city center. (Prior to the war, Dresden was known for its camera industry, chocolate and china.)

The air raids coincided with an influx of refugees from the Soviet invasion in the east. Dresden’s normal population was between 500,000 and 600,000. At the time of the air raids, there were over one million in the city. Dresden was the terminus of trains from the east; most refugees were in the tunnels under the train station, waiting to journey onwards.

The heart of Dresden had been destroyed; the outskirts suffered only hit-and-miss damage. There was no food, water, gas or money in the city following the raids. Industry was out, with employees staying either at home or with friends. The Nobles themselves sheltered 30 friends and employees in their home. Shipments of food were sent, but took a week to arrive. Noble remembers some storekeepers handing out food to people fleeing the city, knowing that no one had money and that the food would spoil otherwise.

“For Dresden,” Noble says, “the war was over with the air raids.” Dresden’s situation remained up in the air for another two-and-a-half months, until the Red Army entered the city on May 6. The US Army reached 100 miles west of Dresden; there may have been an agreement that they would leave Dresden to the Soviets. The question of the Yalta and Tehran conferences was: where were the Soviets to end their drive? The understanding early on was that after the war Germany would be obliterated, its territory going to Poland and other neighboring countries. The Potsdam agreement changed this: Germany would remain after the war, but as a nation occupied.

“The Soviets in Dresden were worse than the air raids,” Noble says. The three months following the Red Army’s arrival were hell on earth. There was no work, as no one wanted to go out. Employees riding their bikes to work had their bikes taken by the soldiers. Murders and killings were widespread, as were rapes. During the first three weeks, the soldiers were so bold as to throw mattresses into the streets and rape women and girls there, in full view.

Soviet officers were named to protect the Nobles’ plant from looting, and assisted in obtaining the raw materials needed to produce the camera bodies. Noble’s father had to travel to West Germany, however, for the lenses for their orders (the Soviet army alone ordered 50,000 cameras). When he returned, he and John were arrested and the East German state took over the business. (A side note to this is that at the start of 2006, the German equivalent of the IRS estimated that the company made had 400,000 marks profit during the second half of 1945 — while the Nobles were imprisoned — and wanted to collect 50,000 in taxes. Noble told them, “Give us the profit, and we’ll pay the taxes.” The case continues.)

Although arrested, the Nobles were never charged with any crime. They were interrogated — “Why did you come to Germany? Why are you in Germany? Why are you running a factory and exploiting the people?” — but the officials of the Soviet-backed “Saxonian Regional Government” — most of whom had been in government under Hitler — never leveled any accusations at them. “Basically,” Noble explains, “it was because we were Americans and they wanted control of production — we were a thorn in their eyes.” Of the list of factories to be confiscated, some were removed through the owners’ right to challenge; as the Nobles were in prison, they had no chance to challenge the decision.

Noble was told by a guard early in his imprisonment, “Don’t look for justice; justice doesn’t exist.” The experience of the Soviet prison, Noble says, was “shocking…having your world go from a beautiful house to a small cell: two to three steps long by one-and-a-half to two steps wide.” Noble spent seven months in that cell — there was no stepping out of it. The door opened three times a day for food: coffee and bread for breakfast, fish soup for lunch and dinner. The soup, Noble recalls, “tasted fishy, was brown-gray, and was full of bones and fins.”

Prisoners were kept alive until the starvation period: three days without food, two days’ remission, followed by another 12 days without food. The upshot was grim: of the 700 prisoners who entered the prison, only 22 or 23 survived.

Noble became totally discouraged only once. It helped that, as their cells were kitty-corner to each other, Noble could see his father through the spy hole in his door. More importantly, he says, is that he found the Lord in prison during the hunger period. On the first day without food, he asked himself, “If the Lord is here, would he let this happen?” Noble prayed, but there was no food; this continued for three days. On the fourth day, when he quit praying, there was a little food, which confused him. Then came the 12 days without food, when most prisoners gave up.

Noble recounts, “On the sixth day, I was too weak to talk or to lift my feet off the floor. In part, this was due to lack of food, but also to my sense of hopelessness. I prayed that God would take my life. And this was when things changed entirely. The next day, I was a little stronger, and felt assured that God was in heaven, that He had the power to sustain me, and that the Soviets had no power over me.”

Noble first met his father face-to-face at Christmas 1945. There was no water in the cells except for a toilet. He was called out for a bath, and found his father cutting prisoners’ hair. There was only one bath per cell, he recalls. “If there were 20 in a cell, there were 20 in the bath. I was lucky to be alone in my cell.” He soon got a job in the prison cleaning and handing out food; he was later put in charge of attendance records. He was moved to a cell next to his father, which allowed them to see that the other was still on his feet.

Noble spent 14 months in this prison, and was then shipped to Muehlberg (“Special Camp I”) for another 14 months, and then to Buchenwald (“Special Camp II”), where he was separated from his father. In the prisons, trials and executions were carried out, from there, some were sent to Belsen for further questioning; others — those the authorities weren’t sure what to do with — were sent to Muehlberg. Of 16,000 prisoners sent to Muehlberg, 9,000 were buried there. From Muehlberg, some were released or shipped to the gulags — some to Waldheim, and 644 to the Soviet Union.

Noble was one of the 644. “There were always 644,” he says, “though not always the same people.” He was shipped to Erfurt, then Weimar, Berlin, through Poland, and on to Moscow. In Moscow, many of the German prisoners were left behind — Noble has heard recently that many of them were sho t— and Russian prisoners added. From Moscow, the 644 were sent to Voloda, where “the cells were underground, there were more rats than prisoners, and claustrophobia ruled”, and then to their final destination, Verkuta.

Verkuta is one of the coldest places in Russia, with temperatures averaging –50F to –60F, and going as low as –94F, in winter. There, the men worked in the coal mines and the women in factories. At first, Noble wanted to work on the surface, but found that it was simply too cold. The rule for prisoners was that they spent only one year at any given camp — in this way, they could not be befriended by the guards. When a prisoner first arrived, he or she got the worst jobs.

“We were 600 meters down in the mines. Everything down there was so primitive. The hope every time you went down was that you would come up again. There were almost daily cave-ins. Sometimes they would try to get the men out; sometimes, they would just go around the cave-in.” Instead of bracing the mine ceiling every meter, the braces were set every several meters — this because the prisoners sent some wood for the officers’ houses.

Noble was in Verkuta from September 1950 through June 1954. He worked in the mines for five-six months, then got a job in the clothes laundry/officers’ bathhouse. He spent about 8 years under 100 pounds in weight. All the prisoners, he recalls, had either strong calves or arms (depending on the work they did), while the rest of them was skin and bones.

“Most of the prisoners gave up hope,” Noble says. “They had no will to live or work — they saw their end soon enough but I felt freedom was on the horizon and I had my faith. I believed, ‘I’m going to make it.” He says, with solid conviction, that what kept him alive was prayer. He recalls one year on his birthday, the Northern Lights appeared mystical, in green, yellow and blue. At –40F, the air becomes polarized, and the light shoots straight up. “The camp lights looked like candles,” Was this an acknowledgement from above? To him it was.

Conditions never improved in the camp. Their urinal was a board slanted against the outside wall of the barracks. They would watch how far the urine flowed before it froze—this was their thermometer. Food was very limited: black bread, fish and cabbage soup were the staples. The prisoners worked eight to eleven hours a day. If you did not fill your quota, you were put on half-rations for the following day. “Our life consisted of coming from the mine, then eating, and falling asleep until the next morning.”

Noble’s break came when he was able to smuggle out a postcard. The camp area had about 4,500 prisoners, 25-30 of whom had writing privileges. While camp guards censored the cards going out, and their replies coming in, prisoners always tried to send word about other prisoners in the camp. Noble says it sometimes took a year to get word in or out of the prison. He recalls that one censor had been bribed: if he would allow a package in, he’d get a fountain pen. The censor was caught and replaced. The new censor allowed only six cards out—one of which was Noble’s.

Prisoners were only supposed to write to relatives, and only if they lived in the Soviet Union or Soviet-occupied areas. John wrote to a distant cousin, signing the card, “Your noble nephew.” The card eventually was sent to West Germany, then on to Detroit, where his family turned it over to the State Department. When State went silent, Michigan congressman Alvin Bentley went directly to the White House and President Eisenhower. Bentley was able to announce, “The president is personally intervening.”

And in January 1955, Noble says, “The doors opened.”

In addition to regaining rights to his family’s business interests in Dresden, Noble is working on finding other missing Americans from the post-war gulag period. Working with the late Andrei Sakharov’s organization, Memorial, Noble has been looking for records and survivors, concerned that others (including Americans) are still there. He is the author of two books, I Was a Slave in Russia: An American Tells His Story and Verbannt und Verleugnet (Banished and Vanished).

John Noble’s message to his readers is that dictatorship can be so horrible that people are driven into cooperation and fear and don’t even want to know what their government is doing. “All people” Noble says, “must do whatever is needed to oppose total submission to government.”

John Noble resides in Dresden and is working on another book, as well as a film, of his World War II and gulag experiences.