John Noble: To Hell And Back

Sipping peach tea in the parlor of his 19th century castle overlooking Dresden, American-born businessman John Noble has slipped into a quiet but forceful denunciation of communism. His eyes narrowing beneath his shock of white hair, the 70-year-old president of Kamera Werke Noble is intent on warning other Americans how lucky they are. If he comes off a bit preachy, he might be forgiven. Noble's avid embrace of capitalism came only after experiencing the horror of the alternative--nearly 10 years of torture and starvation in a series of Soviet prisons.

Noble is one of countless Western businesspeople who have flocked to eastern Germany since the Berlin Wall crumbled in 1989. The rush is on to snap up property, tap new markets, and mine a population rich in highly trained engineers. But Noble's agenda is more complicated than most. While still a teenager, he helped his father build up a company in Dresden that pioneered the manufacture of single-lens reflex cameras. Trapped during World War II, they survived the Nazis only to be imprisoned after the war by occupying Soviets who were supposedly U.S. allies. "I'm here to build up the business that Dad started," Noble explains softly. "The other side cannot get away with such an injustice."

NO WAY OUT. Simply put, Noble is out to settle a score. Unable to reclaim the years lost as a Russian prisoner, he has vowed to profit where his nightmare began. So far, so good. In 1991, he started a company in his father's old factory to build the Noblex--a state-of-the-art panorama camera with a lens that rotates 360 degrees. After rave reviews, Noble shipped 1,000 of the $2,500 cameras in the year ended September, 1993. Now, he offers a high-speed version and will put four other models on the market this year, including a more affordable one. He also has branched into optics and medical equipment (chart).

But for Noble, returning to eastern Germany has been a difficult flashback. Not only has he had to wade through a swamp of post-Communist bureaucracy, but he has had to wrestle with his own dark memories. "It was a scary thing for him to go back," confides his wife, Ruth Noble, who still lives near Philadelphia and commutes to Dresden.

Noble first arrived in Dresden from Detroit in the spring of 1938 with his German-American parents and his brother, George. His father, Charles Noble, suffered poor health from chemicals used in his photo-finishing business so he sold that company and bought another in Dresden to be near German hot springs. When war erupted, the Germans stationed guards at the family's camera factory but allowed production to continue. A Swiss-brokered exchange of nationals between Germany and the U.S. nearly got the Nobles out, but at the last minute they were inexplicably turned back at the border.

The story from there is the stuff of Solzhenitsyn. Shortly after the war ended, Noble and his father traveled from Soviet-occupied eastern Germany to the West to buy lenses and consult with the U.S. military command about getting out. Their advice: Sit tight, the Soviets are our allies. Unfortunately, a cold war mentality had gripped the East long before it poisoned global relations, and the Nobles came home to find Soviet troops sitting in their living room. The two were branded as spies and hauled off to prison. Noble's mother, Hildegard, and George, his brother, were held in their villa as decoys to draw out other Americans and their sympathizers who might come by to visit. "I tried to shoo people away from the window," George says, wincing.

BORN AGAIN. In Dresden, prison guards methodically starved their inmates: two days without food, three days with, then 12 more without. Although they started out cursing, Noble's fellow prisoners soon started dropping. Noble, never one for religion, became devout. "I wasn't sure I had the right to call on the Lord," he says. "I had never even thanked Him for all I had." One day, when he couldn't lift his feet or even speak, Noble closed his eyes and gave up. "Suddenly," he says, "I could walk and talk and felt like singing. The Lord gave me strength to endure."

As father and son were shuttled among prisons in eastern Germany, John quickly learned Russian and managed to secure good jobs, such as working in the kitchen. He kept his father alive by sneaking him extra pieces of bread. But Noble also withstood 23 days in solitary in a blazingly lit cell next to a furnace. Locked in another small room for six months with nine men and a slop bucket, he kept them sane by organizing a daily routine of exercise, two-hour book reports, and periods of silence. Withering to less than 100 pmunds, he was reduced to stealing rare bits of newsprint for toilet paper and counting the number of bodies hauled away--200 one Christmas day. "It was impossible to block out the screams," he recalls.

Noble's family, meantime, had no word of him or his father. After leaving Dresden in February, 1946, George barraged U.S. senators and government offices with petitions, but Moscow continually denied holding the Nobles prisoner. George joined the U.S. military and secured a post interviewing German prisoners returning from Russian camps, but heard nothing. His mother moved to Berlin to be as close as possible and stayed until her husband was released in 1952. Still no word of John.

By then, their son had been transferred to Siberia. In August, 1950, when he finally was called before a Soviet officer, he expected to be released. Instead, he was sentenced to 15 years at Vorkuta, a coal mine and labor camp near the Arctic circle. He had no lawyer and was never told of the charges. Not until 1990 did he learn that Directive 38, the law under which he had been sentenced, covered everything from negative thoughts to assassination.

SNOW AND ICE. Noble's six-week journey to Vorkuta took him right through Berlin. Hundreds of prisoners were hidden in a mail train that then ran through Poland. In Moscow, they switched to a stinking, vermin-infested cattle car and subsisted on a diet of dried bread, fish, and water. Half dead, they were disgorged onto a tundra of snow and ice.

At Vorkuta, thanks to his Russian, Noble was assigned to the senior officers' cloakroom, where he stayed relatively warm and dry. After Stalin died, however, the Vorkuta prisoners grabbed a chance to revolt as the KGB and the Red Army battled for power. The uprising was viciously crushed, ringleaders were shot, and accomplices like Noble, who had diverted the officers, were marched five miles across the snow to another camp, where he worked outside unloading lumber. "That's when it seemed all was lost," Noble says.

In June, 1954, Noble's luck finally turned. He smuggled out a postcard to German relatives through a barber in the camp who had writing privileges. The words "your noble nephew" armed his parents with evidence their son was alive. Back in Detroit by then, they appealed to a Michigan congressman who met with President Dwight D. Eisenhower on the matter. Before anyone could mull the diplomatic consequences, the congressman called an unauthorized press conference trumpeting the President's involvement. That forced Eisenhower's hand, and he leaned on Moscow authorities. In January, 1955, at the age of 31, Noble was at last released.

Noble believes he survived for one reason: "To remind Americans how much we take our freedoms for granted." After mapping out the camps and identifying other prisoners for U.S. authorities, Noble began spreading his story. He gave hundreds of speeches in the 1970s and wrote three books. As money grew tight and his family expanded to five children, he reluctantly set up an Amway distributorship. It prospered. "I was trying to save the country," he says, laughing. "I had no intention of selling soap."

Then the Wall fell. Although he had spent years petitioning Soviet bloc authorities for restitution, Noble didn't exactly rush back to Dresden in 1989. It wasn't until a good friend bought him a ticket that he felt compelled to return--with George by his side. Germany had yet to be unified, and the brothers' blood curdled at the sight of Soviet uniforms. But when Noble inspected the remains of his father's factory, he couldn't resist the pull. "Those machines were like a heartbeat to me," he says.

Deciding to return was the easy part. The next step was to regain control of the company and its well-known Praktica trademark. Defeated in a court of restitution because the original camera had evolved into something new, Noble tried to buy the company from the Treuhand, the German agency set up to privatize former state-owned businesses. Noble rounded up investors and committed $700,000 to order parts, only to discover the Treuhand had sold the factory equipment and the trademark to someone else. All that was left were the buildings and some research equipment. The trademark gone, his financial backers backed out.

The battle turned ugly. George Noble claims Treuhand officials "cheated and lied to us." The Nobles are taking the agency to court to recover the $700,000. Ludwig Trankner, a Treuhand director in Berlin, counters that Noble didn't understand the process and should have hired professional lawyers instead of using his German cousin to negotiate. "What Mr. Noble does not want to believe is that we gave him all he deserves according to the law," says Trankner.

The setback may have been a blessing in disguise. Managed for years by state authorities, Praktica had become a cheap global brand. It is a camera for amateurs, with no outstanding features. Without the disregard for profit enjoyed by the communist manufacturers, "the Nobles wouldn't have had a chance in this market," says Volker Storck, editor of the German trade journal Inpho. By collateralizing the factory and the family's castle (which they were able to reclaim), the Nobles raised $2 million from banks to launch the Noblex. It was designed by a team of 40 engineers culled from the old ranks. Says Storck: "The technology is excellent."

VIABLE IDEAS. Noblex sales are brisk, but since Kamera Werke Noble's total revenues add up to just $3 million, the boss has encouraged his team to branch out. The east Germans were wary at first. Noble started out with a harsh lecture to applicants on the value of hard work and his scorn for unions. They only warmed up to him when they realized he pays well, allows flexible work hours, and, most important, provides an intellectual freedom they had never experienced. "I had ideas before, but they were just ideas," says engineer Berto Kirsh, who worked for the old company for 36 years. "Now, they come to life."

Word of Kamera Werke Noble's technical capabilities is quickly spreading. A western German laboratory has commissioned it to build warmth therapy equipment for cancer treatments. Spezialtechnik Dresden, a sister company of San Diego-based General Atomics Inc., is testing whether the panorama camera is suitable for U.S. Defense Dept. reconnaissance projects. "It's clear Mr. Noble and his team know what they're doing," says Peter Maussnest, a Spezialtechnik managing director.

Noble's chief goal, however, is to reclaim a slice of the camera market lost to Japan. "Dresden is the birthplace of the camera industry," he says. "I'm doing my best to bring it back." That wouldn't make up for lost time. But thriving in the former East bloc would do a lot to set things right.


-- The Noblex--a

professional rotating-lens panorama camera

-- Panorama projectors

-- Large-format shutter

systems for studio cameras


-- Prisms and coated mirrors for microscopes, binoculars, measuring equipment, and cameras


-- Machines used to provide warmth therapy in cancer treatment

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