Days and Lives :: Prisoners

John Noble

Introduction

John Noble was born in Detroit, Michigan, in 1923, but his father had been born in Germany. In the 1930s the family returned to Germany and operated a camera factory in Dresden. The years during World War II were difficult for the family but became much worse in early 1945 when the Gestapo denied them permission to leave the country. Air raids devastated most of Dresden on the 13th and 14th of February, 1945. The camera factory survived the bombing with little damage and was soon taken over by the east German government. Noble and his father were arrested to keep them from protesting the takeover. Although he was never charged with any crime, Noble was in the Gulag system until the end of 1954 and spent the last four year at Vorkuta.

Arrest

John Noble and his father, who owned a camera factory in Dresden, were taken to NKVD headquarters for questioning. The Nobles initially believed that they would be questioned and released. “I was called down to one of the NKVD offices, presumably for my leave-taking. A Captain Pankov was waiting for me. He greeted me with a smile, then got down to business, which I assumed would be a final routine questioning. ‘Let me have your papers,’ he said. He took these and made a little pile of them. My passport was there, my driver’s license, birth certificate. ‘You will be taken to prison,’ he announced routinely. He must have seen my face tighten in alarm, for he explained the situation in a casual way: ‘You are to be called as a witness in your father’s trial and then you will go free.’”

Labor

“My life in Vorkuta was the closest thing possible to a living death. It was a grueling combination of slow but continuous starvation, exhausting work, killing cold, and abject monotony that destroyed many a healthier man than I. There was no wasted time in Vorkuta. I went to work producing coal for the Reds the day I got there. My job was to push a two-ton car full of slate by hand. I worked on the surface that first year in the worst Vorkuta winter in a decade. After morning mess, I lined up in excruciating thirty-five-below-zero cold. My job was a mile and a half away from the camp. Fifty of us, covered by ten guards and two police dogs, made the trip every morning through a forty foot wide corridor. About twenty guard towers were alternately spaced on either side of the corridor.”

Suffering

“Three days passed and no food was distributed to us. At last on the fourth day a few ounces of bread and some thin soup were handed to me; on the fifth day, more of the same, but as I lay down that evening I had no idea that on the following morning would begin a twelve-day starvation period. When it became apparent on the first of those days that there was to be no food, loud protests, uncontrolled curses and screaming were let loose. Men went out of their minds, women prisoners became hysterical. Some Moslem prisoners chanted their prayers. Then death struck, right and left. Cell doors were opened and dead bodies pulled out by an arm or a leg. Some seven hundred prisoners had entered that starvation period. I was one of twenty-two or twenty-three that survived, along with my father.”

Propaganda

“Three days passed and no food was distributed to us. At last on the fourth day a few ounces of bread and some thin soup were handed to me; on the fifth day, more of the same, but as I lay down that evening I had no idea that on the following morning would begin a twelve-day starvation period. When it became apparent on the first of those days that there was to be no food, loud protests, uncontrolled curses and screaming were let loose. Men went out of their minds, women prisoners became hysterical. Some Moslem prisoners chanted their prayers. Then death struck, right and left. Cell doors were opened and dead bodies pulled out by an arm or a leg. Some seven hundred prisoners had entered that starvation period. I was one of twenty-two or twenty-three that survived, along with my father.”

Solidarity

“Other men were brought in now to share my cell. My first cell mates were a Russian-born doctor and a German farm boy. Like virtually everyone else in the prison with whom I came in contact, they knew of no reason for being jailed. The third man sent to my cell was a forestry student. While I had almost wept with happiness to have the doctor and the farm lad share the world of my cell, it was the forestry student who did one of the greatest services possible. For reasons as mysterious as those for which he had been imprisoned in the first place, he was released. I asked him if he could take a message to my house, so that my mother might know the whereabouts of father and myself. Despite the peril of going near a house as suspect as ours, he did deliver the message.”

Conflict

“Unofficially, however, Vorkuta had a different master. Our camp was ruled with a steel fist by about 250 blatnois, the Russian criminals. They kept the political prisoners in abject fear. There were about eight of them in my barracks, living on a shelf at the far end that would normally hold more than twenty prisoners. They spent their time sleeping, stealing whatever they admired, sharpening the knives they made, playing homemade balalaikas, dancing the plashka, a fast dance something like the Spanish flamenco. The blatnois were unemotional professional criminals, mostly in their twenties, serving comparatively short sentences for theft and murder. They had begun life as besprisorni, the vagrant children that travel in small bands throughout the Soviet Union, robbing as they go. They had been raised under communism, but they knew nothing about politics and cared less.”

Guards

“Every Friday, all MVD officers and guards were assembled for ideological lectures. After the lectures, the guards toured the cells, grabbing prisoners at random, asking incredible questions, and administering beatings to any who could not answer – and no one ever could. If, during these sessions, a search was ordered, every cell could expect a hard time. The guards would take special pains to rip and tear the articles they threw to the floor. They walked over things, crushing, perhaps, a treasured pair of glasses or other breakable object. When prisoners stooped to pick up their things, the guards might kick them. Prisoners were thrown bodily from cells and smashed against walls.”

Survival

“Learning Russian was my first survival project. My teacher was a barracks mate, Ivan, a former student at Moscow University, one of the many disgruntled Soviet intellectuals. Without realizing it, I had already picked up a few words on the slate job – ‘pull,’ ‘stop,’ and others from the guards commands. In no time I was making excellent progress. I worked at it every spare minute, and in a short time could speak halting, grammatically poor Russian. Now that I was out of my cocoon, my circle of friends grew rapidly. My new friends made life a little more bearable. I shared in their meager food packages sent from home. Sometimes a friend in the kitchen would find a little extra cabbage soup or fat to help protect my 95 pounds against the cold. When I went to the camp hospital later, my friends brought me bread saved from their own rations.”

Fates

“Early in June, I was eating my cabbage soup in the stolovaya [cafeteria] when the nevalney, my barracks master, rushed in excitedly. ‘Americanitz, the camp commander is looking for you. You have orders to proceed to Moscow.’ I looked up at him and laughed in my soup. A few minutes later, a friend came in with the same news. I rushed nervously to the Administration Building and stood at attention before MVD Lieutenant Antrashkevich. ‘You are to leave for Moscow at 7 A.M.,’ he said. ‘As far as I know, you’re going home.’ I heard him, but the words didn’t sink in. I wouldn’t let them. The thought was wild. Why should I be released? There was no general amnesty. I had so lost touch with the world that Vorkuta and its regulations were the only reality I understood. But I prayed, just in case.”