Prisoners in Paradise

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Noel Field

Last week we started examining the curious life of Noel Field, American diplomat turned Stalinist spy, as told in a splendid recent biography by Kati Marton.

In our last installment, we saw that Field was exposed as a spy in 1948 by Whittaker Chambers. Seeking refuge and a new meaningful life in service to Communism, Field traveled to Prague – where he was promptly arrested, questioned, and tortured until he confessed to being an American spy. His torturers knew this was a lie, but they wanted Field to provide false “evidence” against other Communists so that they could be executed as traitors – and he obliged them, turning over no fewer than 562 names.

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Erica Wallach, 1962

This next part sounds almost like some kind of sick joke. When Field went missing, his wife, Herta, was worried. She went to Prague to look for him – and was promptly arrested. Field’s brother, Hermann, was also worried. He went to Warsaw – where he, too, was arrested. That left Erica Wallach, who had been a sort of stepdaughter to Noel and Herta and who was now married to an American GI with whom she had two small children. Erica contacted an East German official of her acquaintance and asked him to help her find Noel, Herta, and Hermann. He invited her to meet him at Communist Party headquarters on Unter den Linden in East Berlin. She went there and was immediately arrested, tried as a spy, sentenced to death, and sent to a Moscow prison to await her execution. But fate intervened: Stalin died, and instead of being executed, Erica was sent to the worst of the Gulag stations, north of the Arctic Circle, where she spent several years doing burdensome manual labor in subzero temperatures.

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Hermann Field and his wife, Kate, in later years

When all four of them – Noel, Herda, Hermann, and Erica – finally got out of prison, they owed their release to an unlikely savior. A Polish officer who had been Hermann’s torturer defected to the U.S. and held a press conference under the auspices of the CIA at which he said that the charges against all four were trumped up. The State Department immediately demanded their release, and the Communist governments complied. Noel and Herda were reunited, and discovered they had been imprisoned only a few meters from each other; but they didn’t cry until they were informed that Stalin was dead. Both still fanatical Communists, they begged to be allowed to remain in Hungary. (As Marton notes, they may well have been the first Americans to request political asylum in that country.)

When Noel found out that Hermann and Erica had been imprisoned because of him, did he feel guilty? Not at all. His main worry, where they were concerned, was that they would not say or do anything to damage the Communist cause. He tried to persuade Hermann (who had never been a Communist) to “defect” to the East in order to hand the Eastern Bloc a propaganda coup. As for Erica, instead of being glad that she could finally be reunited with her husband and children, Noel fretted that her American GI husband would poison her mind against Communism (as if her years in the Gulag hadn’t already done that). Erica was disgusted by Noel, saying: “This is just a Party man. The human being has disappeared.”

We’ll finish this up tomorrow.

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