Larger Than Life

Times Staff Writer

If everything he says is true, Michel Thomas has led an astonishing, even miraculous, life. Dressed in a navy blue suit and sporting a silver pompadour of unknown origin, he opens a battered briefcase and removes a stack of old photos and documents as he recounts various exploits:

He was the sole survivor of not one but three concentration camps in World War II; he talked his way out of being executed by Gestapo chieftain Klaus Barbie; he helped liberate Dachau; he rescued 40 tons of Nazi dossiers on the verge of destruction in Munich; he hobnobbed with princes and seduced starlets; he dropped acid in 1958 as part of a pioneering drug experiment; he beat the slot machines in Monaco.

Oh, and his New York and Beverly Hills language schools can teach anyone a foreign tongue in just three days.


Could one man really have done so much? Judging from several decades of glowing media coverage, a flood of celebrity endorsements and a new book by a British journalist, yes.

“Everything is fully documented,” Thomas says. “Don’t take my word for it. Ask me how I can prove it.”

Easier said than done.

On this day, the 87-year-old language guru is holding court inside a suite at the Luxe Summit Hotel Bel-Air. The visit is part of an international publicity blitz for his $18,000 classes, his language CDs and “Test of Courage: The Michel Thomas Story” (Free Press/Simon & Schuster), a biography by Christopher Robbins.

A short, rounded man who speaks with fiery intensity, Thomas readily admits his stories are hard to believe. When a UCLA law professor first heard the saga, he said: “Michel, either more miracles are associated with your life than anyone I could possibly imagine, or you’re the biggest fraud who ever walked the face of the earth.” But after taking Thomas’ Spanish class, the professor, Herb Morris, became a believer.

“I expect people to be skeptical,” Thomas says.

Many of his claims are impossible to prove--or disprove. Nevertheless, they have frequently propelled him into the public eye--most notably at the 1987 trial of Gestapo leader Barbie, where Thomas’ controversial testimony was disparaged by some but supported by well-known Nazi hunter Serge Klarsfeld and the Simon Wiesenthal Center.

In the Los Angeles Times, 10 articles about different aspects of his life have appeared since 1965, when he volunteered his services to inner-city youth and won raves for succeeding where traditional teachers failed.


More recently, he has been profiled in a BBC documentary, Forbes magazine, USA Today, the New York Post, a spate of British newspapers and on CNN. Last November, his biography briefly cracked L.A. bestseller lists, boosted by dust jacket blurbs from actress Emma Thompson and author John Le Carre, who calls Thomas “one of the bravest men you will ever read about.” Michael Ovitz’s talent agency is peddling the movie rights.

Told in often melodramatic tones, the book follows Thomas from his childhood in a prosperous Jewish household in Poland to Germany and later to wartime France, where he joined the Resistance, interrogated Nazis for the U.S. Army and slept with a bevy of women (“As we were making love . . . an American artillery position opened fire right above us in the hills. The ground moved”). In 1947, he came to L.A. and opened his language school on Rodeo Drive.

Some big names swear by his classes.

Woody Allen told the BBC that when Thomas offered to teach him French over a weekend in 1972, he figured: “Why not? Either the guy’s crazy and I lose a couple hundred bucks or it’s some kind of miracle. So I gave it a try, and he was amazing.” Other celebrity clients include the duchess of York, Mel Gibson, Carl Reiner, Armand Hammer and Ann-Margret.

Thomas, who teaches six languages, doesn’t promise students enough fluency to understand a foreign film. But he does guarantee a basic command of words and grammar--all without memorization or note-taking. Yet nobody on his staff can duplicate the feat. Their lessons--at one-third the price--take about eight days. That time-frame is comparable to other intensive language programs, such as Berlitz or Dartmouth’s Rassias seminar.

What’s Thomas’ secret?

He somehow instills enormous self-confidence, says UCLA’s Morris. “You enter another world. It’s not a trance. It’s more like learning from a Buddhist master. When people are in the master’s presence, something happens to them.”

Jackie Kearns, principal of a British school experimenting with the program, offers a more down-to-earth explanation. Thomas borrowed a method from the past and brilliantly repackaged it, she says. With French, for instance, he begins by explaining how thousands of words--regret, comfortable, opinion, etc.--are the same in both languages. “English is French, badly pronounced,” he intones.

Right away, the student feels mastery of a previously alien tongue, Kearns says. From there, Thomas ingrains pronunciation and grammar.

Vivid Recollections and Global Travels

But it wasn’t the language system that grabbed writer Christopher Robbins’ attention. It was the wild tales:

* Being strung along by Prince Rainier of Monaco, who allegedly welcomed Thomas’ proposal to create an artificial island for an international university, then used the idea in 1963 to build a casino.

* Taking LSD in Mexico in 1958 with the wife of Aldous Huxley and the co-founder of Esalen, the New Age center in Big Sur.

* Capturing SS Maj. Gustav Knittel, who massacred American POWs during the Battle of the Bulge.

* Escaping French concentration camps and prisons half a dozen times during World War II. He even voluntarily returned to one camp after discovering that his girlfriend granted a romantic favor to a diplomat to get him out. Thomas says he didn’t want to be freed under such circumstances. He also says other Holocaust victims could have escaped death too, if only they hadn’t given up hope and surrendered to their fate. His own family, he believes, died at Auschwitz.

Robbins admits he initially doubted some of Thomas’ tales. “There were times when I thought, c’mon,” he says during a phone interview from London. “But sure enough, the documents always turned up.”

Thomas showed him a letter from Rainier; Huxley confirmed the LSD episode; the National Archives had a letter from SS officer Knittel naming Thomas as his interrogator; French records outlined two of Thomas’ wartime imprisonments and his distinguished service with the French Resistance.

“He was where he said he was, when he said he was,” says Robbins, who is splitting royalties from the biography with Thomas, an accepted publishing arrangement.

Robbins draws an analogy: If someone claims he drank a Coke on a train to London, and he can show you the train ticket, you tend to believe the part about the Coke too.

OK, but what if the person with the train ticket says he drank a Coke and defused a dozen ticking bombs in the caboose?

We compared several of Thomas’ accounts of his role in historic events with other records and recollections.

On April 29, 1945, Thomas says, he tagged along with a battalion from the 157th Infantry Regiment on a historic mission.

“I was with combat troops to liberate Dachau,” he says.

“Who wasn’t?” says Army archivist Mary Haynes, noting the proliferation of Dachau liberator claims in recent years. Reconstructing war scenes is an inexact science, but Dachau is documented better than most. Shortly after storming the camp, American soldiers angry at the Holocaust horrors they uncovered gunned down unarmed German troops. Three days later, the Army took sworn testimony from 38 witnesses and filed a report that outlined how the camp was liberated. That report, believed lost, resurfaced at the National Archives in 1991.

Thomas’ Dachau account relies on a memory system he says he devised as a child that enables him to relive past events in his mind.

Indeed, his biography is laced with vivid recollections, from his first erotic experience at age 3 (reaching up the skirt of a nanny) to teenage travels with Arab camel caravans in Tunisia to playing boule slot machines in the foyer of Monte Carlo’s casino in 1941, where he pocketed a tidy sum over four months by “pulling the lever with exactly the same pressure every time.” (Casino officials, after consulting their archives and various experts, say the type of slot machine Thomas describes “to our knowledge was never in Monte Carlo.”)

In the book, Thomas draws a parallel between gambling and fearlessness in combat. “I felt like a gambler at the roulette table who has amassed a mountain of chips on a long winning streak. You are only cautious with the original stake and can afford to lose when you are playing with winnings. It isn’t real money. That is how I felt with my life. I had a powerful wish to fight the enemy and in situations of danger I felt my life had been won. It was a part of my winnings from the camps and the Resistance.”

Accounts of the Day Dachau Was Liberated

On the day Dachau fell, Thomas says, he was a U.S. Counter Intelligence Corps officer who temporarily joined two columns of tanks and infantry rolling through the German town to the camp.

He says he didn’t have orders assigning him to the 157th Regiment: “I just went there. I could choose wherever I wanted to go.”

Did anyone from the 157th know he was along for the ride?

“They all knew I was there.”

However, the commander of the battalion, Lt. Col. Felix Sparks, now a retired brigadier general and former justice of the Colorado Supreme Court, says he would certainly recall if Thomas had accompanied the 200-member force: “He’s got the right battalion, that’s correct, but there were no CIC [Counter Intelligence Corps] with us.” Ian Sayer, co-author of “America’s Secret Army,” a history of the CIC, says his records don’t specify when the first CIC agents arrived at Dachau, but they do show their unit. It isn’t Thomas’.

Thomas’ version of how the camp was liberated differs from eyewitness accounts and National Archives records, says retired Lt. Col. Hugh F. Foster III, who has been researching the liberation for five years.

Regarding Thomas’ mention of tanks, Foster says there were no tanks because the bridges between the town of Dachau and the military camp across the river had been blown up. Thomas doesn’t recall a river.

Thomas says he entered the camp through the front gate, after the Germans waved white flags and opened fire on his group. But Foster and Sparks say the battalion deliberately avoided the front gate and circled around to another side of the sprawling camp.

The white flag incident did happen--but not to the 157th. As Sparks and his men inched through the camp, a handful of journalists and troops from the 42nd Division approached the main entrance.

Did Thomas simply confuse the two units and actually enter with the 42nd? No, he insists: “The 42nd was late.” But Robbins, responding to written queries submitted later, says: “It is quite possible he arrived later than the 157th and that the troops he joined were indeed from the 42nd.” In the course of writing the book, Robbins says, “research showed that it was the 157th that was involved, so it was I who assumed these were the troops he joined.”

When Thomas is asked about other conflicts between his story and the one relayed by Foster, he concedes: “I was not with the front combat troops.” He says he was at the camp that day but cannot say when.

Although Robbins and Thomas say he was an officer in the U.S. Army at the time, the Pentagon was unable to verify his military service. One possible explanation is a 1973 fire that destroyed some personnel files. Another is that Thomas was actually a civilian employee.

Robbins says proof of Thomas’ Army credentials is in the book: a photo of his Counter Intelligence Corps ID card. Conrad McCormick, a CIC veteran and archivist at the U.S. Army Intelligence Museum in Fort Huachuca, Ariz., says the card isn’t the official ID issued to full-fledged CIC agents. Rather, it’s for non-American civilians hired as translators and investigators, he says. When The Times asked Thomas for his military ID number to trace his records, he declined, calling the request an insult.

“All of the men who served with him regarded him as a legitimate member of the U.S. Army,” Robbins says, adding that technicalities of Thomas’ service are trivial compared to the valuable work he did.

A Cache of Nazi Party Membership Cards

A few days after the liberation of Dachau, Thomas says, he embarked on another mission: rescuing 10 million Nazi Party membership files that had been shipped to a paper mill near Munich to be destroyed.

Thomas says he uncovered the files after one of his scouts spotted a German convoy at the mill. Expecting to find a cache of gold bullion, he drove to the mill, broke in and stumbled upon wood cabinets full of Nazi membership cards. “I immediately understood how important these were and their significance,” he says. So he spent hours gathering samples, posted a military guard at the mill, and alerted superiors.

How did he know the importance of the find?

“Because I looked at the cards,” he says, recalling that each ID displayed a photo and personal data.

When asked if the cards specifically mentioned the Nazi Party, Thomas says: “Of course.”

In fact, the cards contain no references to the Nazi Party, says George Leaman, who wrote an official history of the files for the Berlin Document Center, which houses them. “It wouldn’t be obvious from the cards themselves what organization they were from,” he says.

When Thomas is asked for a more detailed description of the cards, including their unusual color, he bristles: “After 60 years, I should remember the color? If I don’t, that means I wasn’t there? . . . You’re just trying to trip me up.”

Thomas says that when Army officials failed to take possession of the cards by mid-May, he leaked the story to the press. The spotlight goaded officials into moving the files to a safe spot.

But Stefan Heym, a German author who was on the scene working as a journalist for the U.S. Army and wrote extensively about the discovery, says the person who saved the cards from destruction and notified Army brass of their existence was Hans Huber, the owner of the mill. The military even took Huber into protective custody when word of his role spread and he received threats, Heym writes.

According to articles that ran in the New York Times, London Sunday Express and two German papers at the time, U.S. Maj. William D. Browne called a press conference in October 1945 to announce discovery of the files and give credit to Huber and a German woman for bringing the cards to the Army’s attention.

Leaman, the Berlin Document Center researcher, has read both Thomas’ and Heym’s versions and believes Heym’s is “on the mark.”

Thomas remains adamant. “I was wading through a mountain of documents inside the mill,” he says. “Anybody who says something else is lying.” Robbins adds: “I have seen documents that Michel kept as souvenirs from this horde--indeed have insisted over the years he should hand them over to a museum.”

On this and other questions, the author says, “I stand by the accuracy and integrity of my book. Of course, there may be [minor] inaccuracies and different interpretations of events.”

Called as Witness Against the ‘Butcher of Lyon’

Then there’s the trial of Klaus Barbie, which Thomas describes as one of the most wrenching chapters of his life.

In February 1943, the Gestapo set a trap at a Jewish welfare office in Lyon, France, arresting everyone who entered and deporting them to Auschwitz. Thomas says he was the only visitor to finagle his way out. Posing as a painter and pretending to speak only French during a two-hour interrogation, he persuaded the “Butcher of Lyon” that he had entered the office by mistake, he says.

Forty years later, after Barbie was extradited from Bolivia to France to be tried for crimes against humanity, Thomas was called as a witness.

Shimon Samuels of the Simon Wiesenthal Center, who attended part of the trial, says the testimony was compelling. “He identified Barbie by recalling a [peculiar] hand movement. . . . It was a very dramatic moment. I think most people who witnessed the trial were quite impressed.”

Not the prosecutor.

According to a 1987 article in the Chicago Tribune, Pierre Truche dismissed the credibility of his own witness during final arguments to the jury. After noting the difficulties of identification so long after the war, Truche urged the jury to accept every witness but one. “With the exception of Mr. Thomas, all the witnesses are of good faith,” he said.

The French press also pounced on the testimony, says historian Henry Rousso. In a TV program about the trial that will air this summer on Histoire, France’s satellite history channel, Rousso says the newspaper Le Monde accused Thomas of having “a taste for make-believe,” and Progres de Lyon called him “a publicity hound.”

But Klarsfeld, the Nazi hunter and lawyer who was part of the prosecution team, told Robbins (and The Times): “I believed Michel’s evidence absolutely. . . . [Before the trial], he gave us accurate details . . . [which] he could not have known unless he was there.” Further bolstering his belief in Thomas’ credibility, Klarsfeld found independent documentation that Thomas had been held in two French internment camps under the name Kroskof. (Thomas’ current name is one of five aliases he used during the war; his birth name is Moniek Kroskof, he says.)

Rabbi Abraham Cooper of the Wiesenthal Center says that when Thomas came to him after Barbie’s arrest, “his account fit in with other data we had. It was a plausible story, and he spoke with authority. We took what he said seriously enough to call a press conference.”

On the witness stand, however, Thomas was a disaster. He attacked the court and insulted the French, Robbins says. Although his manner alienated people, that doesn’t mean he wasn’t truthful, Robbins adds.

In “Hotel Terminus,” a documentary made after Barbie’s conviction, prosecutor Truche summed up his quandary over Thomas: “Sometimes true stories seem hard to believe. I can’t build a case on what is hard to believe.”

Hopes of Revamping the Educational System

Whether his stories are believed or not, Thomas has always been a colorful character. As early as 1949, the Los Angeles Herald Express was chronicling his war heroics.

By the 1970s, he was married to an L.A. schoolteacher, Alice Burns, and occasionally popped up in newspaper society pages, invariably surrounded by a coterie of celebrities. In the early 1980s, after the birth of his second child, the family moved to New York. In 1992, they relocated to Israel, where he and Burns eventually divorced. Thomas returned to New York with the kids. (His ex-wife offers nothing but praise, calling Thomas “brilliant, idealistic and very energetic.”)

Throughout the 1970s and ‘80s, he talked about adding new language school offices in Miami, Washington and Paris, but none ever opened. During that time, several creditors and the IRS sued him for overdue bills and taxes. “I’m not a good businessman,” he says, “but whatever I owed, I paid.”

His talk of revamping the educational system also never got off the ground. Thomas says traditional teaching methods and their emphasis on memorization disrupt the mind’s natural ability to learn.

“What you memorize, you forget,” he explains. “You cram for a test and pass it, but five days later, [the knowledge] is gone.”

Although vague on details, Thomas says his approach is to create excitement in students: “All you have to do is turn the key to unlock what is already there in every individual.”

His teaching efforts were honored by the French language preservation organization Academie Francaise, which in 1982 awarded Thomas a medal. But whenever he has been on the verge of a deal to spread his language instruction techniques to other subjects, something goes awry, he says. Those who got cold feet over the years include the Ford Foundation, L.A. public school officials and billionaire John Kluge, he says.

Morris, his friend at UCLA, says Thomas “is a remarkably self-defeating individual in certain contexts.”

In 1990, when Morris was dean of humanities at UCLA, he arranged a meeting between Thomas and the school’s foreign language faculty to discuss using his methods. It was a fiasco. “His way of interacting with the department chairs was the worst imaginable,” Morris recalls. “He wouldn’t tell them anything about what he does--and he revealed his contempt for what they did.”

Secrecy doesn’t fly in the ivory tower, Morris says: “You won’t get academics to use a ‘new’ method unless they have some indication that it can be replicated.”

But Thomas says his students are all the proof necessary. He doesn’t want to reveal his methods for fear his ideas will be stolen or distorted. He adds: “It was evidently impossible for the language departments to watch someone achieve in a few days what takes them years. They couldn’t stomach it.”

Thomas hasn’t given up--he continues to travel and teach. The latest laboratory for his methods is in Britain. Kearns, the principal whose school is experimenting with his system, got interested after reading his biography. She phoned him in New York and persuaded him to visit. Last August, Thomas spent four days teaching French to several 13- and 14-year-olds at the school. The students, who already had some French under their belts, were tested before and after the sessions. Result: Their grades rose from Cs and Ds to Bs and Cs. “Outstanding,” Kearns says. If the gains hold, the school will ask Thomas about adapting his methods for wider use.

That’s precisely what Thomas says he has wanted all along: a chance to revolutionize the educational establishment. As he once told Robbins with characteristic bravado: “I didn’t devise my system to teach languages quickly. I devised it to change the world.”