The Defamatory Article by Roy Rivenburg
Roy Rivenburg's 3,000-word profile of Michel Thomas appeared on the front page of the Southern California Living section of the Los Angeles Times on Sunday, April 15, 2001. We are not allowed by law to reproduce the full, unabridged text of Rivenburg's article on this website. This is a pity, because only the full text reveals to the reader the true nature of the author's endeavour. If you would like to read the entire article, please visit the archive of the LA Times at http//:www.latimes.com/.
In the interest of fair comment, and so as to let the true facts emerge, we publish below an edited extract of Rivenburg's article. As you will see, we have inserted links throughout the article to facts or information that Rivenburg has misrepresented or chosen to ignore. Each link opens up on this screen an explanation of what really happened, with additional links to the mountain of documentary evidence in this website's Library. This means that you can go to any section or point you want, and check the facts against what Rivenburg wrote.
If you would prefer to read a traditional, linear rebuttal of Rivenburg's article, please see Michel's Detailed Response.
From escaping concentration camps to cavorting with royalty to plotting an education revolution, Michel Thomas has had one adventure after another. Even he knows his life story invites skepticism.
ROY RIVENBURG, Times Staff Writer
If everything he says is true, Michel Thomas has led an astonishing, even miraculous, life ÷ He recounts various exploits:
1) He was the sole survivor of not one but three concentration camps in World War II; 2) he talked his way out of being executed by Gestapo chieftain Klaus Barbie; 3) he helped liberate Dachau; 4) he rescued 40 tons of Nazi dossiers on the verge of destruction in Munich; he hobnobbed with princes and seduced starlets; 6) he dropped acid in 1958 as part of a pioneering drug experiment; 7) he beat the slot machines in Monaco.
Could one man really have done so much?
"Everything is fully documented," Thomas says. "Don't take my word for it. Ask me how I can prove it."
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 9a) international publicity blitz for his $18,000 classes, his language CDs and 10) "Test of Courage: The Michel Thomas Story" (Free Press/Simon & Schuster), a biography by 11) Christopher Robbins.
A short, rounded man who speaks with fiery intensity, Thomas readily admits his stories are hard to believe. 11a) But after taking Thomas' Spanish class, the professor, Herb Morris, became a believer.
12) 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 13) Thomas' controversial testimony was disparaged by some but supported by well-known Nazi hunter Serge Klarsfeld and the Simon Wiesenthal Center.
Last November, 15) his biography briefly cracked L.A. bestseller lists, boosted by dust jacket blurbs from actress 16) Emma Thompson and author 16a) John Le Carr», who calls Thomas "one of the bravest men you will ever read about." 17) Michael Ovitz's talent agency is peddling the movie rights.
Thomas, who teaches 20) six languages, doesn't promise students enough fluency to understand a foreign film. What's Thomas' secret?
Jackie Kearns, principal of a British school experimenting with the program, offers a more down-to-earth explanation. 22) Thomas borrowed a method from the past and brilliantly repackaged it, she says.
Vivid Recollections and Global Travels.
But it wasn't the language system that grabbed writer Christopher Robbins' attention. 23) It was the wild tales:
We compared several of Thomas' accounts of his role in historic events with other records and recollections.
"Who wasn't?" says Army archivist Mary Haynes, noting the proliferation of Dachau liberator claims in recent years.
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." 35) (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.")
Accounts of the Day Dachau Was Liberated
Did anyone from the 157th know he was along for the ride?
37) "They all knew I was there."
40) 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.
41) 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.
44) 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."
45) 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.
46) 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. 47) Another is that Thomas was actually a civilian employee.
47a) Robbins says proof of Thomas' Army credentials is in the book: a photo of his Counter Intelligence Corps ID card. 48) 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. 49) When The Times asked Thomas for his military ID number to trace his records, he declined, calling the request an insult.
A Cache of Nazi Party Membership Cards
A few days after the liberation of Dachau, Thomas says, he embarked on another mission: 51) rescuing 10 million Nazi Party membership files that had been shipped to a paper mill near Munich to be destroyed.
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."
53) 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: 54) "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.
55) 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.
56) 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.
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 ÷ 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."
63) Not the prosecutor.
64) 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."
65) 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."
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.
68) 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."