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Larger Than Life

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.

April 15, 2001|ROY RIVENBURG | Times Staff Writer

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'.

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