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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

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."

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