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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 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."

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