February 3, 1914
January 8, 2005 (age 90)|
New York City, New York, U.S.
|Occupation||Nazi hunter, linguist, language teacher|
Michel Thomas (born Moniek Kroskof, February 3, 1914 – January 8, 2005) was a polyglot linguist, and decorated war veteran. He survived imprisonment in several different Nazi concentration camps after serving in the Maquis of the French Resistance and worked with the U.S. Army Counter Intelligence Corps during World War II. After the war, Thomas emigrated to the United States, where he developed a language-teaching system known as the "Michel Thomas Method". In 2004 he was awarded the Silver Star by the U.S. Army.
Thomas was born in Łódź, Poland, to a wealthy Jewish family who owned textile factories. When he was seven years old, his parents sent him to Breslau, Germany (now Wrocław, Poland), where he fitted in comfortably. The rise of the Nazis drove him to leave for the University of Bordeaux in France in 1933, and subsequently the Sorbonne and the University of Vienna.
World War II
Thomas' biography gives an account of his war years. When France fell to the Nazis, he lived in Nice, under the Vichy government, changing his name to Michel Thomas so he could operate in the French Resistance movement more easily. He was arrested several times, and sent to a series of Nazi concentration/slave-labour camps, finally being sent to Camp des Milles, near Aix-en-Provence. In August 1942, Thomas secured release from Les Milles using forged papers and made his way to Lyon, where his duties for the Resistance entailed recruiting Jewish refugees into the organisation. In January 1943, he was arrested and interrogated by Klaus Barbie, only being released after convincing the Gestapo officer that he was an apolitical French artist. He would later testify at the 1987 trial of Barbie in Lyon, although the prosecutor "threw doubt" on Thomas' testimony with regard to the "difficulties of identification" after so much time had elapsed.
In February 1943, after being arrested, tortured and subsequently released by the Milice, the Vichy French paramilitary militia, he joined a commando group in Grenoble, assisting the OSS, then began working for the U.S. Army Counter Intelligence Corps. When Dachau was liberated on April 29, 1945, Thomas learned the whereabouts of Emil Mahl (the "hangman of Dachau"), whom Thomas arrested two days later. Thomas, along with CIC colleague Ted Kraus, subsequently captured SS Major Gustav Knittel (wanted for his role in the Malmedy massacre). Mahl and Knittel were later convicted of war crimes. Mahl was sentenced to death and Knittel to life imprisonment, although both sentences were subsequently commuted. Thomas also engineered a post-war undercover sting operation that resulted in the arrest of several former S.S. officers. A 1950 Los Angeles Daily News article credits Thomas with the capture of 2,500 Nazi war criminals. In the final week of World War II, Thomas also played a part in the recovery of a cache of Nazi documents that had been shipped by the Nazi leadership to be pulped at a paper mill in Freimann, Germany. These included the worldwide membership card file of more than ten million members of the Nazi party. After the end of the war, Thomas learned that his parents and most of his extended family had died in Auschwitz.
In 1947, Thomas emigrated to Los Angeles, where an uncle and cousins resided. He opened a language school in Beverly Hills called the "Polyglot Institute" (later renamed "The Michel Thomas Language Center") and developed a language-teaching system known as the "Michel Thomas Method", which he claimed would allow students to become conversationally proficient after only a few days' study.
He remained unmarried until 1978 when he wed Los Angeles schoolteacher Alice Burns; the couple had a son and daughter before the marriage ended in a divorce.
Thomas' clients included diplomats, industrialists, and celebrities. The success of the school led to tours and a second school in New York City, as well as a series of instructional books and tapes in French, Spanish, German, and Italian. At the time of his death in 2005, Thomas's tapes, CDs, and books were the leading method of recorded language-learning in the United Kingdom.
In 1997, Thomas participated in a BBC television science documentary, The Language Master, in which he taught a five-day course in French to a group of UK sixth form students who had no previous experience with the language. Throughout the course of the five days, the feelings of the students toward the project would radically amend from low esteem prior to the first session to highly confident by the last day.
In 2001, when the Los Angeles Times published a profile casting doubts about Thomas' war record, he unsuccessfully sued the newspaper for defamation. In 2004, after archival documents and recent testimonials of Thomas's surviving World War II comrades were submitted to the U.S. Army by Senator John McCain and Representative Carolyn Maloney, Thomas was awarded the Silver Star for "gallantry in action against the enemy in France from August to September 1944 while a lieutenant in the French Forces of the Interior attached to the [U.S.] 1st Battalion, 180th Infantry Regiment, 45th Infantry Division." The award was presented by former Senator Robert Dole and Senator John Warner at the National World War II Memorial in Washington, D.C., on May 25, 2004.
Thomas died of cardiac failure at his home in New York City on January 8, 2005, aged 90.
- Robbins, Christopher. Test of Courage: The Michel Thomas Story (2000). New York Free Press/Simon & Schuster. ISBN 978-0-7432-0263-3/Republished as Courage Beyond Words (2007). New York McGraw-Hill. ISBN 0-07-149911-3
- Chicago Tribune, "Barbie Prosecutor Demands Life Term," by Julian Nundy, July 1, 1987
- Official documents from French Bureau des Anciens Combattants
- US National Archives documents
- Los Angeles Daily News, "'Hangman of Dachau' tries to blackmail war hero", by Sara Boynhoff, February 17, 1950.
- Wrathrall, Clare (December 11, 2004), "Brush Up Your Bad Language", Daily Telegraph
- Flintoff, John-Paul (March 27, 2004), "The Man Who'd Like to Teach the World to Talk", Financial Times[dead link]
- The Telegraph "Michel Thomas (obituary)" 13 Jan 2005
- Buxton, Alexandra (December 11, 2004), "Hola! Me llamo Alexandra", Daily Telegraph
- Campbell, Sophie (February 5, 2005), "Now Repeat After Me", The Daily Telegraph
- The Language Master at the British Film Institute Film & TV Database
- Los Angeles Times, "Larger Than Life", by Roy Rivenburg, April 15, 2001.
- 189 F.Supp.2d 1005. Thomas v. Los Angeles Times, February 4, 2004.
- Silver Star Citation at web site of US Rep. Carolyn Maloney, (D-NY)"
- 60 Years After Nomination, Veteran Gets Silver Star
|Wikiquote has quotations related to: Michel Thomas|
- Official site
- New York Times May 22, 2013 'Forgotten Heroes' Obituary
- Guardian Obituary by Christopher Robbins, author of Thomas's biography
- Washington Post Obituary by Adam Bernstein
- Website re: Michel Thomas v. LA Times & Roy Rivenburg, 2001 defamation case