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Michel Thomas Dies; Linguist, WWII Adventurer

By Adam Bernstein
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, January 11, 2005; Page B06

Michel Thomas, 90, the linguist-to-the-stars with a curious past, whose World War II exploits were seemingly exonerated with a Silver Star last year, died of a heart ailment Jan. 8 at his home in New York.

Mr. Thomas was a diminutive man with a melodramatic voice. About his war actions, he appeared part Scarlet Pimpernel, part Simon Wiesenthal, a charming rogue who used his wit and sexual wiles to survive wartime danger and later uncovered a trove of Nazi Party documents.

Michel Thomas is applauded at the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum in May during a ceremony honoring World War II veterans who liberated concentration camps in Europe. He also received a Silver Star in May. (Michael Lutzky -- The Washington Post)

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His biographer, British journalist Christopher Robbins, took the unusual, perhaps preemptive, step of including the quote of a linguist colleague: "Either more miracles are associated with your life than anyone I could possibly imagine or you're the biggest charlatan who ever walked the face of the earth."

Born to prosperous Polish Jews, Mr. Thomas was raised in Germany and adopted his current name during the war. He claimed to have been a French resistance and U.S. Army counterintelligence hero who coolly avoided being shot in the skull during an interrogation by Gestapo officer Klaus Barbie. He said he passed himself off as a French painter, which somehow disarmed the "Butcher of Lyon."

In the 1980s, he testified against Barbie at his trial for crimes against humanity. Barbie received a life sentence but not before the French prosecutor, Pierre Truche, took a swipe at Mr. Thomas's credibility.

"With the exception of Mr. Thomas, all the witnesses are of good faith," he said, according to an account in the Chicago Tribune.

Much of Mr. Thomas's war history lingered in a gray area. He had many supporters and many detractors, and it was hard to prove or disprove much of what happened six decades ago.

He said he helped liberate the Dachau concentration camp; saved a cache of documents that identified Nazi Party members worldwide -- essential to the prosecution during the Nuremberg war crimes trials; and infiltrated a group of postwar Nazi officers and their sympathizers.

In 1947, he settled in California and became known for his eponymous language center on Rodeo Drive in Beverly Hills. He spoke 11 languages, including English, German, French, Spanish, Italian and Yiddish, and promoted a controversial method of teaching. He said he could teach the basic structure of a language within days "without the need for books, memorizing, or homework," according to his Web site. He described his technique as breaking a language down to its component parts.

He featured testimonials from those he identified as clients, including Emma Thompson, Woody Allen and Ann-Margret. Seminars could run $15,000 or more. He also did pro bono work with minority students in Watts after riots in the 1960s.

He made students feel comfortable with language, taking French, for example, and showcasing words that are similar to both tongues. "English is French, badly pronounced," he told a reporter.

Robbins's "Test of Courage" (2000), about Mr. Thomas, was well received by Jonathan Yardley in The Washington Post and by other reviewers who took Mr. Thomas largely at his word. A few, such as Virginia Makins in the Times Education Supplement, suggested that the story was "a sometimes barely believable biography . . . of an obstinate and audacious man whose self-reliance is total."

A scarringly skeptical report appeared in the Los Angeles Times in 2001. Its reporter questioned Mr. Thomas's war record, claiming among other things that another man saved the cache of Nazi records from destruction.

Mr. Thomas filed a defamation suit against the reporter and the newspaper, which refused to admit an error in the article. A judge threw out the case and ordered Mr. Thomas to pay legal fees.

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