March 4, 2004
Misused by Gibson, Instructor Charges
"It's all -- maybe not all fiction -- but most of it is." -- Hutton Gibson, Mel Gibson's father, on his opinion that the Holocaust has been exaggerated. Newsweek, March 1, 2004
"I have friends and parents of friends with numbers on their arms. The guy who taught me Spanish was a Holocaust survivor. He worked in a concentration camp in France. Yes of course. Atrocities happened. War is horrible. The Second World War killed tens of millions of people. Some of them were Jews in concentration camps."
-- Mel Gibson to Peggy Noonan in Reader's Digest, March 2004
At 90 years old, Michel Thomas remains the world's premier foreign language teacher. Titans of business, foreign ambassadors and the stars of Hollywood readily pay $25,000 for three days of private instruction with Thomas, usually from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. over a single weekend.
The fee includes two days of follow-up with his teachers. In the late 1990s Thomas taught Mel Gibson his weekend Spanish course at Gibson's home in Malibu.
"I am outraged, absolutely outraged," Thomas thundered over the phone from London, when I interviewed him in late February. He is in England recording the final CDs for his complete courses in French, Spanish, German and Italian for the prestigious British publisher, Hodder and Stoughton.
"After having twice escaped deportations to Auschwitz, for Gibson to say I had a job in the concentration camp and survived the concentration camp like everybody else. To misuse me, to use me is an outrage," Thomas said.
I asked if he has spoken to Gibson since the quote appeared.
"No. Abe Foxman of the ADL asked me to write Gibson a letter," Thomas replied. "But I don't know if I will."
Thomas explained that he and Gibson got on very well, and Gibson later brought his two sons to Thomas' Beverly Hills office to take taped language courses there. They never discussed the Holocaust, but Thomas said, "He knew I was a Holocaust survivor, and I did send him my book. Whether he read it is another thing."
I first met Thomas in the early 1990s, when he approached me at a UCLA seminar about writing a book about a small part of his life -- his service with the U.S. Army Counter Intelligence Corps (CIC). After fighting in the French Resistance, he was assigned in August 1944 as a French liaison officer with the 45th Division of the U.S. 7th Army, serving with combat counterintelligence.
Thomas was nominated for a Silver Star for combat bravery. Later, he became an agent in the CIC, and he established a network of agents behind enemy lines.
On April 29, 1945, Thomas joined the troops in the liberation of Dachau, where he took historic photographs of the crematorium workers. Two days later, he captured Emil Mahl, the "Hangman of Dachau," near Munich.
Around this time, he received a report that a convoy of SS trucks was en route to a paper mill south of Munich. After the liberation of the city, Thomas raced to the mill and prevented a mountain of Nazi documents, including the worldwide membership card files of the Nazi Party, from being turned into pulp. These documents formed the core of the Berlin Document Center, the world's foremost repository of Nazi personnel documents, which played a vital role at the Nuremberg trials.
In the many weeks and months I spent with Thomas, he let me inspect a mound of historic original documents, many of which he carried constantly with him in a briefcase, never letting them out of his possession.
My book proposal about his wartime experiences made the rounds of publishers. None questioned its veracity, but they felt similar stories had been done, and they would have trouble "breaking it out" commercially.
In spite of his remarkable life, Thomas has remained virtually unknown, remarkable itself, considering that his language students have included business tycoons Edgar Bronfman Jr., Henry Kravis and Saul Steinberg. Grace Kelley, Woody Allen, Barbra Steisand, Otto Preminger, Warren Beatty and Emma Thompson are among the legion of Hollywood luminaries who have studied with him.
Thomas' revolutionary technique allows no note taking, no memorization drills and no homework. Holding his secrets close to his chest, he talks about dissecting language into minute parts. "It took me many years to see on what basis to reassemble them," he said.
Herbert Morris, a UCLA professor of law and humanities and former UCLA dean of humanities, took the private weekend course with Thomas and said that he retained an equivalent of a year's instruction from it.
Thomas has always been caught in the tension between seeking the bright lights of recognition and the shelter of privacy, but he has opted primarily for the latter. It is only in the last half a dozen years, after almost five decades of guarding the secrets of his language system, that Thomas allowed his tapes and CDs to be sold commercially.
Previously all students not in private instruction entered his language centers in Beverly Hills or Manhattan and listened to the interactive tapes there. All cassettes were never allowed out of the office.
In 2000, Thomas' extraordinary life story was finally publicized in "Test of Courage" by British author Christopher Robbins and published by Simon and Schuster. Robbins took a broader and wiser approach than my own, incorporating the language system and Hollywood angle to give it more marketing punch.
The book was favorably reviewed in the Los Angeles Times, then months later, on April 15, 2001, the Times published a long profile on Thomas. Headlined "Larger Than Life," the article cast doubts on the veracity of Thomas' wartime experiences, clearly implying that Thomas had fabricated or exaggerated them.
Refused a retraction and advised of the long odds of prevailing in a libel case, Thomas nonetheless sued the Times for defamation in October 2001. He has fought the paper fiercely ever since to get it to acknowledge the well-documented facts of his life.
Thomas was denied a trial by a federal judge's curious pretrial ruling that the article was not defamatory. Although the article, she said, implied Thomas had lied about his past, "no reasonable juror or reader could find that was the message the defendants intended to convey."
Alex Kline, a San Francisco private investigator, helped prepare the defamation case for trial, locating World War II comrades and extensive archival evidence to further bolster the documentation in Robbins' book. (He created a Web site at www.michelthomas.org that contains the original historical data.)
On Feb. 19, 2004, John Carroll, editor of the Los Angeles Times, spoke at a UC Berkeley symposium -- "Selling Out the First Amendment: The Collision of News, Entertainment and Politics." For a videotape record of this event go to (webcast.berkeley.edu/events/archive/html).
At the symposium, Kline asked Carroll why neither he nor anyone else at the paper had responded to the nearly 400 letters they have received, which include 130 signatures of members of the 180th Regiment of the 45th Infantry Division, Thomas' regimental association, respectfully requesting that the paper correctly re-report the story of Thomas's life. Carroll's verbatim response was:
"I hate to get into this one, but I figure we're going to since we're here at Berkeley. We published a story awhile back, by a very clever reporter named Roy Rivenburg, about a man who published his autobiography. And, if you read the autobiography, you'd be amazed you'd never heard of this man, because he pretty much single-handed won World War II for us. It was a preposterous book, and our review of it was an investigative review. It debunked many of the claims in this book and had some fun doing it, had a few laughs at the author's expense. When you put yourself out in public and make claims that are preposterous, and publish a book on it, you're like to get a reviewer who will look into that and set the record straight. I'm very proud of that story, we haven't retracted a word of it, we don't intend to because it was true."
Rivenburg is primarily a humor and feature writer for the Times.
He currently teaches courses like "The Mechanics of Biblical Journalism" for a Christian Fundamentalist group called The World Journalism Institute (WJI). The WJI's mission, posted on the Web, reads in part: "In this age of mass secular media, the mission of the WJI is to overcome the eclipse of God by providing counterthrust to the secular media and tepid Christian media."
The Los Angeles Times has printed nothing about the legal skirmish with Thomas.
My guess is that once such a lawsuit is filed against a newspaper, the plaintiff becomes an enemy of the First Amendment, and they circle their wagons. Your concern is not to be fair but to win.
But having won and extracted your legal fees from the pocket of the plaintiff, as the Times did, does your journalistic obligation to tell the truth end? That is a question the Times does not seem to want to address.
Thomas has found himself in the unenviable position of having the Los Angeles Times question the facts of his life, while Gibson appropriated those same facts to diminish the enormity of the Holocaust.