Thursday, May 19, 2011

Who was Michel Thomas?

There are many people to thank for my journey towards being bilingual. But the person who doesn't even know how much he helped me is Michel Thomas. His fascinating and painless method on CDs made me think I can learn another language; hence, my birthday present of a 10 CD set for Spanish. In looking over booklet in my new set, I read about his truly amazing life...and then did a little more research. His real life is just too unbelievable! 

Michel was born Moniek (Moshe) Kroskof in Poland to a Jewish family, but he was sent to Germany when he was seven. As the Nazi party grew, he went to France and attended my own University of Bordeaux! He then went on to the famous Sorbonne in Paris and the Univeristy of Vienna.

Shortly afterwards, Austria too was occupied and Michel's passport was confiscated and he fled Austria, a Jew without a country. Together with his young girlfriend, Michel smuggled his way across the Siegfried-Maginot line and arrived in France, at some point changing his name to Michel Thomas. He volunteered for the French Army, then worked in the big hotels on the Cote d'Azur. He began helping Jewish refugees and was eventually imprisonned, spending four months in solitary. He was freed but then recaptured and sent to a concentration camp. When he developed black lung, he was sent to a slave labor camp in the Alps, then Les Milles called "l'abbatoir" - the slaughterhouse. Michel avoided the increasingly frequent deportations to Auschwitz until he managed to escape from the camp and made his way to Lyon and began working with the French Resistance.

 He was recruiting fighters among the Jewish refugees when he was caught in a trap laid by Klaus Barbie, the "Butcher of Lyon" and head of the Gestapo there. Michel convincingly pretended he was a French painter who didn't speak German and was freed. Michel later testified for the prosecution at the trial of Klaus Barbie.

Once again captured and tortured by the Gestapo and French Milice, the Resistance helped him to escape and became part of a cammando group. As a lieutenant of the French Forces of the Interior, Michel commanded a group that destroyed telephone lines in coordination with the landing of the Allies in Normandy. When the Allies arrived in Grenoble later that year, he was attached to the US Army, acting as a liaison between the American forces and the French resistance. His duties included running patrols into enemy territory to gather combat intelligence and coordinate with members of the resistance.

In recognition of his service, Michel was recommended for the Silver Star, one of the military's highest medals for valor. He was then ordered to another division and Michel then began training with the French army to parachute into Germany. He soon became an agent in the US Counter Intelligence Corps. (CIC). He spoke English and seven other languages fluently at that time, and went with the American troops into Germany.
As a CIC agent, he was part of many historic events, such as the liberation of Dachau concentration camp, the arrest Emil Mahl (the Hangman of Dachau) and obtaining a signed confession and the discovery of a huge cache of Nazi government documents and Nazi Party membership cards at a paper mill outside of Munich. He was also given sole authority to search for, apprehend, interrogate S.S. Major Gustav Knittel, who had been implicated in the Malmedy-Stavelot massacre of more than 130 American soldiers during the Battle of the Bulge. Both Mahl and Knittel wrote to complain of their treatment when Michel arrested them.

Michel was in a sting operation in which he posed as a "Dr. Frundsberg", commander of a phony SS "Grossorganization" He persuaded a number of former SS officers that this organization was to function as a centralized command of the underground SS terrorist organization (Werewolves) in occupied Germany. His CIC colleagues secretly taped meetings that Michel staged and conducted with former SS officers; these meetings eventually led to his becoming the commander of the Werewolf organization. Eventually, a number of former SS officers were tried and sent to prison based on the evidence gathered by Michel's operation. At the end of the war, Thomas learned that his parents and all his family had died at Auschwitz.

In 1946, Michel was recommended for US citizenship by the commanding officer of the CIC Detachment and in 1947, Michel left Europe and moved to the United States. Just after arriving, Michel founded the
Polyglot Institute in Beverly Hills, which was the precursor of the Michel Thomas Language Centers. The ability he found to block out pain during torture, as well as his belief that education is necessary to maintaining a free society, inspired his research into the learning process. The result of his method is, that after just eight hours of instruction, a beginner has a practical and functional use of the spoken language.

Michel has been hailed the world's leading language teacher, during his lifetime teaching celebrities, businessman and children. Today, Michel's language centers operate in New York City and Beverly Hills.

In 2001, an article was published a profile casting doubts about Michel's war record. He attempted to sue the newspaper for defamation. It wasn't until 2004, after archival documents and recent testimonials of Michel's surviving World War II comrades were submitted to the U.S. Army by Senator John McCain and Representative Carolyn Maloney, that Michel 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."quote The award was presented by former Senator Robert Dole and Senator John Warner at the in Washington D.C. in 2004. Michel died of heart failure in  2005, a month before what would have been his ninety-first birthday.

Honestly, this is one amazing story, straight from real life!! I think whenever I travel to another country I want to invest 50 dollars and a few hours with Michel - he is just the kind of guy I want watching my back!

1 comment:

  1. What an amazing life Michel had. 91 seems to young for such a person to die, but he's left a wonderful legacy.
    Judy, South Africa