From hell to Hollywood

Michel Thomas had an idyllic life until he was imprisoned in a Nazi concentration camp. Under torture, he developed a mental skill that he later adapted to teach languages to the stars.
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The Independent Online

Michel Thomas is sitting opposite me in a warm London hotel room. He's 85, stooped and hard of hearing, wearing a black suit on a sunny day. In the book I've just read, The Test of Courage: The Life of Michel Thomas, there is a picture of this same man in his twenties, an identity photograph taken in a French concentration camp. Young, beautiful, with an indifferent look on his face and wearing an open-neck shirt, the man in the photograph radiates a nonchalant confidence.

Michel Thomas is sitting opposite me in a warm London hotel room. He's 85, stooped and hard of hearing, wearing a black suit on a sunny day. In the book I've just read, The Test of Courage: The Life of Michel Thomas, there is a picture of this same man in his twenties, an identity photograph taken in a French concentration camp. Young, beautiful, with an indifferent look on his face and wearing an open-neck shirt, the man in the photograph radiates a nonchalant confidence.

It's impossible to put the two men together. It isn't just the years that divide them. After that identity photograph was taken, Thomas went to hell and back. The story of his survival makes for such unlikely, Technicolor reading that over and over again you find yourself thinking, "that would make a good film", or even, "that would never convince audiences". There is the time when Gestapo officers turn their backs and let him and his girlfriend slip across the French border in the dead of night. There is the time when, wearing a hat and a false beard, he makes his way through a German roadblock. There is the time when he is interrogated by Klaus Barbie and pretends not to understand German so that he has to steel himself not to flinch when Barbie gives the order, in German, for him to be shot. There is the time when he is tortured by the Gestapo and manages to block out the pain by concentrating his mind entirely on how he will outwit them.

It would take Steven Spielberg crossed with Tolstoy crossed with John le Carré to do justice to the sweep and grandeur of his tale, and sadly Thomas's biographer, Christopher Robbins, doesn't quite rise to the task. But Thomas himself has a hard time rising to the challenge of his own history. What can heroes say when they are old and sitting in a Mayfair hotel room? "The world was my personal war," he says at one point, "and I had to fight that war." It's tough to push behind the rhetoric - to get any idea of the ghosts that still haunt him.

Thomas started his life as Moniek Kroskof, a Polish Jew, born to a wealthy family and to a mother who adored him. He was brought up with a great sense of his own lovableness and self-worth, as he endearingly says: "I grew up with a great feeling of love. I was surrounded by it. So much so that I never, never was told 'I love you' - it would be like saying the sun is shining, you are breathing. Love was part of my life." Thomas is not scared of blowing his own trumpet, and his biography gives us a picture of a young boy who seemed to have everything going for him. With his intelligence and good looks and rich, loving family, the world seemed to be his oyster. And then Hitler came to power.

Thomas then started on his years of escape and resistance, beginning with that movie-like journey to France when the police who picked him up suddenly changed their minds and let him and his girlfriend run for the border. And then his tale becomes an indictment of the vicious anti-Semitism of the French, as he spent two years in French concentration and labour camps, constantly threatened by deportation to German death camps.

Even now, as he thinks of it, his voice suddenly rises, and I jump in my chair as he belts out his 60-year-old fury. "And this happened in view of the rest of the world! That looked away in total indifference! In a country that was officially neutral! With embassies! There was a US consulate in Marseilles and in Lyons! All this happened... without a voice of protest!"

The outburst passes, and Thomas settles down again in his armchair, waiting for the next question. You can see that he exercises iron control over his emotions. In fact, he says there was only one occasion in his chequered life that he lost control of himself. It was near the end of the war, and he had moved from the French resistance into the US Army. Among the German prisoners taken by his company was an SS officer, who was sent to Thomas for interrogation before being passed behind the lines. As Thomas tells the tale, his voice becomes low and urgent, the story comes unstoppably, rumbling on like a river.

"I examined his military passport, yes, and in it he had a citation for decoration. The citation described in detail how he had rounded up Jewish families in Cracow in the square. At one point when three young Jews tried to escape and run away, he shot them. Then he gave orders to massacre and shoot all of them. They were all exterminated. This was in his citation.

"That was my first encounter with evil, yes. In front of me, yes. I would say my reaction was strong. I lost control of myself. I used the whip which they all carried. I used methods which had been used on me. I felt driven. I felt driven by all those he had killed. I remember there were three American officers who passed by. One came over to interfere, but the two others pulled him away. They said: 'Leave him alone, he knows what he is doing.' This was the only time I lost myself. I'm not proud of it."

The American unit that Thomas had joined liberated Dachau. "As every camp was liberated I went in to talk to people. I had to find out what had happened to my family. The horror of it. I remember little children running away from me in fear, because I was in uniform. As I talk about it I live it. It was unforgettable." He saw the massed bodies and the ghostly survivors in camp after camp, but he never found his family. They had all died in Auschwitz.

Thomas spent a couple more years in Europe, tracking war criminals for US Counter Intelligence. But in 1947 he bailed out of the ruins of Europe and went to the United States. And there he had to learn to let go of the horror he had seen. "I felt like Gulliver, with the Lilliputians. But I envied Gulliver. He looked different from the Lilliputians. I was Gulliver, but I looked like everyone else. A few months after I arrived I broke out in laughter. There was silence in the room. Everyone looked at me. It was the first time I had laughed for years." Even now Thomas is not an easy man. When he talks about his children, he talks about how he explained the nature of evil to his six- year-old son. Like many survivors, survival seems to have shaped the rest of his life and that of his family.

And in a way, the latest chapter of Thomas's life has proved to be almost as strange as what went before. He was already master of several languages - including Polish, German, Yiddish, French and English - when he got to the US. So he opened a language school in Beverly Hills and, with the obsessional intensity that characterised him, he gradually developed a technique of language teaching which produces rather startling results, to say the least. He claims to be able to give students competence in a new foreign language in five days.

It's impossible, from what Thomas says, to understand how this technique works, but part of its success may be that it is so wholehearted. Woody Allen, who learnt French with him in 1972, said: "Learning with Michel; it's like a kid who loves baseball and who knows every player, every batting average, every statistic. They've learned it all effortlessly. It's the same with Michel. You learn effortlessly." François Truffaut said: "His manner is a little like a psychoanalyst, and he has the patience of an angel."

Thomas's teaching was the subject of a BBC documentary a couple of years ago in which he taught French to a group of underachieving London schoolchildren. Their headteacher was astounded: "They have done in a week what normally takes five years," she said.

More glamorously, Thomas boasts Grace Kelly, Warren Beatty, Bob Dylan, Raquel Welch and Emma Thompson among his customers. He won't gossip about them; in fact, I can't help feeling that gossip and small talk are things that Thomas has never bothered to master. Although he now mixes with the stars, perhaps he still feels a little like Gulliver among the Lilliputians.

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