Like a number of WorldPR’s high-profile clients who have sought our guidance, Michael Thomas was a remarkable individual who nevertheless found that his personal qualities – in his case huge personal courage and great intelligence – were not sufficient to deal a wholly unexpected attack on his reputation.
Thomas, who was born in Lodz, Poland, in 1914 to a wealthy Jewish family, was a gifted linguist and war hero. He served in the French Resistance and survived imprisonment in several different Nazi concentration camps.
In January 1943 he was arrested and interrogated by Klaus Barbie, the SS and Gestapo chief knows as the “Butcher of Lyons”, only being released after convincing his captor that he was an apolitical French artist. (After the war, he gave evidence at Barbie’s trial.) Arrested, tortured and later released by the Milice, the Vichy paramilitary militia, Thomas joined a commando group assisting the American OSS. Thanks to his proficient linguistic skills, he was then recruited by the US Counterintelligence Corps. Present with US troops at the liberation of Dachau concentration camp, he identified and arrested Emil Mahl (the “hangman of Dachau”). In all, Thomas has been credited with arrest of more than 2,500 German war criminals.
After the war, Thomas emigrated to the United States, where he enjoyed a remarkable success in developing a language-teaching system known as the “Michel Thomas method,” enabling students to become conversationally proficient in a short space of time. His pupils included diplomats, industrialists and movie stars and his courses are still widely available in bookshops today. Then in 2001, the Los Angeles Times published a profile of Thomas entitled “Larger Than Life”, which cast doubt on many aspects of his life, including his war record. Thomas was mortified and sued the paper for defamation, but under strict US freedom of reporting laws, he lost the case.
With the help of a dedicated team of researchers, we helped Thomas to piece together the key events of his life and publish his story in a book by the celebrated British war author, Christopher Robbins, called “Michel Thomas: The Test of Courage”. The book, which became an immediate bestseller, contained archival documents and testimonials of Thomas’s wartime comrades which were subsequently submitted to the US Army to provide irrefutable evidence of his wartime record and to restore his reputation.
In 2004 – a year before his death aged 90 – at a special ceremony at the National World War II Memorial in Washington DC, Thomas was awarded the silver star “For gallantry in action against the enemy in France.”