Why is the Article Defamatory?
The issues addressed in the lawsuit
Michel Thomas' lawsuit against the Los Angeles Times and Roy Rivenburg concerns six key issues, as described in the Complaint filed in U.S. District Court in October 2001.
The principal issue, which encompasses all the others, is that Michel has lied about or exaggerated events from his past. The other five are specific.
Was Michel Thomas an Agent in the US Army's Counter Intelligence Corps (CIC) during and immediately after World War II?
Was Michel Thomas present at Dachau concentration camp on the day of liberation - April 29, 1945?
Did Michel Thomas first discover the Nazi party's Master card file of millions of members worldwide in May of 1945?
Was Michel Thomas interrogated by the infamous Klaus Barbie in Lyon, France, in 1943 and did he escape the trap Barbie had laid for unsuspecting Jews, all of whom were sent to their deaths at Auschwitz? Was Thomas's testimony at Klaus Barbie's trial in Lyon in 1987 truthful?
Is Michel Thomas's language teaching method merely a "sham" that cannot deliver the level of language proficiency promised?
The facts are as follows.
Michel Thomas' Status As A CIC Agent
The following evidence was known to Rivenburg before he published his article.
Michel's biography by Christopher Robbins, "Test of Courage" contains ample evidence that he was a full-fledged CIC Agent, who wore the uniform of a CIC Agent, including officer's collar tags, and did the work of a CIC Agent. The evidence, which includes numerous photos and documents, is by any reasonable standards, overwhelming.
Before publishing his article, Rivenburg interviewed Michel's former CIC colleague, Dr. Theodore Kraus, who described Michel's work as a CIC Agent. Rivenburg never disclosed this interview in the article, or even mentioned the name of Ted Kraus. Kraus subsequently wrote an angry Letter to the Editor of the Los Angeles Times. He also submitted a Declaration in Michel's defamation lawsuit.
Michel provided Rivenburg with copies of letters written on his behalf by several of his superior officers in the CIC, specifically, Ernest Gearheart, Jr. and Rupert W. Guenthner. Both letters praise Michel for his work in the CIC. Guenthner's letter includes the following remark: "The devotion of Kroskof-Thomas to the assigned mission of this unit far exceeded the demands placed on other personnel." Gearheart's letter states: "I trust that the Silver Star Award, for which you have already been recommended by a unit of the 45th Infantry Division, may some day be authorized and granted to you, as tangible evidence of appreciation of your services." Both these letters are published on this website. In order to check their authenticity, we have obtained service records from the National Military Personnel Records Center for Guenthner and Gearheart, confirming their service in the CIC and showing signatures that match those on the letters in Michel's possession. Rivenburg knew about these letters because he was given copies by Michel. But he never mentioned them in his article.
At least a month prior to publication of the article, Ian Sayer, a senior source quoted by Rivenburg in his article, faxed Rivenburg a copy of page 2862 of the unpublished history of the CIC, which states:
"Agents Thomas and White, on their way to pick up an automatic arrestee, were informed at Hersbruck that the town for which they were heading was in German hands. They collected tactical information about the situation ahead and forwarded it to Target Force Headquarters, along with a report of initial security measures they had instigated in Hersbruck. In addition to the normal arms collection, curfew, travel restrictions, and communications disconnection, the two Agents arrested an official of the Organization Todt and indicated the existence of a war crimes' situation in the town. Agent Schiff was performing all interrogations as the day ended. Most of this work had been performed in suburban areas.
Ian Sayer is an acknowledged expert on the history of the CIC. He researched and co-authored "America's Secret Army: The Untold Story of the Counter Intelligence Corps." When he sent this fax to Rivenburg, he told him that he had found a reference to an Agent Thomas from 45th CIC. He also told Rivenburg that Ernest Gearheart, Jr. was mentioned as Commanding Officer of the unit, and could therefore easily have been transferred to the 970/35 unit in Ulm, Germany - the same unit Rivenburg had indicated Thomas was in after the 45th. Rivenburg did not mention any of this in his article.
The evidence described above was shown to Rivenburg before he published his article. Our own investigations in the preparation of Michel's lawsuit, however, uncovered other evidence in support of Michel's account of his work at CIC. This was also readily available to Rivenburg had he chosen to investigate the matter thoroughly.
Walter Wimer was a CIC Agent who served with Michel Thomas in the 45th Division CIC during Thomas's service in that unit in 1945. He recognized Michel from photos in "Test of Courage", and submitted a Declaration in support of Michel's defamation suit. In his Declaration, Wimer stated that the article's implication that Thomas
" Ö was a civilian employee or Ö worked merely as a translator or investigator inaccurately belittles Mr. Thomas's service in the CIC. I recall Michel Thomas from our service together in the 45th Division CIC; there was no one else named Thomas in our unit. I recognize him from the photos taken in his CIC uniform shown on the cover of, and inside, 'Test of Courage.' Michel Thomas worked in the capacity of a CIC Agent, and the uniform he is pictured in, with the 'U.S.' insignia on each side of the collar and on the cap, was worn by full-fledged Agents, not civilian employees."
Frederick J. White was also an Agent in the 45th Division CIC, and is mentioned in the CIC History with Agent Thomas. Frederick White's widow, Doris White, still possesses photos that her husband kept of the liberation of Dachau. These are photos taken by Michel, who still has the negatives for many of them, and he showed them to Rivenburg when he was interviewed by him. Doris White filed a Declaration in the defamation suit concerning these photos. She also found a picture of her husband with Michel Thomas, in the convertible mentioned in "Test of Courage."
Robert Wolfe, who served in the US Army in Bavaria during World War II, is an expert in captured German documents and the senior archivist for thirty five years at the United States National Archives for captured German and European war crimes records. Wolfe wrote as follows about Michel Thomas's status as a CIC Agent during World War II:
"The official 'History of the Counterintelligence Corps' registers that 'Agents Thomas and [Frederick J.] White . . . informed . . . that the town for which they were heading was in German hands. . . . collected tactical information about the situation ahead and forwarded it to Target Force Headquarters, along with a report of initial security measures they had instituted at Hersbruck."
Mention of 'Agent Thomas' by name in such an active capacity in the CIC official history is all that is needed to validate that he functioned as a recognized CIC agent in spite of his lack of US citizenship - refuting Rivenburg's grudging concession that Thomas was merely a 'civilian employee.' Mr. Rivenburg was apparently aware of this mention of Mr. Thomas in the CIC History before he wrote his article, but chose to ignore it and did not mention it to his readers.
American forces in general, and CIC (Counter Intelligence Corps) teams specifically, during their 1944-45 invasion and conquest of the European Axis, were typically American in that their personnel lacked sufficient foreign language capacity to deal with the local populations, friend or enemy. Consequently there was widespread recruiting of friendly locals, who for the sake of efficiency and protection were clothed in the same US Army officer's field khaki as their CIC colleagues, which like those of CIC agents bore only the "US" collar symbol rather than an officer's usual collar rank insignia.
In my postwar military government capacity, I had many dealings with CIC agents. I learned thereby how dependent they were on the language talents of Jewish and other refugees from, or survivors of, Nazi persecution. Most of them had reached the United States and returned to Europe as American citizens and soldiers, but some served just as effectively as American auxiliary soldiers, often earning their later US citizenship. Official records plus written and oral evidence of his CIC colleagues unmistakably substantiate that Michel Thomas was among the most meritorious of the latter category."
Thomas' Presence at Dachau on April 29, 1945
The following evidence was known to Rivenburg before he published his article.
Photographs. Michel took over two dozen photos when he was at the liberation of Dachau concentration camp on April 29, 1945. Many of the pictures are grisly shots of piles of corpses. Several are of the crematorium workers, who insisted that Michel take photos of them dragging corpses and shoving them into ovens. These same crematorium workers also insisted on providing written statements to Michel to document the horrible work they were forced to perform, and to document the crimes committed by their boss, Emil Mahl, who had escaped prior to the liberation. Their information helped Michel locate Mahl and arrest him in Munich within a week of the liberation of the camp.
A photographic expert, Peter Mustardo - referred by the New York Museum of Photography - examined Michel's negatives and photos. His expert opinion was that they were consistent with negatives and photos from the period of 1945. Mr. Mustardo is willing to testify to this in court.
Barbara Distel, who has headed the Dachau Concentration Camp Memorial Museum since the 1980s, examined 28 of Michel's Dachau prints; twelve of these were produced from negatives in Michel's possession. She and her staff examined the photos and she wrote a letter stating her opinion that the photos were from Dachau, and could only have been taken on the day of liberation, or at most a day or so later. She stated that she and the museum's staff of photo archivists had never seen 20 of the 28 photos that were sent to her, and she therefore concluded Michel must have taken these photos. When she was subsequently informed that Michel had negatives for at least three of the eight photos she and her staff did find in their archives, she said that Michel must have taken those as well, because the Museum had no record of the original photographer, and had no negatives for those photos.
The Hand-written Statement of Emil Mahl. Michel Thomas showed Mr. Rivenburg the original statement of Emil Mahl, which is handwritten on yellowing sheets of lined paper. Mahl was dubbed the "hangman of Dachau", and his sadistic acts are described in the unpublished history of the CIC. The history also states that Mahl was arrested in early May 1945 - precisely when Michel Thomas independently stated he arrested him. Mahl's statement describes his gruesome activities as the executioner of the camp, where he hanged "800 to 1000" people, including a pregnant young woman, over the course of several years.
Mahl was convicted of war crimes at the Dachau War Crimes trial in November 1945. His death sentence was subsequently commuted to less than ten years, which he served in Landsberg prison.
The prosecution's files in the case against Emil Mahl at the Dachau war crimes trial and Mahl's prison files are in the National Archives. These files included exemplars of Mahl's handwriting and signature. A handwriting expert, Dr. Timothy Armistead, examined this along with a copy of the handwritten statement Mahl gave to Michel Thomas in May 1945. Dr. Armistead found that the handwriting and signatures in the two documents are consistent. (For the purposes of trial testimony, Dr. Armistead referred Michel Thomas's investigator to another expert, with expertise in German handwriting.)
Mahl wrote to Michel Thomas from Landsberg prison in a letter dated December 26, 1949. He had read of Michel Thomas's pending application for U.S. citizenship in an article in the December 18, 1949 issue of Stars & Stripes, and was attempting to threaten Thomas by making allegations of improprieties at the time when Thomas arrested him. Not only did the handwriting expert, Dr. Armistead, state that Mahl's signature on this letter is consistent with Mahl's signature on other authenticated documents Mahl signed; more importantly, the correspondence log from Landsberg prison shows that Mahl wrote to Michel Thomas, care of Stars & Stripes. Gustav Knittel, another war criminal whom Michel arrested, also wrote a letter about his alleged mistreatment by Michel and Ted Kraus. Knittel's letter was written, like Mahl's, from Landsberg prison and was dated January 5, 1950. Knittel's letter is quoted verbatim in "Test of Courage" and a copy was obtained from the National Archives.
Signed Statements of Crematorium Workers. Michel has original copies of ten "Berichts" - reports - typed by four crematorium workers at Dachau. One is signed by one of the four workers, Eugen Seybold, who was photographed by Michel along with another crematorium worker dragging corpses and pushing them into a crematorium oven. (The three other crematorium workers were Franz Geiger of Augsburg, Johann Gopaz, a Yugoslavian from Marburg, and August Ziegler of Mannheim.)
Barbara Distel, along with a variety of historical sources, has confirmed that Seybold was one of the crematorium workers at the time of the liberation of Dachau. The information given in the statements is consistent with the historical record of what went on in the camp.
Our own investigations uncovered the following additional evidence that supports Michel's account of his presence at Dachau on the day of its liberation.
Position of 45th Division CIC on April 29, 1945. According to a document found at the National Archives, the 45th CIC Detachment - Michel Thomas's unit - was located at Schrobenhausen, Germany on April 29, 1945. Schrobenhausen is about 20 miles from Dachau. Michel had a strong motive to go to the camp. He was a Jew who knew his Polish family had been sent to a concentration camp. He himself was nearly sent to Dachau in 1942. Furthermore, his close friend Michael Nelken had committed suicide after being interned at Dachau in the 1930s. He also had the freedom, as a CIC Agent, to go where he wanted to go without requiring any orders, or any requirement that he be "attached" to an infantry unit.
Letters Signed by Hugh Foster and Felix Sparks. Hugh Foster is an expert on the liberation of Dachau who has studied the subject intensively since 1990. He was quoted in Rivenburg's article to suggest that Michel could not have been present at the liberation. However, when shown the evidence that Michel was at the liberation, which Rivenburg had seen but did not disclose to him, Mr. Foster wrote a letter stating that he was satisfied that Michel Thomas was at the liberation of Dachau. He also stated that if he had seen this evidence, or it had been disclosed to him by Mr. Rivenburg, his answers to Rivenburg "would have been quite different."
Felix Sparks was a 27 year-old Lt. Colonel when he led the troops of the 157th Regiment into Dachau. He later became a Brigadier General and a Justice on the Colorado Supreme Court. Today he lives near Denver, Colorado. Rivenburg telephoned Felix Sparks and said to him: "This guy says he was with you when you went into Dachau." Rivenburg knew when he said this that Michel had made no such claim, because Christopher Robbins had written to Rivenburg in an email dated 25th March 2001, telling him that Michel had never said he had gone into the camp with the 157th Regiment, simply that he was at the camp on the day of liberation. Michel also told Rivenburg that as a CIC Agent he was not required to be "attached" to any infantry unit, but had great freedom of movement, and had gone to the camp on his own authority.
By phrasing his question to Felix Sparks the way he did, Rivenburg invited and received the negative quotation he needed to discredit Michel. In the article Felix Sparks is quoted as saying that, "he would certainly recall if Thomas had accompanied the 200-member force: 'He's got the right battalion, that's correct, but there were no CIC [Counter Intelligence Corps] with us.' "
Michel's investigator interviewed Sparks at his home in May 2002. He explained that Michel had never claimed to have "gone in with the 157th", and that he had never heard of Felix Sparks until he read the LA Times article. After hearing this, Sparks signed a letter stating:
"Mr. Rivenburg did not tell me, or indicate in any way, that Mr. Thomas never claimed to be "attached to" the 157th Regiment. Nor did Mr. Rivenburg ever tell me that Michel Thomas was not aware of my name, and had never claimed to have "gone in with me" or my troops on liberation day. Nor did Mr. Rivenburg tell me that Mr. Thomas claimed only to have been at the camp sometime during the day of April 29, 1945.
Had I been aware that this was Mr. Thomas's claim, I would have told Mr. Rivenburg that it was perfectly possible that Thomas was at the camp that day, and that I would not necessarily have been aware of this, as there were hundreds of U.S. military personnel who entered the camp that day whose names I did not know then, or whose names I would certainly not remember today even if I did know their names then."
Michel Thomas's Discovery of the Nazi Party Master File
The following evidence was known to Rivenburg before he published his article.
Documents Taken From the Paper Mill. Michel possesses, and offered to show to Rivenburg, a number of documents that he took from the Josef Wirth paper mill in Freimann, the town just outside Munich where the Nazi Party Master file was discovered.
These documents include an original letter written by Reichsfuhrer Heinrich Himmler to a Dr. Ludwig Dittmar on Jan. 10, 1945. Dr. David Marwell, the former head of the Berlin Document Center, whom Rivenburg interviewed, suggested that this letter probably came from correspondence that can be found in the "Reichstatthalter in Bayern" section of the Berlin Document Center's files. A copy, or Abschrift, of this Himmler letter was in fact found in that section of the BDC's collection. Based on this evidence, Robert Wolfe, the pre-eminent expert on the subject of captured German war documents and the provenance of the BDC's files, has written a letter expressing his opinion that Michel Thomas was the original discoverer of the Nazi Party Master file in the Freimann paper mill. Mr. Wolfe is also preparing an article on this subject for the National Archives magazine, Prologue.
Thomas also has in his possession a case filed by Goering against Julius Streicher, which he took from the paper mill. The case concerns Streicher's employment of a Jew who wrote for Der Sturmer, and mentions Streicher's sexual abuse of young boys. It is well documented that the papers found at the mill included not only the Master file of Nazi Party members, but official court documents from Reich or Party courts.
Other original documents from the mill include the lithograph of the hanging of a Court Jew in Stuttgart (the "Jud Suss") in 1737, an album of watercolors given by Himmler to Julius Schaub commemorating the SS campaign in Greece, and a Nazi propaganda recording on a plastic disc.
In the article, Rivenburg gives prominence to the views of George Leaman, who compiled an inventory of the collections of the Berlin Document Center that was published in 1994. But there are significant gaps in the alternative account of the discovery of the documents.
According to George Leaman, German author Stefan Heym's accounts of the discovery of the files are more "on the mark" than Michel's. But Leaman admitted that he had not read Heym's accounts for several years when he talked to Rivenburg. Indeed, he did not remember the details of them. Stefan Heym's accounts - one is fictional and is contained in the book "Die Kannibalen und andere Erzahlungen", the other is an unpublished non-fiction account in Heym's papers in Cambridge - both show that Heym did not learn of the discovery of the files until the fall of 1945, when Heym read of the "plight" of Herr Huber.
Huber, inaccurately described by Rivenburg as the owner of the mill, was brought to the attention of the world in an Occupation news service article and a BBC article, only after U. S. Army Major William D. Browne announced to the press that the files had been discovered. The news reports of the discovery of the files that appeared in the fall of 1945, however, all clearly state that the files had first come to the attention of U.S. military officers in the spring of 1945 - at precisely the time when Michel Thomas says he discovered them. Rivenburg cited these articles without mentioning this important fact. Nor did he mention that Heym's accounts - the ones described by George Leaman as being more "on the mark" than Michel's - did not start until the fall of 1945.
Despite this, in a partial corroboration of Michel's account, Heym wrote that a couple of CIC agents, per Huber, drove a jeep to the mill in the spring and took a small sample of documents.
After the publication of Rivenburg's article our own investigations uncovered the following additional supportive evidence.
Documents Found at the National Archives. A Seventh Army G-2 Historical Report dated June, 1945, states that in May, "An estimated 68,000 kilos of Party records and documents of Reichsleitung SA were discovered by agents of the 45th CIC Det in a paper mill at Freimann (X-8763). Included among the papers were all Party membership cards with identification photos, documents relating to the Party, SA courts, and SA administration."
Major William D. Browne's October 8, 1945 report states at p. 5 that the records at the mill were "reported to CIC officers and Military Government officers, early in May" 1945. After their initial discovery by American servicemen in early May 1945, most of the documents were left at the mill and "our investigation proved these cards were abandoned by American military personnel."
A report from June 1945 puts the number of agents in 45th Detachment of CIC at 19, including officers; that document did not list the names of the agents and officers. A list from February 1945 of the members of the 45th Detachment of CIC, including names and service numbers, showed a total of 18 names. Michel Thomas joined the 45th Detachment of CIC in approximately March 1945.
No other member of this small detachment has ever claimed to have discovered the files. Agent Francesco S. Quaranta is mentioned in the CIC history as having gone to the paper mill on May 20, 1945, after being advised to go there by unnamed sources. Quaranta did not speak or read German, according to his widow, who was recently interviewed. Michel Thomas, who was at the mill in the first week of May, after the fall of Munich, does of course speak and read German and is one of only handful of members of the 45th CIC Detachment who could have both understood the German text of the documents, and conversed with Herr Huber, the manager of the mill.
Misleading Quotes from News Articles
Regarding Thomas's Interrogation by Klaus Barbie
Unlike the previous sections of Rivenburg's article that simply omit any references to the strongest evidence that supports Michel's account of his service as a CIC Agent, his descriptions of his presence at the Dachau liberation and his discovery of the NSDAP Master file, in this section Rivenburg at least mentions the supportive statements of the French Nazi-hunter Serge Klarsfeld, and Simon Wiesenthal Center leaders Shimon Samuels of Paris and Abraham Cooper of Los Angeles. All three gave statements supporting Thomas's credibility. But then Rivenburg selectively and misleadingly quotes from articles that appeared in the Chicago Tribune and Le Monde that appear to suggest Michel is a liar. He also misrepresents the reasons why prosecutor Truche did not present Michel's testimony with that of other witnesses at Barbie's trial in 1987.
Take the Chicago Tribune article:Rivenburg quoted the following extract: "With the exception of Mr. Thomas, all the witnesses are of good faith."
What Rivenburg left out was that this article, which appeared in the July 1, 1987 edition of the Chicago Tribune, also made the ludicrous suggestion that Pierre Truche said this to the jury because he feared the jury would find Thomas's testimony supportive of Klaus Barbie! The final sentence of the article reads:
"Truche threw doubt on Thomas' testimony when he appeared in court in May and said Tuesday that, if true, it would be the only time Barbie had "shown a little bit of humanity."
The Chicago Tribune article is clearly a piece of superficial and sloppy reporting. As witnesses to the trial report - including Serge Klarsfeld - Michel Thomas was no friend of Klaus Barbie, and nothing in his testimony would have put Barbie' s "humanity" in a good light.
Secondly, the Le Monde Article:
What Rivenburg quoted was: "The French press also pounced on the testimony, says historian Henry Rousso. In a TV program about the trial that will air this summer on Histoire, France's satellite history channel, Rousso says the newspaper Le Monde accused Thomas of having 'a taste for make-believe.'"
But Rivenburg did not mention that Henry Rousso's is a mistranslation of what Le Monde actually printed in French in their May 23, 1987 edition. That article stated, "M. Michel Kroskof-Thomas … à une manière de s'exprimer, à un goût trop prononcé de paraitre, de multiplier les détails."
A proper translation of this phrase would say something to the effect that Michel Thomas has "a certain way of expressing himself, a taste for seeking attention, and for going into too much detail." Certainly not flattering to Michel, but very different from saying that "un goût trop prononcé de paraitre" means "a taste for make-believe" - a meaning that no native French speaker we have spoken to, including Serge Klarsfeld who was present for Michel Thomas's testimony, has agreed with. The translation Rivenburg used, which implies that Thomas makes things up or fabricates stories, is a distortion of the real meaning of the phrase as it was written, and camouflages the real reason why Truche chose to exclude Michel's testimony from the Barbie trial.
Why Pierre Truche Excluded Michel Thomas's Testimony
Rivenburg wrote: "On the witness stand, however, Thomas was a disaster. He attacked the court and insulted the French, Robbins says. Although his manner alienated people, that doesn't mean he wasn't truthful, Robbins adds In "Hotel Terminus," a documentary made after Barbie's conviction, prosecutor Truche summed up his quandary over Thomas: "Sometimes true stories seem hard to believe. I can't build a case on what is hard to believe."
Rivenburg did not mention that Michel Thomas was very upset about the exclusion of his testimony or that Pierre Truche agreed to meet with him after the trial in his office in Paris. This is described on page 313 of "Test of Courage". Truche told Michel that as he listened to the evidence he was reminded of the line by the 17th century poet Nicolas Boileau: "Le vrai peut quelquefois n'etre pas vraisemblable". "The truth is sometimes not believable."
The meaning of what Truche said is conveyed by the common English phrase: "Sometimes true stories seem hard to believe." Michel Thomas stood out as a witness because he was not simply a victim - and one of the very few to have survived Barbie's arrest and questioning - but also someone who was a leader in the Resistance. In order for the jury to understand why he was at the UGIF on the day he was arrested by Barbie, he had to explain to the jury that he was not only a Resistant, but that he had fooled Barbie by pretending not to know German when all the others who had shown up did speak German. The truth is that Michel had a complicated to story to tell, and it stood in stark contrast to the other witnesses at the trial who were concentration camp survivors with brutal but relatively straightforward accounts of arrest, deportation and imprisonment.
Thomas's experience in the Barbie trial left a bitter taste in his mouth. He brought with him to the trial documentation of the time he served in Vichy slave labor and deportation camps, and of his Resistance work, but he was never given an opportunity to present it. Nor was he given the opportunity, as he expected from American court procedures, to confront the defendant in the courtroom. Barbie exercised his right under French law to sit out the trial in a cell near the courtroom where he did not have to face either the jury or his prosecutors.
Michel Thomas's Language Teaching Method
Michel Thomas' language teaching method has a track record that speaks for itself. He has a client list going back five decades, including eminent diplomats, academics, business leaders and dozens of celebrities and hundreds of enthusiastic endorsements. He has never had a single client take him up on his policy of offering a full refund if they are not completely happy with the results of his teaching method. His language teaching tapes and CDs are now the top sellers in bookshops in Britain, and sales are increasing rapidly in the U.S. For more information about the Michel Thomas Langauge Centers please visit www.michelthomas.com.
In his article Rivenburg wrote: "Jackie Kearns, principal of a British school experimenting with the program, offers a more down-to-earth explanation. Thomas borrowed a method from the past and brilliantly repackaged it, she says."
Jackie Kearns denies she said this to Rivenburg. In a letter dated April 2001 that is published on this website, Kearns states: "I was telephoned by the Los Angeles Times not long ago and gave them a very positive report."