Science Fair Project Encyclopedia
Michel Thomas (February 3, 1914–January 8, 2005) was the world's highest paid teacher of foreign languages, charging $15,000 to $25,000 to teach a clientele of the rich and famous, including Raquel Welch, Barbra Streisand, Emma Thompson, Woody Allen, and Grace Kelly (who had to learn French rapidly after becoming engaged to Prince Rainier of Monaco). Thomas was fluent in a dozen languages, and claimed that he could teach anyone a language within a few days, using mental techniques he developed to resist his own torture during World War II. He guaranteed that his students would never forget the languages he had taught them, and provided free refresher classes to any client who needed them, no matter how long the intervening gap in time.
Thomas' 'official' life story is a gripping tale involving many wartime adventures, so much so that skeptics often suggest that it is more the product of his personal charm and skill at self-promotion than historical accuracy.
Thomas was born Moniek (Moshe) Kroskof in Lodz, Poland, to a wealthy Jewish family who owned textile factories. Seeing the young boy suffer from antisemitic taunts of the local residents, his parents sent him to live in Breslau, Germany, with an aunt. In Germany, although he was still the only Jew in his peer group, he excelled and enjoyed himself. However, the rise of the Nazis drove him to leave for the University of Bordeaux in France in 1933, and subsequently the Sorbonne.
World War II
When France fell to the Nazis, he escaped to Nice, which, under the Vichy government was nominally neutral; here he changed his name to the less Jewish sounding Michel Thomas so that he could operate in the French Resistance movement more easily. He was arrested, nevertheless, and spent four months in solitary confinement before being released; he was subsequently arrested once more and sent to Le Vernet in the Pyrenees, then to the mines at Gardane , near Aix-en-Provence, for slave labor until his lungs deteriorated, after which he served as slave labor cutting wood in the Alps before finally being sent to Les Milles near Marseilles, from where Jews were sent to the death camps at Auschwitz where most of them would die.
In August, 1942, however, Thomas escaped, using forged papers, and once more began recruiting Jews to join the Resistance. In January, 1943, he was again arrested and was personally interrogated by Klaus Barbie; Thomas, who spoke seven languages, maintained the facade of a simple apolitical French artist who did not understand the German language, even when Barbie tested him by ordering another officer, in German, to shoot him. Thomas' complete lack of reaction convinced Barbie that he was telling the truth, and he was released. He would later testify at the trial of Barbie in 1987.
The next month he was once again arrested, by the Milice, the Vichy French paramilitary secret police, who tortured him for six hours. Thomas survived by focusing his mind strongly on other things; this intense concentration was to become the basic technique of his language courses.
After being released by the Milice, Thomas joined a commando group in Grenoble, assisting the OSS, then the American Counterintelligence Corps , after quickly teaching himself the English language. He assisted the American Seventh Army after they captured the concentration camp at Dachau by translating documents and conducting interrogations; there he discovered that most of his family had been put to death at Auschwitz.
In the final week of the war, he handed over to the Americans what he claimed were records of 10 million members of the Nazi party, which are still kept in the US National Archives . In 2001, the Los Angeles Times questioned the veracity of these records. Thomas sued the newspaper for defamation, but his case was thrown out of court.
In 1947 he emigrated to the United States, where he opened a language school in Beverly Hills, California, the 'Polyglot Institute'. He later renamed the school 'The Michel Thomas Language Centre ' because, as he said, in America "no one knew what 'polyglot' means". The success of the school led to tours and a second school in New York, as well as a successful series of language tapes and books.
Thomas remained unmarried until late in life, when he married Alice Burns . After a son and daughter, the marriage was dissolved.
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