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July 28, 2008


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Alex Kline

NotTheLATimes has some funny stuff -- I particularly like the "customer service" link that goes to a maze.

Mr. Rivenburg also wrote some funny stuff during his career at the LA Times, but unfortunately he had the very unfunny episode of making bizarrely strenuous efforts to discredit a Holocaust survivor and decorated WWII veteran named Michel Thomas, whose family of Polish Jews was murdered at Auschwitz, but who managed to survive and fight the Nazis with extraordinary courage and tenacity during the war.

These efforts continue to this day.

Rivenburg's 2001 profile of the late Mr. Thomas, who was then 87 years old, led to a defamation suit against him and the Times. The profile portrayed Thomas as a phony Dachau liberator who lied about or greatly exaggerated other important events during his service in the French resistance and fighting with US troops during WWII, including his work as an Agent with the US Army's Counter Intelligence Corps (CIC), where his fluency in many European languages made him invaluable.

In 2004, Thomas was awarded the Silver Star for his bravery fighting with American troops in 1944 in France. Senators Bob Dole and John Warner pinned the medal on Thomas at the WWII Memorial in Washington during the week of its dedication, as several of Thomas's WWII comrades stood by -- or in one case sat in his wheelchair, which I was pushing -- with tears in their eyes. The Ambassador of France also attended, as did Eli Rosenbaum, who heads the US Justice Department's office of Special Investigations -- the department that deports Nazis from the US.

Neither the Times or Rivenburg saw fit to cover this event, though they were informed of it in advance, nor did they report on any of the other significant facts that countered Rivenburg's profile -- such as the public recognition given to Thomas as a Dachau liberator before a large crowd by the US Holocaust Memorial Museum, two days after he was awarded the Silver Star, or the monograph crediting Thomas with the rescue of the Nazi Party's worldwide membership card files, sent by the Nazi leadership to be pulped at a paper mill near Munich in the final days of the war. Rivenburg's article relied on press reports from 1945 to discredit Thomas as the rescuer of those files, but he has never acknowledged the facts set forth in the detailed, scholarly paper by Robert Wolfe in 2002, which credits Thomas with the rescue. Wolfe, who served at the National Archives for more than 30 years, is widely considered the top expert in the world on captured German war documents.

A detailed rebuttal to the article, including downloadable historic documents that were shown to Mr. Rivenburg, but which he apparently ignored, can be found at http://www.michelthomas.org.

Despite all this evidence, and the very public acknowledgments of Mr. Thomas's wartime service during the final year of his long life, Mr. Rivenburg continues his Javert-like crusade to discredit Thomas, who died in 2005 at age 90. Soon after Thomas died, and was the subject of laudatory obituaries by the AP and other mainstream news publications, Rivenburg posted "The Myth of Michel Thomas" on his personal web site, including links to friendly bloggers with headings like "That Lying Old Fraud Michel Thomas Is Dead."

He now promises, on his personal web site, an update to this article, three and a half years after Mr. Thomas went to his grave.

This is hardly the way to keep 'em laughing Mr. RIvenburg. Stick to the humor stuff.

/ Alex Kline
San Francisco, CA

Roy Rivenburg

Michel Thomas wasn’t quite the paragon of honesty and integrity that the previous post would have you believe.

1) In 1987, after his testimony at the trial of Gestapo chieftain Klaus Barbie was ridiculed by French newspapers, the prosecutor asked jurors to disregard Thomas’ words, explaining: “With the exception of Mr. Thomas, all the witnesses are of good faith.”

2) Thomas repeatedly changed his Dachau liberation story. The version he told in a sworn legal affidavit was labeled erroneous by his own biographer—and by the battalion commander whose unit Thomas claimed to have accompanied into the camp.

3) Thomas lied about his military status, insisting he was a U.S. Army officer instead of a civilian employee, even though the L.A. Times uncovered 1946 military records with Thomas’ signature next to the words “civilian assistant.”

4) His tale about rescuing a stash of Nazi Party ID cards is refuted beyond dispute by military records and 1945 articles in the New York Times and London Express. Every wartime source credits a German civilian, Hans Huber, with saving the ID cards and reporting their existence to Allied forces.

5) After the war, Thomas continued his upstanding behavior. From the 1970s to the 1990s, he was sued repeatedly for unpaid bills, rents and taxes—and he stiffed some of his language school employees.

Perhaps the most galling claim Thomas made was that Holocaust victims could have followed his example of (allegedly) escaping multiple concentration camps if they hadn’t given up hope and surrendered to the “Siren Song” of death. In his biography, he describes fellow inmates slowly “succumbing to their fate. They were gone, as surely as a prisoner on death row is gone long before he reaches the electric chair. Nature seems to provide the condemned man with … a natural anesthetic that floods the conscious mind with an almost euphoric invitation to surrender. … Anyone who accepts the invitation is beyond help. … Death becomes a welcome relief.” Thomas, of course, was the only prisoner with enough character to ward off this “insidious phenomenon” and escape not one, not two, but three different concentration/slave labor camps.

The sad thing about Michel Thomas is that he didn’t need to make all this stuff up. The real facts of his life (yes, many of his stories did check out) include a number of praiseworthy accomplishments, fascinating anecdotes and genuine wartime heroism.

Roy Rivenburg

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