Survivor fights L.A. Times in mock trial to clear his nameby JESSICA RAVITZ, Bulletin Correspondent
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Michel Thomas barely escaped deportation to Auschwitz, fought in the French Resistance and captured the "Hangman of Dachau." But he has failed to get his day in court.
In October 2001, Thomas filed a libel suit against the Los Angeles Times, alleging the newspaper defamed him and his accomplishments. The suit was dismissed, and appeals denied.
In an attempt to achieve restitution, Thomas, 89, made his case before U.C. Berkeley's Boalt Hall last Friday, in a mock trial co-sponsored by the university's schools of law and journalism.
It was an effort to reclaim his honor and good name, both of which Thomas felt were lost in the April 2001 Times article, "Larger than Life," by Roy Rivenburg. Thomas, who grew up in Germany and France and lost his family in the Holocaust, came trom New York to attend the trial. After the war he resided for many years in Los Angeles.
"You have to fight for those who fought for you," said Alex Kline, a San Francisco investigator who said he's spent thousands of hours defending Thomas' reputation. "And I'm hoping...the court of popular opinion will see it the way I see it." Kline is helping to spearhead a campaign to restore Thomas's reputation, on the Web at http://www.michelthomas.org
In his suit, Thomas alleged that the Times cast doubt on his accomplishments during World War II -- among them his presence at the liberation of Dachau, his discovery of 10 million Nazi Party membership cards and his service as an agent in the U.S. Counter Intelligence Corps (CIC).
Representing Thomas, attorney Anthony Glassman came to Berkeley to present his case. He argued that the newspaper defamed his client and did so intentionally. Glassman called Rivenburg's investigation thorough, but charged that the reporter ignored crucial information.
John Bartko, an attorney and Glassman's friend, represented the Times because the paper reportedly declined to participate.
Martha Goldstein, the Times' vice president of communications, indicated Monday that the university had not invited the Times to participate. She maintained Bartko never contacted the paper to obtain briefs or discuss arguments.
Goldman said he invited the Times through its attorneys, and the paper declined to participate. Kline said attempts to reach the Times went unanswered.
Bartko argued that a journalist can't be expected to include every piece of information gathered and can only strive to be fair.
"One of the lessons of life is that it's full of perspectives," Bartko said. "The forum of journalism is the rough and tumble of public debate."
Among those testifying in the four-hour mock trial were Theodore Kraus, a CIC agent who worked with Thomas, and Robert Wolfe, an authority on German war documents.
Kraus, 82, flew in from Connecticut to confirm his friend's wartime accomplishments. Although he was the only known surviving member of Thomas' CIC unit, Kraus said the reporter ignored his word and instead referenced sources who'd never known Thomas.
Wolfe, a former senior archivist at the National Archives, came from Washington, D.C., to vouch for the authenticity of Thomas' discovery of Nazi records outside a paper mill in Munich. "These records were the most important documentation of the war," Wolfe said. "If they had been pulped in that paper mill, we would not have been able to prove" the Holocaust occurred. Throughout the mock trial, Thomas sat quietly, wringing his hands and occasionally wiping his eyes. When his turn came to talk, he stood slowly and approached the stand.
He recounted two interviews with Rivenburg: "The first one was an interview; the second was a hostile interrogation."
In a soft voice, Thomas described the liberation of Dachau and the statements he took from workers in the crematorium. Thomas said he shared all this, including pictures he took, with Rivenburg. But none of this was mentioned in the article.
During cross-examination by Bartko, Thomas shook with anger as he discussed his legacy. "I'm talking about my life, but this is not my life," he said, pointing to a blown-up poster featuring the Times article.
"Surely you can't expect him to cover your whole life," Bartko said.
"I expected the truth," replied Thomas.
In the role of Rivenburg, Kline said, "I indicated I was going to knock him off his pedestal," and claimed the story had been his first assignment as an investigator.
Law Professor Stephen Barnett and journalism lecturer William Turner agreed the courts had properly dismissed the case, and they stressed the importance of "breathing space" for the press. This is especially so in cases involving public figures like Thomas, a linguist who's been the subject of articles, a biography and a BBC documentary. Barnett said he believed Thomas had been treated unfairly by the Times, but called him "a sacrifice on the altar of free speech."
Thomas holds a different view. "I refuse to be a victim, and sacrifice is not in my life," he told a visibly moved group surrounding him after the trial. "All I wanted was one single thing -- a day in court to defend my life."