"Ich bin Jude"
The Memories of Michel ThomasConverted for the Web from "Test Of Courage: The Michel Thomas Story" by Christopher Robbins
The memories of Michel Thomas stretch back to the crib: a huge but benign black dog the size of a bear viewed through the wooden bars of a playpen; the sensation of being pushed in a pram in the open air; the texture of a cloth pulled from the drawer of a sewing machine and its oily smell; the glittering silver shapes of the machine's metal frets used for different stitches, and their pleasing feel and cold metallic taste when placed in the mouth. His first erotic memory, vivid and thrilling, dates from the age of three. Crawling on the floor, he looked up at the towering figure of his young nanny and glimpsed under her skirt. The girl wore no underwear. Stretching heroically, the toddler reached up and touched bare flesh. "The naked female behind! I liked it -- I still see it!"
At a very early age he began consciously to recover and hold on to these memories of what he calls his "cradlehood." It was his first act against being overwhelmed by a hostile world.
Michel Thomas was born Moniek Kroskof, in Lodz, Poland, under the shadow of the First World War, into a prosperous Jewish family that owned a large textile manufacturing company. He was the only child of the second marriage of his mother, Freida, a strong, independent woman in her late twenties who was highly unusual for her time. Arranged marriages were then the norm among well-to-do Jewish families, and at the age of eighteen Freida had married a man considered to be from a suitable family. The relationship was a failure from the start, but instead of suffering within the marriage she rebelled and demanded a divorce. It was a scandalous decision for a young girl to make, but Freida insisted in the teeth of fierce family opposition.
She later met and married Samuel Kroskof, an engineer who had worked in the oil fields of Iran and Azerbaijan. The couple lived together in Lodz where the joy felt over the birth of a baby boy was tempered by fear of war. At the outbreak of hostilities, Poland became a battleground. As the German Army advanced towards Lodz, a part of Russian Poland at that time, the local population panicked. Poland was first partitioned by Russia, Austria and Prussia in 1772, after which the country's history became an endless cycle of insurrection and reprisal. After a nationalistic uprising in 1863, Russia imposed a harsh policy of Russification within its zone, stripping the country of all autonomy and turning it into little more than a province of the empire. Russian was adopted as the official language in schools, and the use of Polish was restricted. Jewish life became particularly difficult. Treatment of the Jews, many of whose families had lived in the city for hundreds of years, became vicious. There were daily executions by hanging of those accused by the Russians of sympathizing with the Germans, and the fact that a quarter of a million Jews served in the Russian Army did nothing to mitigate the prejudice against them. Shops and houses were looted, synagogues defiled, and hundreds of thousands of Jews living within the Russian partition were driven from their homes. They took to the road, carrying their possessions on carts and bicycles, struggling with suitcases and bundles, their children in their arms.
Samuel and Freida remained in Lodz with their baby during this terrible time of fear and privation. The city had always been an ugly industrial place of grime, smog and noise. Its factory chimneys belched foul smoke into sooty skies and the sun found it difficult to shine through the polluted air and dingy window panes. The city at war became dismal, its few scattered trees felled for firewood and its unpaved streets churned into liquid mud by troops and horses. Most of the remainder of the already diminished population fled, including the Russian bureaucracy that had been in the city for a century. Lodz became a ghost town.
When Michel was only eight months old, the German Ninth Army surrounded the city. The ensuing battle was waged on a monumental scale, the first great carnage of modern warfare, and for weeks the two armies fought each other to the point of exhaustion until winter paralyzed them. Icy winds brought temperatures to below freezing and at dawn each day both armies removed from the trenches the corpses of those frozen to death in the night.
The Germans finally took the city in December, but at a high cost: German losses in the campaign were about thirty-five thousand killed and wounded; Russian losses are unknown but conservatively estimated to be around ninety thousand in all. Germany went on to take over the whole country, stripping industry of everything valuable and sending the booty back to the homeland. Copper was collected from factories, church steeples, frying pans and even door-post amulets. The thick leather transmission belts from the textile mills were sent back to Germany for soldiers' boots, and roofs were stripped of lead. The country's raw materials were also plundered, paid for with vouchers redeemable after the war, which the locals said were not worth a plug groschen.
German sentries stood on every corner to prevent looting and riots. Food was scarce, even for the prosperous, and milk was unobtainable. There were ration cards for the terrible bread, made from a mixture of chestnuts and potato peelings and tasting of clay. Stray dogs and cats were rounded up and rendered down for their flesh, which was sent back to Germany as animal feed. Disease raged in epidemic proportions, the worst of which was typhus. Hospitals overloaded with military casualties were obliged to leave the sick to die, and corpses without shrouds were trundled to cemeteries in wheelbarrows.
As the war ground on, one terrible year after another, the desperate conditions took their toll on the health of mother and child. It also did nothing to help a failing marriage. Freida seemed unprepared, or unwilling, to give up the degree of independence that marriage demanded and broke up with Samuel. One divorce was a scandal, a second social disaster, but Freida seemed unperturbed by the opinions of others. She remained on friendly terms with her ex-husband and later took Michel to see him regularly. The child resented the visits as a duty and an imposition, and during his formative years became emotionally distant from his father.
Michel was brought up in a world of doting women. He lived together with his mother, his aunt Idessa -- two years younger than his mother and a beauty -- and his grandmother. With the collapse of tsarist Russia in the revolution of 1917, and the final defeat of Germany the following year, Poland once again became a nation. The factories of the family textile business, which had floundered and closed during the war, gradually picked up production. Michel grew into something of a wild child, independent and wilful, even as a toddler. The women in his life indulged him shamelessly. "I felt I had two mothers. I was surrounded by love. It was like air. Love was so much part of my life it was like breathing. The security of love was very strong. I am sure that is where I have drawn my strength over the years -- that absolute bedrock of mother love."
By the age of four Michel had developed an advanced case of rickets, news of which had been kept from his mother, who had been taken into hospital with typhus. He was cared for by his grandmother and aunt -- his second mother. By the time Freida returned home after an extended stay in the hospital, the child's legs were so bowed he could hardly walk. "I still see my mother as she came into the living room and her reaction as she saw me -- my horribly curved legs."
Rickets was common at this time and often left children permanently crippled, and his mother's initial joy at seeing her son turned to anguish. "Oh my God," she blurted, "he cannot walk!"
"Yes I can," Michel cried out, delighted to see his mother at home again and eager to please her. In a display of superhuman will and effort, he dragged himself around the dining-room table. He held on to the backs of the chairs and hauled himself from one to another. "See, I can walk!"
Freida wrote to all the experts in the field, and consulted family friends in the medical profession in a desperate search for a cure. She developed a remedy that was an early form of health cure and radical for the time. Michel was put on a diet of fresh vegetables, fruit juices and hot honey drinks with egg yolk -- and less palatable doses of cod liver oil. He was soon walking again and eventually recovered to the point that he began to excel at sports.
"When I went out with my mother, her friends would always talk down to me. Idiotic baby talk in a strained voice -- endless stupid questions that were meaningless. It irritated me. So I gave them strange, unexpected answers. They would become confused and embarrassed, and always they would say, "'How precocious!'" It puzzled him that adults talked to children in such a manner. "I wondered why they talked like that. I came to the conclusion that although they had all been children, they had somehow forgotten their childhood." It was an alarming insight. "A little while later I thought, If they have forgotten their childhood, when I grow up I will forget mine. And that horrified me! It was a terrible shock. To forget everything! To forget me as I am now! Every day was filled with growth and change and events -- and it would all be forgotten! And I would be forgotten -- cease to exist, wiped from the world! I could not let that happen."
He carefully began to develop a system to help him remember childhood. Unable to read or write, he adopted a mental process in which he forced himself to think as far back as he could and reclaim feelings and reactions. He flagged these with a child's mental markers of color, smell, touch and taste. In this way he could recapture and fix a moment in his memory, logging the significant events of his life into his system. It was a large task for a six-year-old but he conscientiously stuck to his method until, at the age of twelve, he spent weeks painstakingly writing the history of his childhood into a lined notebook, the Memory Book -- a document sadly lost to posterity. "I owe a lot to that child. He made a vow not to forget. He influenced my development as a man and laid out the pattern of a lifetime."
It was also at the age of six that he experienced an incident so powerful and disturbing that it forever changed his life. The family lived in a spacious apartment that had a balcony filled with oleander plants overlooking a large courtyard. In one corner was a well used as an emergency water supply on the occasions when the city's mains failed. One sunny spring afternoon his mother went out on the balcony looking down into the quadrant where the children played. Suddenly, she became rigid. A boy and his teenage sister ran to the well, leaned over its side and began calling down into it. The urgency of the children's voices echoed through the courtyard: "Moniek, Moniek -- come back up, your mother is calling. Moniek, come up!"
Freida was filled with dread that her mischievous son had fallen into the shaft. Fearing the worst, she ran down the stairs and out into the courtyard. She peered into the well and began to call for her son. There was no reply. The surface of the water was black and still with no sign of life. She became hysterical and began to wail, ripping at her garments and hair. A large crowd gathered to watch the display of grief in silence, as if at a theater performance.
Just then Michel ran into the courtyard. The sight of his distraught and inconsolable mother shook him to his soul. He had been climbing trees in a garden adjoining the apartment building and had not been near the well. An adult had called him down from a tree and led him back to the courtyard that had filled with people.
Michel was led through the crowd to his mother and she fell on him in relief, hugging and kissing him. The drowning had been a cruel, brutish joke hatched by a child and fed by adults. "These men and women who were our neighbors, non-Jewish Poles, enjoyed the spectacle of the despair of a Jewish mother. No one said anything, or tried to explain it was a joke gone too far, or that they did not mean it. Nothing! They were enjoying it.
"This viciousness and hatefulness traumatized me. My belief system as a child was totally shaken. It changed me. Changed the child. After that I was no longer wild but clung to my mother's side. I became a mother's boy. It took a physical toll on me and I became a sleepwalker. I would pick up a pillow from my bed, put it under my arm, and try to walk out of the house. My mother actually put a bell around my neck. I suffered nightmares -- terrible nightmares! Not of the incident itself, but of horrible monsters coming through the window to get me. I was scared of the dark and the things I imagined it held. I developed chronic asthma. That trauma was so deep, so strong, I quite literally could not breathe Polish air."
His mother grew alarmed at the severity of his condition and took him from one specialist to another without success. "I just couldn't live in Poland, I felt the atmosphere that strongly. It was such a betrayal. At the age of six I had been made aware of the difference between a Jew and a non-Jew. I wanted out -- to get away from Lodz."
In later life, Michel analyzed the virulent nature of Polish anti-Semitism. "It was worse even than Ukrainian or Russian anti-Semitism -- far worse than in Germany. It was a direct result of the teaching of contempt for Jews by the Catholic Church to a largely ignorant and illiterate peasant population. These people emerged from their churches after a Sunday sermon hating the Jews, whom they had been told had murdered Christ their God."
Freida, who was a shrewd businesswoman and held an important position in the family company, traveled all over Poland and now began to take Michel along with her. Since the trauma he had become a difficult and demanding child, and his physical and psychological states were alarming. He was touchy and sensitive and resented doing what was expected of him even when it was agreeable. He grew increasingly stubborn and disobedient. "I had my own ways and got away with it."
As they visited the towns of Poznan and Danzig, and other areas that had been part of the German partition of Poland, Freida noticed her son's spirits lift. "Traveling on a train I can remember looking out at the countryside and everything seemed so beautiful...the cows, the horses, the landscape. Still I can see it -- I can feel it, I can smell it. Through my childish eyes it was a different country because I was out of the Polish-speaking region."
On one of these journeys, just before Michel's seventh birthday when he was at his most difficult, his mother engaged him in a long and serious conversation. They walked through the streets of Poznan together, and she explained the trouble he was causing and the problems this posed for her. "Can you imagine if you had a son, a boy like you are? How would you handle him?"
Michel pondered the question. After some thought he recommended a regime of strict rules and harsh discipline, accompanied by draconian punishment for the least infringement. He elaborated on the rules, which were ruthless in their severity, and on the punishments that were equally extreme.
"Very interesting," his mother said. "I have learned a lot. You have taught me how to handle you."
"Oh no!" The child's response was immediate. "For me it's too late!"
The system was never introduced, and Michel kept his true feelings over the incident to himself, but he felt tricked. He had been betrayed by his own mother and was deeply hurt. "The only time I was ever hurt by my mother. I still feel it now."
It was evident to the child as they traveled together that his mother was both well-known and respected. Michel also came to understand that his upbringing was somehow privileged and more comfortable than that of many of the children around him. Freida took great trouble to imbue him with her own philosophy, explaining that privilege and riches could be stripped from anyone at any time, and that the only true wealth was knowledge. The mind, she insisted, was something that a human being carried with him, a treasure trove that could be endlessly enriched and never taken away. "What you are and who you are and what you know -- these are the only things that count. That has to be strong. Everything else can be destroyed." Freida was imparting a life lesson that would pay a high dividend in the future.
Michel's condition remained extreme, but his relief when outside the Polish-speaking region was so evident that Freida decided her son's health depended upon his leaving the country. Aunt Idessa had married and gone to live in Breslau, just across the border in Germany, where her husband owned a highly successful wholesale wine and spirits business, complete with its own vineyards. Some six months after the trauma it was decided that Michel should go to live with his adored aunt, something he accepted happily. "I was not homesick, or in tears -- I was happy to be going. I knew I was not being sent away but that I was going to my aunt, who seemed like a part of my mother. I did not feel I was losing my mother -- I knew she would always be with me. She was in my heart."
But travel had been forbidden to Jews under the previous Russian regime, as had college education, and passports in the new Poland were still difficult, if not impossible, to obtain. The child would have to be smuggled out of the country. A German friend from Breslau arrived one sunny afternoon in an open convertible. Michel was excited at the prospect of the journey, which he saw as a grand adventure despite the welter of rules that seemed to govern it. Advice and instructions were piled upon him. Most important of all, he was told that during the journey he was not to speak at all in the presence of other people or attract attention in any way.
His mother pretended to be happy and excited about the journey as she saw him off. But as the car sped away and he turned to wave goodbye, he saw Freida collapse to the ground. Michel squirmed in his seat and wanted to turn back, but was assured with a comforting, adult nod from the driver that everything was as it should be.
It was a long journey that took all day. The driver spoke no Polish, and Michel no German, but they drove along comfortably enough in silence. The hood of the car was down and it was a sunny day. The man occasionally turned to the child beside him and smiled kindly. Somewhere near the border he pulled the car over to the side of the road and bought baskets of the first cherries of the season. He handed one to Michel, who ate the delicious fresh fruit greedily.
They crossed the border without incident. The man seemed familiar with the German frontier guards who waved them through after only a perfunctory inspection. The young charge was delivered to his aunt in the old part of the city of Breslau. He was delighted to see Idessa, who could not have been happier to have him. Michel had shed his first identity as a Polish child and was about to enter his life as a German youth.
And suddenly he could breathe.
As a child, Michel adored Germany. The journey from Poland had been a passage from darkness into light; his arrival, rebirth and liberation. True, the financial circumstances of the Weimar Republic were disastrous in the wake of the First World War (in 1914 the mark exchanged at four to the dollar; by November 1923 it was 130 million to one) but this hardly concerned a young boy who felt he had been delivered from hell. The family seemed to have everything and lived comfortably. His health improved dramatically -- although he still had to be watched at night -- and while he was a rather serious child for his years, he was adventurous and enjoyed life to the full. Slowly, the trauma began to fade.
His mother visited him as often as she was able. Sometimes she would travel on a business passport that strictly limited the number of days the bearer was allowed to stay out of the country. On other occasions she would take great risks to enter Germany illegally. Even if his mother arrived in the dead of night, Michel could sense her in the house, and her silent presence at the end of the bed was enough to wake him. "I would feel just a touch on my foot when I was sleeping and know it was my mother."
The adults led him to believe that he was living in the most civilized country in the world, and his experience confirmed it. Breslau was the biggest and most important city in eastern Germany, with more than six hundred thousand inhabitants, and was a mixture of two cultures: old-world bourgeois-merchant and modern-industrial. A bishopric for a thousand years, the city had a somber, no-nonsense burghers' beauty and stolid charm. It had once been a fortress, but Napoleon had ordered the destruction of the castle keep and walls, and only the moat remained. The city had a university, theaters, several newspapers and a number of attractive parks. It also had its monumental modern structures, such as the concert hall built in 1913 boasting the biggest cupola and organ in the world. The apartment buildings close to the factories in the working-class area were a uniform gloomy gray, but the young Michel felt he was living in paradise.
He had begun to learn German immediately on his arrival, fell in love with the language and made rapid progress. "I didn't want to hear the Polish language, and didn't speak it. As quickly as I learned German, so I erased Polish. It was total rejection." He was also taught to ski in the mountains of Silesia, and from the age of seven grew up on skis. "A winter without skis was unthinkable. I was not always the best, but the most daring." His aunt taught him to dance, something that became a lifelong love. He was taken to the opera and the concert hall, and classical music became important at an early age -- primarily Bach, Beethoven, Mozart and Chopin. "I couldn't imagine life without music. I wouldn't go to sleep without listening to classical music." He was also obliged to take piano lessons, a ten-year sentence that produced little result. "It was not handled well. I loved music but hated to practice. I resented the imposition of those daily sessions." It was an early example of how not to teach. "When I finally gave the piano up I played the trumpet to join the school orchestra, and because it was my own choice I loved it. I was very loud but not particularly good."
At the age of seven Michel met a German girl his age who initiated him into the mysteries of sex. "She was a sweet little girl and we used to play together. She wanted to play a doctor and nurse game that was new to me and we went to the basement of her building. So we had fun, naked. But we were surprised by an old man who saw us en passant and walked away. It was terrible for me to be discovered like that. Terrible! I felt so guilty and ashamed!" Michel was so bothered by the experience that he confessed everything to his aunt. "Idessa sat down with me and talked very simply about growing up and sex and love. She told me there was no reason to feel shame. She said that sex should be connected to love to make it meaningful and beautiful. 'But not now! Wait until you grow up.'"
Other interests were encouraged, perhaps to steer the youngster away from precocious sex, and an early love of animals developed. "I grew up identifying with all life, and this extended to animal life. I developed a love and an understanding for animals, and ended up with dogs, cats and eighteen birds." He was given a canary named Mouki. "A wonderful singer! We were friends, and I always left the door to his cage open. In the morning when I had breakfast I would call him and he would come and perch on the table."
A mate was found to keep Mouki company, and other birds followed. The family apartment in Breslau had a large balcony overlooking a garden, and Michel and his birds colonized it. Half of the balcony was turned into a gigantic birdcage, modeled on one seen on a visit to the zoo, complete with grass, elaborate perches and a live tree. The outside cage was connected directly to Michel's bedroom through a window. "I developed good personal relationships with all the birds, and they would fly around my room. I called to them individually and they would perch on my finger."
The childish interest developed into a passion, and eventually led to a life-changing insight. At the age of eleven Michel was taken on a summer holiday in the mountains. His room had a terrace, and he discovered a bird's nest with eggs under the eaves. At first the birds flew off at his approach, but slowly they grew accustomed to his presence. "I was very curious, so every day I sat at a respectable distance until they finally accepted me. I watched the chicks hatch and saw how the parents taught them. They taught them. In bird language. The chicks learned to react to certain sounds -- there were sounds for danger, so that they would keep quiet, and others for food when they were about to be fed. This was language, communication. And I learned with the little birds and found it fascinating.
"They had to learn how to fly, and to be daring. Some of the chicks were timid, some courageous. The very timid ones had to be pushed out of the nest. I observed definite individual behavior in each chick almost as soon as it hatched." These observations led to the conclusion that most animal behavior was learned, not instinctive. It was an insight that changed the way he thought -- that one of the powerful innate drives in all living beings is the urge to learn.
Michel became absorbed in mythology and devoured books on the subject. His imagination had been captured by the Romans and Greeks at an early age; as he grew older he was inspired by the romantic heroes of German mythology. He took a handsome leather-bound volume of Legends of the Gods: Treasures of German Mythology from the bookshelves of his uncle's library, and read by flashlight beneath the sheets long into the night. "They were stories about values and about heroes who stood up for those values. I completely absorbed these Nordic heroes. Siegfried was a good example." This led to a love for the music of Richard Wagner, whose operas he heard at the Breslau opera house, especially the tetralogy Der Ring des Nibelungen.
Later, during the war, when he learned that the great Wagner was a virulent anti-Semite, a deep conflict was created. Wagner, an extreme radical and revolutionary of his day, was Adolf Hitler's ideological mentor, and the composer's political writings were his favorite reading. "Even though I learned very early on to separate the personality and character of an artist from his work, I could not listen to Wagner during the war. It took me years to go back to him."
The German educational system of Gymnasiums demanded high academic requirements in order to move from one class to another. Only those pupils who were selected had a chance of a good education -- as long as they kept up and could fulfil the academic requirements year after year. Although Michel excelled in the German language and was good at sports -- especially running, swimming and skiing -- he deliberately chose to be average in most subjects. This made him popular. He understood that as a non-German he would have to do better than his peers to be accepted as an equal, but did not want to be identified with Die Streber -- the swots. Instead he found that the combination of his independent nature and prowess at athletics was enough to make him accepted as a natural leader.
On one occasion at school a mischief-maker was asked to own up to a particular misdemeanor. Silence descended on the classroom and no hands were raised. The teacher threatened the entire class with punishment unless the culprit confessed. The silence deepened. At last Michel stood and owned up to the crime. He was not the guilty party, and both his classmates and the teacher knew it, but he took the punishment. The silence had irritated him. "I could not stand cowardice. By standing up to cowards I learned by experience what worked, and the knowledge became a tool."
His schoolmates saw him as tough and austere, while at home he was preposterously indulged. "Somehow I led two lives. At school I was very active in sports and was physically strong, which meant the others looked up to me. Then when I took my friends home they saw me in a different light, with women fussing over me, telling me to keep warm, pressing food on me. I was completely over-mothered. My friends were surprised. My life at home didn't fit my outside image.
"I was so pampered that eventually I rebelled against it. I threw out the feather mattress and soft pillows and slept on boards. Even in the depths of winter I slept without heating. My uncle insisted on having the door of my room insulated so that the cold did not permeate the rest of the house. I remember waking one morning with thick ice on the inside of the windowpane. One of my ears was frostbitten and I had to be taken to the hospital. I would go skiing in shorts and deliberately leave the windows open in the chalet and have to break the ice in the basin to wash. I took cold showers. I adopted a Spartan regime, more German than the Germans. I overdid it!"
His school friends accepted him as a German, but he did not feel like one. "They looked to me as a leader, so I had to be German. Jewishness came up at school -- and in sports, and on our trips -- yet it never became an issue between me and my friends, and in all my relationships I never made any distinction. I was very close with my German and non-Jewish friends. But in the end I did not feel German -- I was not German."
His aunt and uncle were conservative Jews with liberal values, and kept a kosher household, but they were not religious and relaxed the rules when they ate out. Idessa mixed easily with all types of people, and her closest friend was Mia Von Waldenburg, a scion of the Hohenzollern family. The style of the house, like that of his mother, was universal and all-embracing. "I was taught that if you don't need help yourself, then you must give help to others -- a principle that left a deep impression."
Both his mother and his aunt had brought him up to respect other religions, on the basis that they represented what was good about human beings and promoted high human values. He was taught to remove his hat in Christian churches and his shoes in mosques. But by the age of thirteen he was thoroughly sick at having to be so reverential, and rebelled. "There were so many things I had to respect that I wondered if they all deserved it. Did anything or any person automatically deserve respect? I had to find out for myself."
He began to question everything. All the rules, opinions and obligations that had been foisted upon him were subjected to a rigorous analysis. "I was working out a belief system, a personal philosophy. I seem to have had a very analytical mind as a child. It was an extension, I suppose, of the system I invented when I was six. I would pick a subject and question it, look at it, and try to go into it as deeply as I could. I had a complete system of analytical questioning set up. Questions. Questions. Questions. I particularly questioned my own Jewishness. I threw everything out -- including God.
"I would examine what I was supposed to believe and why. I had my own philosophical thoughts, and after I had pursued them as far as I could, only then would I consult books and compare my ideas with other philosophers' -- Spinoza, Kant, Schopenhauer. I could always leave it off and pick it up, as if reading a book. And I could leave my thoughts and continue the next day, or months later, and know exactly where I left off. I might pick them up again waiting for a bus or a train. I was never bored."
Michel made a study of all the major religions, with particular emphasis on early Christianity, and came to the conclusion he was an agnostic. Later, he became both vexed and fascinated by the concept of infinity. "What was beyond the beyond? My answer was that humans were limited to the finite and could never know the answer to the question. I came to accept the concept of God and the divine -- that which was beyond what we could know. So I stopped being an agnostic. But I decided that how we lived and what we did with our own lives was up to us. And rejected the law of retribution as absolute evil. The idea that a human being only did good acts because he was rewarded by God, or that one's misfortunes were a punishment from God, I found contemptible. I felt we were responsible for our own acts, and that there was no divine reward or punishment, and that we had to live with the consequences of our behavior. Especially the consequences of what we failed to do."
Despite his independence and maturity at fourteen, he still could not be left alone at night because of his sleepwalking. On one occasion when his aunt and uncle went on holiday, an eighteen-year-old girl, who was a friend of the family, was asked to stay. "The baby-sitter. And it happened: my first sexual experience. It was new and exciting but I did not think of it as love. She was too old, after all, and had a fiancé. I realize now she must have been very confused by it all and in great conflict. It went on for a while. I remember that after love-making I felt like rejecting her. And I didn't like that feeling and didn't understand it."
He crept into his uncle's library, a comfortable, masculine room furnished with leather sofas and chairs, where the bookshelves went from the floor to the ceiling. His uncle used it as a Rauchzimmer -- smoking room -- to receive his male friends, and there were decanters full of liquor and a humidor for cigars on the sideboard. Michel had been allowed to borrow the beautifully bound books on mythology, but others, which he knew were about sex, were hidden away. He now sought these out and found a volume on sexual behavior and psychology.
Ideal Marriage, written in 1926 by a Dutch gynecologist, Dr. Van De Velde, was a book that purported to confine itself strictly to the marriage bed and described itself in an introduction as "sober, scientific and without a scintilla of eroticism." In fact, it was advanced for its time, advocating equal sexual pleasure for both parties and stressing the need for technique. The importance of prolongation of the act for women was stressed and methods of ejaculation deferment suggested. The pros and cons of circumcision were discussed and elaborate sexual positions described -- referred to as "attitudes," as in "Equestrian Attitude (of the Woman)." There was even a section on oral sex, or "genital kissing."
The teenage Michel had no idea that sex was such a rich field and now made it an area of serious study. "I learned a lot. I read that if a relationship was just about physical satisfaction the person became an object, and that this was the reason for feelings of rejection. But this did not happen when sex was combined with feelings of love, which is what my aunt had tried to explain to me at age seven. I took all this into consideration and my whole relationship changed and the act became a whole night's activity."
Alarmed by the intensity of her fourteen-year-old lover, the girl now drew back and began to refuse to see him, eventually locking her door against him. Naturally, this only served to increase his ardor. "I would climb up the wall to her window, which is what lovers are supposed to do, but in reality is pretty dangerous." At one point in the turbulent affair the girl announced that her period was late. She was reduced to misery by the fear of being made pregnant by an adolescent boy. It also had a sobering effect on the young Lothario. "My God! I sat in class surrounded by friends idly dreaming of girls. What did they know about girls? I vowed I would never do it again." The panic passed, and the passion with it -- but he found the sexual affair had cured his sleepwalking.
Between the ages of fourteen and sixteen Michel allocated the three months of the long summer holiday to solitary travel, a period he called "getting to know me." "Friends wanted to come, but I always went alone. I would put myself in all types of situations and evaluate how I acted and reacted in them. I would examine if I had handled myself satisfactorily. And ask myself how I felt about it. Did I get it right? Could I have done it differently? If I found something I didn't like, or a situation that scared me or that I didn't do well in, I would attempt to repeat it in order to pass my own tests." This personal quest took him all over Europe and the North African countries of Morocco, Algeria and Tunisia, where he lived and traveled with Arab camel caravans.
Walking in the south of France on one of these journeys, he decided to confront the vexing question of rats. "I passed a small cul-de-sac and saw a heap of trash with rats running all over it. I was repelled. Rats! I kept going...and then I stopped. Why did I react that way? Just because I had been told bad things about mice and rats? I had to know for myself what my own genuine reaction was, and whether my disgust was nothing more than a conditioned reflex. So I forced myself to go back and get to know the rats. I sat on the steps beside the trash and waited for them to come out." He settled down for the night, and after a while the brave ones -- the leaders -- ventured out. Slowly, their more timid companions joined them. He watched them for hours, until the rats surrounded him and moved about as if he were not there.
Although Michel had grown to love his adopted country, he became increasingly aware as a teenager of a strong identity problem. He had rejected the country of his birth and embraced Germany, but knew he was not German. "So who was I? It became the most important thing in my life to know who I was and to establish my identity. And I found it as a Jew. As a member of a people with a four-thousand-year history. My deeper identity, my ethnic identity was as a Jew. That gave me strength."
But the Nazis were an ever-growing political force, and to be a Jew was to run the gauntlet in an increasingly hostile world. Jude had become a term of abuse, a contemptuous pejorative. "It was as good as saying 'dirty Jew.' German Jews at that time called themselves 'German citizens of Jewish faith,' and some, 'Germans of Israelitic faith,' or even, 'Germans of Mosaic faith.' This was not to avoid the strictures of Hitler, but to identify themselves as German. I was not German and didn't want to be. So I referred to myself as Jude -- and I said it with emphasis and pride."
By the age of sixteen Michel began to feel that he had outstripped the school he attended and no longer felt challenged. "I was anxious to get it over with." He developed a plan in which he would take extensive private instruction instead of schoolwork, enabling him to gain a year. He took the idea to the principal, who instantly rejected it.
Undeterred, he started shopping around for alternatives, an outlandish concept for a student at that time. He chose a Gymnasium attended by children of the militaristic upper-class Junkers, a school known to be rigid in its educational methods and unforgiving in its academic standards. ("It certainly had no Jews.") But the principal, although a severe disciplinarian of the old school, was sympathetic to a teenager's passion to learn. He accepted the scheme.
At the same time, Michel sought out a private tutor. He chose a highly educated intellectual in the city, Dr. Karl Riesenfeld, a musicologist who wrote opera reviews and literary criticism in the highbrow publications. "He was a walking encyclopedia. I explained I wanted to leave school early and go on to university, and that I wanted him to teach me personally." When pressed, Michel admitted that he had not yet spoken to his family about the idea. Not surprisingly, the professor turned him down. Michel refused to take no for an answer.
Riesenfeld tried to brush him off, saying he was busy: "Besides, summer is coming and I will be traveling."
"Fine," Michel said. "I'll come with you."
He was passionate and persuasive, and the professor finally agreed to talk to Michel's family, and that if they consented something might be worked out.
That same evening at dinner Michel decided it was a good time to speak to his aunt and uncle about the various far-reaching arrangements he had made for his life. "I've quit school and I'm not going back." He explained he had left his old school and was intending to go to a more demanding establishment, finish a year early and go to university. "I gave them my reasons and told them what I had achieved, that a Junkers Gymnasium had accepted my plan, and that this brilliant man was prepared to talk to them about private instruction. I must say they were impressed by my initiative." He was granted his wish, and was also allowed to travel with his chosen Aristotle.
They visited the Alpine resorts of Austria, the Italian Dolomites and the cities of northern Italy. Michel studied every day, and discussed history and art, hour after hour. "I started looking at history through different eyes than those at school. The professor was a learned man, but brought people and places to life. I began to see great historical personages not as figures detached in time who fought some war, but as real people. I started to question what they were like and what motivated them. I developed critical thinking and evaluation -- not accepting what I was told and read, which was very un-German at the time. It was one of the greatest learning experiences of my life." Michel had previously been weak in mathematics, a subject he had no interest in and for which he was convinced he had no ability, but the professor changed all that. "Through challenge and love I became a reasonable mathematician. He showed me that there is nothing so complicated that it cannot be made simple, and the concept of reducing complexities later became a cornerstone of my teaching."
The experiment with private instruction was a success, allowing him to skip a year and pass the stiff entrance tests for the Junkerschule Elisabeth Gymnasium. He excelled at his new school and once again became accepted as a leader through athletics, particularly wrestling. A teacher took the class on extended trips into the mountains and entrusted Michel with half of the group.
By this time, late 1930, the Nazis had become the largest party in the Reichstag, and Adolf Hitler's extreme nationalism and declared anti-Semitism had been widely adopted. Michel's classroom neighbor, who shared a desk with him, began to attend school in the full Nazi uniform of the SA Brownshirt movement. He covered the front of his schoolbooks with elaborate patterns of linked swastikas. Michel responded by covering his with the Star of David.
Despite the growing Nazi influence, Michel's peers continued to follow him as a leader, the only Jew in the school. There was one other boy at school who, although born a Christian, was known to be the son of converts. "All the boys saw him as a Jew and picked on him, and whenever I saw it I stepped in to save him. I never talked to him, because I didn't like him, but I stuck up for him. Personally, I never had any trouble. I was accepted because I was not a follower. In class if anything derogatory was said about the Jews by the teachers, I stood up and challenged it. I was never a Jew who was kicked around."
It seemed to Michel that one of the major reasons for the advent of Nazism was the German educational system. It was designed to produce a highly educated elite, while neglecting the education of the proletariat, who were expected to be subservient and deferential. "The Germans as a whole -- the masses -- had a very low self-image. This Minderwertigkeitsgefühl -- literally 'lesser worthiness' -- expressed a class inferiority that was apparent to everyone. The maid would refer to her employer as gnädige Frau -- 'merciful lady' -- and so on. All those who rose to power with Hitler had lived under and accepted Minderwertigkeitsgefühl. These followers who had resigned themselves to lives of the 'less worthy' suddenly discovered overnight that they belonged to a new Aryan race of supermen.
"And something else. The intellectual community as a whole was thoroughly prostituted and fell down on their knees before the Nazis. The failure of those with the intellectual power and moral conscience to stand up to Hitler greatly strengthened him. The masses saw the people they had always looked up to embrace Nazism. So Germany became a nation of cowards led by social misfits to believe they were a super race. And the phrase heard everywhere that dominated daily life was 'Führer, befehl, wir folgen Dir!' -- 'Führer, you order and we follow you.'"
In the election of 1932 the Nazis became the most powerful political party Germany had ever seen, and Hitler the most powerful leader. Although short of a parliamentary majority (the Nazis never polled more than just over a third of the vote nationally, although the party won forty-six percent in Breslau) it was the largest party in the Reichstag, with a membership of over a million, almost fourteen million electors, and a private army of four hundred thousand SA Storm Troopers and SS Blackshirts -- a force four times larger than the feeble national army. The Communists had polled six million votes, won a hundred seats in the Reichstag, and had their own private army, the Red Front. There were pitched battles in the streets of the larger cities between Nazis and Communists, leaving many dead.
The young Michel witnessed the violence and was repelled by the unprincipled manipulation and dictatorial tendencies of both political extremes. In the struggle for power, the Communists actually helped the Nazis achieve office, openly stating they would prefer to see Hitler in charge rather than lift a finger to save the republic. They also followed the Moscow-approved policy that gave priority to the elimination of the Social Democrats -- not the Nazis -- as the rival working-class party. "It seemed to me that only a free society didn't create conflict between Judaism and the state. So that you could not be a Jew and a fascist, or a Jew and a communist. A Jew cannot live in a police state. I always felt those Jews who were communists had a problem with identity and were trying to escape their Jewishness."
In January 1933, Adolf Hitler was made Chancellor of Germany. Life for German Jews became increasingly difficult and dangerous as a slew of anti-Semitic laws discriminated against them. About seventy percent of Germany's half million Jews -- less than one percent of the population -- lived in cities. Primarily middle class, they had enjoyed legal equality since the late nineteenth century and had achieved a high degree of financial success. They were thoroughly assimilated into all walks of German life -- "quoting Goethe at every meal" -- and identified closely with the country to the point of vociferously expressed patriotism. Although the SA Storm Troopers were brutish and violent in their actions against Jews, Hitler preferred to pursue legal measures against them, and gave speeches in which he talked of peace and the futility of war.
Jews sought a way to live within the contradictions and confusion created by the various Nazi decrees. But it took optimism bordering on self-delusion to believe life could continue normally after the Nazi-imposed boycott in April 1933, which severely limited Jewish participation in the economy. It was during this time that Michel first identified what he came later to condemn as "the Jewish weakness." "There is the inability of the Jewish mind to perceive and accept the finality of evil. They will always say, whatever happens, in whatever language, 'Ach, everything will be all right!' They see the darkness, the destruction -- but no, everything will be all right. It is the result of four thousand years of teaching the goodness of man, that evil cannot triumph, and that good will always prevail. Things have to turn out well. It is different to hope that things will turn out all right -- that is human and very important. To believe it is a weakness. A weakness that can become fatal."
It seemed to his elders around him that Michel had an uncanny ability to foretell events, and they credited him with an almost supernatural gift of premonition. But there was nothing otherworldly about it. "As a youngster I could see things coming. And when I look back on this I realize it was just a question of thinking things through. It was an intellectual process. And, of course, there was something happening in the country which to me would obviously end in total disaster, but people avoided it and didn't want to face it. There was only one way, and that way led to war. I knew it couldn't be different. I didn't minimize the danger -- I realized there was no future."
One evening three non-Jewish German friends came to Michel's house unannounced. They were visibly upset and had important news. They had learned that he was about to be arrested and charged with acts of sabotage and wanted to warn him. The offense was minor -- the slashing of a police car's tires -- but Michel was in danger because of his vocal opposition to the Nazis. "I would have been very happy and proud to have committed these acts, but it so happened that I had not done anything." However, he had no illusions about the fate of anyone accused of such a crime in Hitler's Germany. He left in the night for France.
Michel's aunt and uncle were away when he was warned about his imminent arrest, so he left Breslau at the age of nineteen, in May 1933, without saying goodbye. He had stopped briefly to bid farewell to Dr. Riesenfeld, who gave him the typescript of an anti-Nazi article he had written for publication in an émigré newspaper in Paris. Michel planned to hitchhike to France and, standing at the side of the road clad in a pair of knickerbockers, he looked the idealised picture of German youth and was soon given a lift. The driver asked where he was going, and when told Michel was leaving the country, asked why. "Ich bin Jude," Michel replied. I am a Jew.
At Kehl he passed through German customs and crossed the bridge over the Rhine to the French city of Strasbourg. But the French refused to allow him entry on his Polish passport without a visa, so he tramped back across the bridge into Germany. He was taken by the Germans to police headquarters and questioned closely, painfully aware of Dr. Riesenfeld's anti-Nazi article in the pocket of his knickerbockers. After a couple of hours he was released, and considered putting his clothes into his rucksack and swimming across the Rhine, but rejected the plan as impractical. A study of the map suggested the best chance of undetected entry into France was from the Saarland, a German state occupied by France since the end of the Great War. By cutting across country over mountains, he thought he would be able to slip into the Saar without passing through any checkpoints, and enter France unchallenged.
As he sat by the side of the road, a column of uniformed Hitler Youth passed, singing Nazi marching songs. They shot out their right hands in the Nazi salute. Michel did not respond. It was a provocation, and two youths peeled away from the rear of the column to confront him. There was a scuffle and he struck out, using his satchel as a weapon. The whole column turned and came after him. And on this occasion, discretion proved the better part of valor: "I ran."
He studied the map again and chose a place known as Drei Zinnen -- Three Peaks -- to cross into the Saar. It was late in the afternoon by the time he reached the point of departure. He stopped to ask directions of three farm laborers working in the fields on their vines. One crossed himself at the mention of Drei Zinnen, and as he pointed out the path told Michel that the castle ruins on top of each of the hills were haunted. No one went there at night and he advised postponing the journey until morning. Undeterred by local superstition, Michel set off as the sun began to go down.
It was a long, steep climb through thick woods to the first set of ruins, and it was dark by the time he reached them. He paused at the top of the hill to take a swig of water from his canteen and saw something that made the hairs on the back of his neck stiffen. Irregular flickering lights were moving through the trees beneath the castle walls. They were unlike anything he had ever seen and inexplicable. They were simply not of this world. "Ghostly" was the word that came to mind to describe them. He felt terror and creeping panic. "My first reaction was to run. But that meant losing control, which was dangerous. I controlled my breathing and forced myself to keep going at a steady pace."
He kept the fear in check as he descended the other side of the hill. There was nothing he could think of to explain the mysterious lights, which only increased his sense of dread. He began to climb the second hill, and as he reached the top he saw more ghostly white lights among the trees and ruins. Sheer willpower kept him going, and by the time he reached the top of the third hill day was breaking, although once again he saw weak, moving lights.
A hunter dressed in green, carrying a shotgun and accompanied by a dog, appeared out of the trees. Michel had never felt happier to see a fellow human being. Exhausted by his experience, he greeted the man warmly and told him of the previous night's terrors. The hunter nodded calmly, but seemed neither surprised nor alarmed at Michel's story. The ghostly lights, he explained, were an unusual local phenomenon caused by phosphorus formed in decomposing tree trunks. "I wish I had known this before I started my journey. It was a very, very uncomfortable night."
Michel reached the border without incident and crossed through unpatrolled green fields into the Saar, and then hitchhiked to Paris. At this time, France was a tolerant, cosmopolitan country and a haven for thousands of refugees from Nazi Germany. "It was almost in vogue to be a refugee then. There were numerous refugees from Germany, and Jewish groups were well organized and well funded to receive them."
By late summer the generosity of the charities and the tolerance of the authorities were stretched to the limit as an ever-increasing stream of refugees entered the country, fleeing poverty and fascism. Most spoke no French, were uneducated and impoverished, and imposed an enormous strain on an economy that was already severely depressed. Unemployment stood at record levels. The immigrants, many of whom were Jewish, were resented as a threat to the job security of the ordinary Frenchman, and xenophobia and anti-Semitism grew as a result. Most refugees in Paris were moved into camps.
Michel himself lived a hand-to-mouth existence, and looked up family friends who had moved to France from Lodz many years earlier. The family had a daughter called Lucienne, whom Michel had fondly known as Luba when they had played together as five-year-olds, and in the intervening years she had developed into a beautiful young woman. Michel felt himself enormously attracted to her, and began to spend all his time at her parents' house. It was the beginning of a strong physical and emotional relationship, his first true love.
The passionate affair made life more interesting but no less difficult. It was illegal for refugees to work, and his family was only allowed to send the equivalent of fifteen dollars a month. And he spoke poor French. "I had learned it in school, but what does it mean to learn in school? I couldn't read it or speak, and wasn't able to get along at all. I simply could not communicate."
He acquired alien skills that he exploited illegally, becoming adept at painting and decorating. Hanging wallpaper was a particular specialty. In another job he hand-packed razor blades in cellophane, one after the other, possibly the most boring task he has ever performed in a long life. He also sold gaudy hand-painted ties. His old school friend, Karl Hamburg -- Kai -- joined him from Breslau, another Jewish refugee from Hitler. They vowed to go to a French university together, which was a challenge and something of an impertinence, as both spoke bad French and were penniless refugees. But they were determined to enter university by the autumn, which gave them the spring and summer to bring their language skills up to a suitable standard. "I found ways of applying my grammatical knowledge that made my progress in the language leap ahead." He did not know it, but he was beginning to explore techniques that would eventually merge to become his unique language system.
The friends agreed to split up and explore various cities throughout France. Afterwards they would reunite, pool their experiences and impressions, and decide where to go. When the friends met again, Michel made a strong case for Bordeaux. It was an attractive, sophisticated city with a symphony orchestra and an opera, but more important it was on the ocean and close to the Pyrénées. This meant the friends could enjoy the beach in the summer and ski in the mountains in winter. Karl was persuaded, and the university accepted them both in September.
Bordeaux was also full of refugees, and Michel shared a small apartment with Kai in a house used by ladies of the night, good-natured, amiable girls who bustled clients up and down the stairs at all hours. Once again he had to make money to eat and pay for lodgings. A family restaurant was pleased to make an arrangement for free food for both of them if he was able to fill the restaurant. As president of the Jewish student body, he persuaded many students to take their meals in the restaurant, and it was soon packed.
Later, he persuaded the Bordeaux council to lend him a run-down building owned by the city on the Rue Margaux for the refugee community in exchange for an undertaking to renovate it. "We turned it into a beautiful place, equipped it with a big kitchen, and served meals in a garden courtyard in the summer." A busy laundry service run out of the house also became a profitable concern.
To make money Michel used his Leica camera to take pictures of children at play in the city's parks. He then went to their mothers and offered them the option of buying the photos. "And of course they loved them -- I was rarely turned down." He worked late into the night, developing and printing. He also began to paint on glass, describing his style as "assembly line." He worked on ten paintings at a time lined up in a row and moved from one to another adding color. "I knocked them out." The first fifty were framed and taken by a dealer to a large department store. Sales were slow. Michel sent student friends to stand in front of the paintings and talk about them with excitement. Sales remained slow. He sent them back with money to buy. "So they bought the paintings and brought them to me. Sales became quite good. The store gave me a big order and the paintings I had bought went back to the store."
Michel had applied for a place in the chemistry department at the university, and although he passed the exams he found that he was unable to afford the course. So he switched his studies to philology, philosophy, archaeology and the history of art. He was also interested in psychology, particularly the Viennese psychoanalysts Alfred Adler and Sigmund Freud. He became particularly intrigued by the work of the nineteenth-century German philosopher and classical philologist Friedrich Nietzsche.
Another profound admirer of Nietzsche, of course, was Adolf Hitler. Never could two individuals -- Michel Thomas and Adolf Hitler -- have interpreted a philosophy in such contradictory terms. One man read to challenge himself intellectually, while the other sought texts to confirm his preconceptions.
Nietzsche maintained that all human behavior is motivated by the will to power. He argued that traditional Christian values had lost their potency in the lives of people -- "God is dead" -- and that these had been replaced by a slave mentality created by weak and resentful individuals, who encouraged such concepts as gentleness and kindness only because they served their interests. New values were needed to replace the traditional ones to help form a superman who was secure, independent and highly individualistic. The superman would have strong feelings but would always control his passion. He would be concerned with the realities of the human world rather than the heavenly promises of religion, and would affirm life with all its suffering and pain. The superman would evolve his own "master morality," made up only of those values he deemed valid.
The student Michel saw the positive in Nietzsche, interpreting the will to power as control over self and responsible power over others. He saw the emphasis on independence and individuality as a path to individual moral responsibility. Hitler took a different view and interpreted the philosopher's ideas to suit his own totalitarian instincts and justify a master-slave society. Nietzsche seemed to support Hitler's lack of belief in either God or conscience, which the Führer dismissed as "a Jewish invention, a blemish like circumcision." The concept that a nation was nothing more than nature's way of providing a few important men also suited Hitler, who felt chosen for a mission by providence and therefore exempt from ordinary human moral restraint. And while Michel might subscribe to the Nietzschean phrase "Praised be that which toughens," Hitler would have it posted in every SS barracks.
Michel attended a summer philosophy course at the Sorbonne, in Paris, where a chance remark made by one of the professors made an enormous impact: "Nobody knows anything about the learning process of the human mind." The statement had a profound influence on his later life.
Despite a growing undercurrent of resentment towards immigrants and Jews, the French electorate in 1936 put into power the anti-fascist Popular Front, led by Léon Blum, a socialist and Jew. But as the economy grew worse, and the government proved inept, enemies of the Third Republic complained that a Jewish premier proved that the country had fallen into the hands of the Jews, and ruin would follow. Most of all, they feared that it would lead them into war with Hitler. (In fact, the diplomatic thrust of Blum's government was to appease Hitler -- with catastrophic results.)
An important influence at this time on Michel's political thinking was Michael Nelken, a young German writer who wrote under the name Michael Ken. The men had met at Bordeaux University and became good friends until Nelken returned home to Germany to visit his mother and seemed to disappear. There was no word from him for almost two years, but in one of the many fateful coincidences in Michel's life, the friends bumped into each other only minutes after Nelken's return to Paris.
He was a changed man. In Germany, his writing had attracted the attention and displeasure of the Nazi government and he had been arrested. He was sent to Dachau, near Munich -- the Nazis' first concentration camp opened in March 1933 to incarcerate critics and enemies of the regime. Nelken was released only after the intervention of Wilhelm Furtwängler, conductor of the Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra, but not before the writer had contracted a bad case of tuberculosis. On his return to France doctors recommended that he live in a warm climate in the south.
Michel could see that his friend was deathly ill and offered to accompany him as companion and nurse. The men arranged to rent a house in Grasse, in Provence, but this created a crisis in Michel's relationship with Lucienne. He had suggested that she accompany him and that they live together, a scandalous arrangement for the times. Lucienne certainly thought so, and issued an ultimatum: marriage or nothing! Michel left for the south without her.
Nelken grew stronger over time, and the friends often visited a famous neighbor, H.G. Wells, for long afternoons of conversation. Nelken began writing a book on his experiences in Dachau, a place mostly unheard of by the world, and it made grim reading. The manuscript confirmed Michel's worst fears, and both men were convinced that the book's publication would cause international outrage. But it was rejected across the board by French publishers as hysterical and improbable propaganda. Worse, when a condensed account was finally published in a German refugee paper, it was bitterly attacked as fantasy. Some Jewish critics even described the book as the product of a sick imagination.
The reaction depressed Nelken deeply, but Michel was unaware of the depths of his friend's despair when he went away for several weeks. He returned to receive the terrible news from Nelken's fiancée that he had committed suicide. The writer Michael Ken had survived the brutalities of Dachau and the ravages of TB but was devastated by the rejection of his own people. The dismissal of his experiences as fantasy, and his warnings as alarmist, was more than he could bear. "You will survive the ninety-nine blows of the whip; it will be painful and very bad, but you will survive. But you will not survive the one hundredth lash. For Michael the one hundredth blow was to tell his story as a warning and not to be believed."
It was a time of false hope, and no one wanted to believe what Michel now saw as inevitable: there would be war. He felt compelled to visit his family and traveled to Breslau to see his aunt and uncle, and then on to Lodz to see his mother and father. The German economy had improved radically under Hitler, although it did not benefit Jews, for whom life had become circumscribed, dangerous and unpleasant. In Breslau his aunt and uncle lived in hope of change, but also began to speak halfheartedly of emigration, possibly to America. In Lodz, Michel found his mother oblivious to danger and so removed from reality that she expressed the hope that he might return to live in Poland.
An intimate family dinner was organized to persuade him, held in the palatial home of great-uncle Oscar (Usher) Kohn, a man of fantastic wealth who traveled in his own private train. As the owner of a large textile factory, Widzewska Manufaktura, and the builder of the town of Widzew on the outskirts of Lodz, he took a broad, general view of things.
Usher waved his cigar and delivered an avuncular lecture. "It's nice to travel and see other countries, but it's important to have a base. You can sail out, but you must have a home port!"
Michel understood his uncle to mean that his home was with the family in Lodz, and the great manufacturing business his future. Cocooned by his immense wealth, Usher Kohn believed he could weather any political storm and return to the safety of his home port. But Michel had plans to study psychology at the University of Vienna, birthplace of psychoanalysis and city of Sigmund Freud.
"I hate Poland!" Michel exclaimed, unable to contain himself.
Uncle Usher and Freida exchanged a glance, but the young man did not stop.
"What kind of future do you have here? A manufacturer? It's just a matter of time. Maybe in a few years the Germans will be here and it will be the end of your business. Or the Russians will be here and that will be the end of your business."
Uncle Usher shrugged, drew on his cigar and changed the subject. He did not even seem angry. He was used to spirited, outspoken hotheads in the family, which is what he had been at the same age.
In many ways Oscar Kohn was the living history of Lodz, and had been largely instrumental in the city's growth from an empty village in a sandy waste to a world-renowned center of industry. The four dozen Jews originally allowed to live in the city had been tailors from Germany and Moravia, who had fled the poverty of towns and villages razed in the Napoleonic wars. A mighty textile manufacturing empire had grown from these modest beginnings.
Uncle Usher had witnessed war, pogroms, Cossacks and revolution and had always managed to turn a profit. There had been bad times, but he had endured. Nobody who made it in Lodz did it the easy way, and he could be cynically witty about the city's inhabitants and mores. Lodz, he would tell Michel -- or anyone who cared to listen -- admired nothing more than wealth, and the rabbis needed to know more about promissory notes than about the Torah, more about bankruptcy than God's law. Lodz knew that with money you could buy anything, although unlike wool or cotton, justice was not a commodity the city was concerned about. Lodz was a city of sharpies, Uncle Usher said, a town without secrets that knew what was cooking in everyone's pot. "He's moving up" was a glowing term said of a man on the make, and the city's compliments were sharp and geared to ruthless success. A man was deemed "smart as salt in a wound," or someone who could "turn snow into cheese," and the greatest compliment old Lodz could bestow on a citizen was to say that he had the guts of a pickpocket.
And while Uncle Usher accepted that Hitler was a threat, he did not believe the deranged corporal truly represented most Germans. It was an unfortunate political phase, an aberration. Balance and moderation would eventually be restored to the most cultured and educated country in Europe. German anti-Semitism was manufactured for political reasons and not an intrinsic part of German society. Not like Russia, where anti-Semitism ran deep, or Poland, where the strain was the most virulent of all.
Anti-Semitism was a fact of life, a condition Jews had to endure and overcome. Even the Jewish population in Lodz struggled endlessly among themselves for supremacy. German Jews considered themselves the cream of the crop, followed by the Poles. Both groups resented and looked down on those expelled from Russia, while Lithuanians -- known as Litvaks -- were considered even worse, existing only on bread and herring and dismissed as "onionheads": "All they brought with them to Poland were their teapots and their razors with which to shave once a week."
It was in this worldly and sophisticated manner that Uncle Usher dismissed Michel's warnings as youthful exaggerations, and no doubt Freida was greatly comforted. But as Michel left the country and made his way by train to Vienna, he was full of foreboding. His return had been a bittersweet experience that left him emotionally upset and inexplicably angry. The happiness and tears of the people he loved most in the world had moved him deeply, but he worried about the danger his aunt and uncle faced in Germany, and the uncertain future of his parents in Poland. He had savored every moment of their company, recalled every gesture and word, committing them to memory. It was the last time he saw any of them alive.
Copyright © 2000 by Christopher Robbins.
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