(1870–1936), rabbi, sociologist, and political leader. Ozjasz (Yehoshu‘a) Thon was one of the main initiators and theoreticians of the Zionist movement in Poland. Born in Lwów, he received a traditional education. Thon was fascinated with the Haskalah and joined the Mikra Kodesh society in Lwów, which soon transformed itself into the first Zionist organization in Galicia, renamed Tsiyon.
Between 1891 and 1895, Thon studied philosophy at the University of Berlin, where he earned his doctorate with a dissertation on Kant’s moral philosophy. A student of George Simmel, he became interested in sociology but did not pursue a scholarly career. In 1897 he graduated from the Berlin rabbinical school, Lehranstalt für die Wissenschaft des Judentums (Institute for the Scientific Study of Judaism), after being threatened with expulsion for propagating Zionism and for his activity in the Jung-Israel organization, which he chaired for some time. In the same year he was appointed rabbi of Kraków’s progressive synagogue, as well as a teacher of Jewish religion in the city’s secondary schools, although he made no secret of his sympathy for Zionism.
During his student years, Thon had close contact with Theodor Herzl and Ahad Ha-Am, though his own views later diverged somewhat from theirs. As chair of Jung-Israel, Thon proposed the establishment of a Zionist newspaper to Herzl and assisted in preparations for the First Zionist Congress. Thon had to remain in Kraków and could not attend the Basel Congress. At the Second Congress, however, he served as a member of the presidium and the cultural commission, but left the meeting disillusioned by what he saw as Herzl’s neglect and misunderstanding of cultural Zionism (and of Thon’s own speech). Recognizing his defeat, he retired from political life until 1907, when he ran an unsuccessful campaign for a seat in the Austrian parliament.
Thon was active in B’nai B’rith’s humanitarian organization in Kraków. As one of the organization’s leaders and ideologists, he helped infuse it with a Zionist character. In 1919 he served on the Committee of Jewish Delegations at the Paris Peace Conference. From 1919 to 1935 he served continually as a deputy to the Polish Sejm, where he was a member—and, between 1930 and 1935, chair—of the Jewish Caucus. He was also one of the initiators of the Ugoda, or Polish Jewish compromise, of 1925. Thon is known as one of the founders of synthetic Zionism. He was also a member of the Actions Committee and the Executive Committee of the World Zionist Organization from 1923.
As founder of the Zionist movement in Galicia and later chair of the Zionist Organization of western Little Poland and Silesia, Thon was also a member of the governing council of the Coalition of United Zionist Organizations in Poland (1925) and a cofounder of Nowy Dziennik, the first Zionist daily in Polish (1918). In 1935 he helped found the Jewish cultural and educational society Tarbut, on whose governing council he was initially a member and later an honorary member. In 1928 he helped establish the Institute for Judaic Studies in Warsaw.
A charismatic speaker and an outstanding publicist, Thon wrote several thousand articles in Hebrew, Yiddish, German, Polish, and English. After losing his Sejm seat in the 1935 elections he dedicated the rest of his life to theoretical writing on Zionism and to his memoirs.
Jeremiah Frenkel, Ozjasz Thon: Zarys biograficzny (Kraków, 1930); Nella Rost Hollander, Jehoshua Thon: Preacher, Thinker, Politician (Montevideo, Uru., 1966); Emanuel Meltser, “Pomiędzy polityką a duchowością: Dr. Ozjasz Thon; Rabin z Krakowa, 1870–1936,” in Duchowość żydowska w Polsce, ed. Michał Galas, pp. 343–352 (Kraków, 2000); N. Thon-Rostowa, Ozjasz Thon: Wspomnienia córki (Lwów, Pol., 1937).
RG 323, Gershom Bader, Collection, 1884-1953.
Translated from Polish by Anna Grojec