Leon Duval
A writer interested in yesterday today and tomorrow

The Oracle of Krakow
Rabbi Ozjasz Thon

The genesis for this Blog is a newsletter I sent to friends after my wife and I made Aliyah in 2015. I wanted to present an unbiased perspective about the situation in Israel countering the unbalanced picture frequently presented by the media. The initial editions were about the challenges of settling into a new environment and made fun of the humorous scrapes we got ourselves into. When the security situation or political intrigues warranted unbiased comment from the inside, these too were subjects I wrote about.

Last month I participated in an educator program in Poland under the auspices of JRoots. I am not one given to hyperbole but confess the experience challenged many long held preconceived ideas and perspectives, and proved to be a life changing event. It has taken many weeks to process what I learned during that emotionally packed nine days and I still find it very difficult to talk about the experience. For me, the best mode of communication has always been to write things down; translating thoughts to the written word allows consideration, constant revision and focusing the message.

As you read this Blog and those that follow, you will be sharing with me an experience that stretched my emotions to their limit as I confronted the best and worst examples of what it means to be human.

In this Blog I want to reflect on one of the best, an insight into what Nazi ideology destroyed when it wiped out 90% of the Polish Jewish community. By 1930 that community numbered around 3.5 million, a quarter of the world’s total Jewish population. Their presence in Poland went back 800 years, and the ideas and personalities which came out of that community had a permanent influence not only on the Jewish world but also on wider Polish society. One of those personalities was Ozjasz (pronounced Oozya) Thon, a Rabbi, Zionist, iconoclast, intellectual and an oracle possessed with chilling and prophetic foresight.

Born in 1870 into a poor orthodox family his original schooling was within the traditional Jewish framework. An outstanding scholar, at the age of 17 he received an unofficial rabbinic ordination in recognition of his extraordinary skills in learning and analysing Jewish religious texts. The young Ozjasz then took a different path to that of his more traditionally inclined contemporaries. He became active the emerging Zionist movement and was instrumental in the formation of an organisation named Tsiyon, the slogan for which was “Hebrew nation, Hebrew country, Hebrew culture & language”. The mother tongue of the overwhelming majority of Polish Jews was Yiddish and the more intellectual strata of Jewish society used Polish, therefore suggesting that Hebrew become the language of choice seriously challenged the prevailing status quo.

In 1890 Thon went to Berlin, studied philosophy and sociology, and submitted a doctoral dissertation; all the time continuing with his Zionist activities. In Berlin he met one of the foremost Zionist thinkers of the late 1800’s, Asher Ginsberg, known primarily by his pen name Ahad Haam, and came heavily under his influence. Thon also became a confidante of Theodor Herzl and prior to the first Zionist congress in Basle assisted him to develop an ideological framework for the future Zionist movement. Offered an academic position at Berlin University Thon turned it down, preferring to focus his life on the promotion of Jewish identity and the emerging Zionist movement.  In 1897 he was appointed Rabbi of the Tempel synagogue in Krakow, a position he held until his death in 1936.

The Tempel synagogue membership was drawn from the more assimilated members of the Krakow Jewish community and the intellectual Ozjasz Thon was the perfect candidate for Rabbi. Before accepting the position, he told the board they could tell him what to wear, how long his sermons should be however, “what I have to say on current issues is my own exclusive business …I want to have my personal independence which I am not willing to relinquish”.

In his sermons and his writings Rabbi Thon emphasised his belief in Zionist ideology and also opposed all forms of assimilation. His Zionist views brought him into conflict with the traditional orthodox Jewish belief that only the messianic era could return the Jewish people to their traditional homeland. His Zionism was also an anathema to the Jewish socialist movement, the Bund, who espoused the view, “we are Poles with a Jewish cultural tradition, our home is Poland”. Rabbi Thon also rejected the idea of Jews assimilating into Polish society, putting him at odds with the many Jews who wanted to embrace a secular life and wished to merge into the surrounding Polish culture.

By the year 1920 Europe had emerged from the horror of WW1 and was now confronting a new threat represented by militant communism promoted by the Bolsheviks who had engineered the 1917 Russian revolution. Analysing the fracturing of society caused by war and revolution, Rabbi Thon, with immense foresight, understood the huge danger this presented particularly to Europe’s Jews. In 1920 he gave a speech in Krakow in which he predicted with chilling accuracy the catastrophe that brought about the murder of six million Jews. Here is an excerpt from that speech.

“And war will once again come to the world, greater than the first and more terrible than the first. Not tomorrow and not the following day will this war happen, maybe in 18 or 20 years. And the hatred of the Jews will not be limited to Galicia and Poland alone, rather within each nation there will arise great anti-Semites, and the great nations will give birth to the greatest anti-Semites, greater than their nations have produced. The hatred of Jews will spread throughout the world from end to end. By then you will be Grandparents and your grandchildren will be rolling slaughtered and decapitated, your granddaughters raped and disgraced. Your grandchildren will be laying on top of the mutilated corpses, in thick forests full of deafening silence”.

About the Author
Born in South Africa, at age 27 emigrated to Melbourne Australia where I lived for 40 years before moving to Jerusalem in 2015. My profession was to teach and consult in the area of strategic financial management. Now retired, I devote my time to guiding visitors through Yad Vashem and reading and writing about Jewish history and contemporary issues affecting both Israel and the Jewish people.
Related Topics
Related Posts