1881 – 1920
“…[O]ne must educate the girls. Education is the key. Education for work, education in the Hebrew language. Education on health and hygiene. Work is not a disgrace!”
Thus wrote Sarah Thon from Tel Aviv in an article that was printed in the autumn of 1910 in the Zionist weekly Die Welt (published in Germany).
Sarah Leah Thon was born in Lvov, Galicia, on March 4, 1881. Although a poor man, her father, Yeshayahu Brat, made certain that she received a good education, first in private schools and later, as soon as it was established, in the first high-school for girls in Lvov. An excellent pupil, she attracted the attention of her teachers with her talents. Because of the poverty of her home, she began giving private lessons to other pupils in order to contribute to the family income.
In 1902, on completing studies in social work at the German university in Lvov, she married Dr. Ya’akov Thon, but decided to go to Berlin in order to qualify in the subject she planned to teach upon going to Palestine. Her husband meanwhile, stayed in Lvov to complete his law degree.
In conversations with Otto Warburg (1859–1938) (who later became the third head of the World Zionist Organization 1911–1920), she reached the conclusion that there was a need for girls’ schools where the pupils would be taught lace-making, since lace-making was easy and required little capital investment in anything other than needles and thread, in contrast to carpet-weaving or metal-work.
Sarah emigrated to Palestine with her husband and their son Theodor at the end of 1907. Her husband became the deputy of Arthur Ruppin (1876–1943), who headed the Palestine Office in Jaffa, which represented the World Zionist Organization.
She became the representative in Palestine of the Women’s Association for Cultural Work in Palestine (Verband des Jüdischer Frauen für Kultur Arbeit in Palästina), whose aims were education for girls, raising funds for the establishment of hospitals, the training of nurses, and combating trafficking in women (prostitution).
At first Sarah worked to support the Sha’arei Zion hospital in Jaffa, acquiring equipment and recruiting trained staff. In 1908 she opened the first school for lace-making in Neve Zedek, which was at the time still part of Jaffa, employing young women from the lower socio-economic class, most of whom were of Sephardi origin. “A year has passed and already I’ve given employment to a hundred girls,” she later proudly wrote.
The work was of financial importance. The women’s organization supplied the raw materials, yarn and needles arrived from Germany, the girls received the materials and sewed the products, which were sold both in Palestine and abroad, especially in Egypt, Germany, Austria and the Netherlands. They received remuneration according to the amount of goods they produced and their earnings helped their families, in many of which the the father was unemployed.
In 1909 Sarah Thon founded another school, in Jerusalem, collaborating with Boris Schatz (1867–1932), the founder and head of the Bezalel School of Art, who included lace work produced at the school in several exhibitions which he organized in European capitals and in the U.S. One of the teachers at the Jerusalem school was Shoshana Lishansky, mother of Rahel Yanait Ben-Zvi (1886–1979).
A third school, in Tiberas was established with the help of Dr. Hayyim Hisin (1865–1932), who represented the Russian Hovevei Zion Movement. Here Sarah and her colleagues encountered vigorous opposition from the principal of the local Alliance Israelite school, who informed the Ottoman authorities that the school was in fact a political establishment. As a result, the Ottoman department of criminal investigation closed the school, permitting it to reopen only after great efforts had been invested in persuading them to do so.
In 1912 Sarah Thon opened a further school, in Safed, under the direction of Hadassah Kalvary Rosenblüth (later the wife of Pinhas Rosen, Israel’s first Minister of Justice). Hadassah wrote: “We rented a spacious, attractive house at the edge of the city. The room, which was large and had a balcony, could hold a hundred pupils. We prepared five long tables, a hundred chairs, a desk, several dozen enamel basins for washing hands, several dozen towels, a cupboard for storing materials, yarn—and the school was set up!
“The event was publicized with large posters in the streets of the town, inviting women and girls aged fourteen and over to apply—and they indeed came, most of them Sephardim. An eye examination revealed that some fifty-seven girls of the one hundred and thirty Sephardi women and girls who reported suffered from trachoma.
“Since the girls spoke English, French, Hebrew and Yiddish, we devoted one hour a day to the study of Hebrew and this was also the compulsory language of instruction. Girls who were not clean were sent home.
“At first, there were disputes with the girls; we asked them to buy aprons and they refused and some of them went back to the mission school because there nobody insisted on cleanliness. Finally, just before Hanukkah, there was a room full of clean girls, shining in their white aprons. Then they started to be meticulous about cleanliness and people in the town learned to recognize the pupils of the lace-making school.”
In 1911 she had opened the fourth school with thirty girls, in Ekron (Mazkeret Batyah), where the population was less poor than in Tel Aviv, Jerusalem, Tiberias and Safed.
The number of pupils at the five schools thus reached six hundred—a large number, given the difficult conditions that prevailed in the country at the time.
Sarah Thon wanted to set up another school in Damascus, where there was a large number of girls in need of education and income to aid their families. She therefore turned to Baroness Adelaide de Rothschild, the wife of Baron Edmund, whom she had met on a visit to Paris. Seizing the opportunity provided by the Baroness’ visit to Palestine in 1914, she invited her to visit the Agricultural School at Kinneret which Sarah had helped to establish. After expressing admiration for the Jewish girls engaged in agriculture, growing vegetables and milking cows, the Baroness promised to provide money for a lace-making school in Damascus. In the Zionist Archives in Jerusalem there is a voluminous correspondence between Sarah Thon and the Baron’s administrators, but World War I put an end to the project.
The Kinneret school for agriculture and home economics, which was headed by Hanna Meisel, took up a great deal of Sarah’s time and energy, since she frequently had to make the long journey between Tel Aviv and Kinneret. Since there was as yet no railway connection, one had to travel by horse and carriage to Haifa, where a railroad ran to Zemah. From there, a boat took one across Lake Kinneret to the school.
An interesting dispute between Sarah Thon and the group of women at Kinneret began with an article by Sarah Thon entitled “On the Topic of Women Agricultural Workers,” which appeared in Ha-Po’el ha-Za’ir on March 14, 1913. In it, she criticized the girls for failing to keep their rooms clean, and for dressing like men. A woman has the same rights as a man, she argued, but she also has special duties. “Out of their desire to resemble men in every respect, they cease to pay attention to their appearance, cut their hair short, and try to divest themselves of the mystical charm which is spread on the face of every young woman. Though these external factors are no proof of negative symptoms, one can discern in them a psychological inclination and a special view of life.”
The women workers responded in Ha-Po’el ha-Za’ir of April 14, 1913: “First of all, we want to point out to Mrs. Thon that our views on the value of work in the fields differ as greatly from hers as East from West. Like the male workers, we seek first and foremost to heal our bodies and our spirit and to achieve through work the freedom, the beauty and wholeness of soul that Mrs. Thon refers to. … In our eyes these are not merely the means to create an agricultural class in our land.”
In April 1917 the Turks expelled the Jews from Tel Aviv, but permitted Dr. Thon, who was at the time the acting head of the Palestine Office, to move to Jerusalem with his family, rather than to the north of the country. Immediately after the British conquest of Jerusalem on December 11, 1917, the leaders of the Yishuv founded the “Provisional Committee,” whose function was to prepare the Yishuv for democratic elections. Sarah Thon was instrumental in establishing the Union of Hebrew Women for Equal Rights in Erez Israel, a militant body which demanded full equal rights for women, especially the right to vote and to be elected to the Yishuv institutions. In the face of strong opposition from the Orthodox religious establishment in Jerusalem, Sarah Thon fought valiantly to achieve her goal. Eventually elected to the Provisional Committee as a representative of the Federation, she traveled throughout the country on behalf of the organization, giving public speeches and urging women to fight for their rights.
As head of the Provisional Committee, her husband wished to establish a “Founding Assembly,” based on democratic elections throughout the entire country, but the establishment was postponed numerous times as a result of disputes between the religious and non-religious sectors. Sarah Thon died before the Assembly was finally convened on April 19, 1920. Women won full rights of representation only in December 1925, after a struggle with the Orthodox.
Sarah Thon dedicated her entire short life to public works. Although she felt (as she frequently expressed in writing) that she was neglecting her children and not giving them the care, education and love they deserved, she never gave up her work for society at large.
She bore six children: in 1903 Baruch, who died after a few months; Theodor (1905–1978); Rachel (1908–1911); Judith (1909–1997); Raphael (1916–2005); and Aviva (March 1917–May 1918).
Sarah Thon lived a hard life, at a difficult time. Never a healthy woman, she experienced considerable suffering. At the time of her death on March 12, 1920, she was survived by only three of her six children.