He was born in a well-to-do Jewish family in Berlin in 1902. After graduating from Askanisches Gymnasium, he studied philosophy and oriental languages at the Berlin University. In 1924, he got a doctoral degree at Berlin University, as well as a diploma in modern Chinese language from the Seminary for Oriental Languages. In the same year, he started to work as executive director at his family’s export and import company Franz Steiner & Co., which was dealing with chemical and pharmaceutical specialties. Besides, he continued his study of Chinese philosophy and gave lectures on a broad range of topics. He discussed Chinese Taoism with Martin Buber, a well-known Austrian Jewish philosopher, based at the university Frankfurt/Main. In 1929, and again 1939 in Shanghai, Tonn published his translation of a short Taoist text: The book of Eternal Purity and Rest. 常清静经。
In 1938, Tonn’s firm was confiscated by the Nazis, so-called “aryanised”. Tonn emigrated to Shanghai in 1939. He first taught literature at the Tung Te University, and in 1943 started to teach German at the Tsinan State University, Shanghai. Also in 1943, he founded in the Ghetto Hongkou the Asia Seminar 东方学院, where up to 30 teachers offered Chinese language classes to immigrants, and gave lectures on Chinese culture, history and philosophy. Besides, Tonn was active as a journalist, writing about Chinese topics and translating Chinese texts.
Between 1939 and 1942 he published 108 newspaper articles (Hartmut Walravens: Martin Buber u. Willy Tonn u. ihre Beiträge z. Kenntnis der chines. Literatur, in: Monumenta Serica 42/1994,465-481) on China, on Jews in the Far East, and on political topics in the German journal The Gelbe Post (1939-1940), and in the English journals the China Digest, Shanghai Jewish Chronicle, Shanghai Sunday Times, China Press, and the China Journal.
Well received has been Tonn’s paper on Chinese music (1941) and his article Influence of China‘s Arts and Ideas upon European Culture (1942). Tonn became one of the most important personalities among the Jewish immigrants. He was – according to eye-witnesses – . “a unique person”, concerning “his persistence, his ability to ignore the difficulties and to swim against the current.”(cited in Matthias Messmer: Jewish Wayfarers in Modern China: Tragedy and Splendor, Lexington Books 2011:182-183). In his obituary, he was named as “the driving force of spiritual and societal life in the Ghetto” (link)
In 1946, he got a professorship for Chinese cultural history and comparative linguistics at the Chinese state university Chinan. During these years in Shanghai, Tonn continued his research on Taoism and worked on a translation of the Daodejing 道德经. In 1951, a new edition of Lao-Tse. Tao Te King was published in Zurich. Rearranged by Tonn, after the original translation by Victor von Strauss.
In 1949, Tonn left China for Israel, where he found part-time work at the museums in Jerusalem and Tel Aviv, and collaborated to present East Asian Art exhibitions. Tonn was also involved in the establishment of the Israeli People’s University. In 1957, at the early age of 55, he died in a Swiss sanatorium. All his paper’s and letters are available at the Willy Tonn Collection, 1920-1988, Leo Baeck Institute, New York.
but the copyright for printing has to be asked at the Leo Baeck Institute, New York.
http://www.archive.org/stream/willytonn_01_reel01#page/n34/mode/1up (a letter by Tonn to Sun Yatsen University, March 1940, asking for a job
http://www.archive.org/stream/willytonn_01_reel01#page/n103/mode/1up here you find Tonn’s signature
http://www.archive.org/stream/willytonn_01_reel01#page/n115/mode/1up an envelope, letter to Tonn in Shanghai
http://www.archive.org/stream/willytonn_01_reel01#page/n714/mode/1up a letter of Hans and Emmy Jacoby, New York to Tonn with Chinese characters, Sept. 27th, 1954
http://www.archive.org/stream/willytonn_01_reel01#page/n750/mode/1up envelope of letter from Dora Tonn to her son Willy, Shanghai
A page of his calendar, http://www.archive.org/stream/willytonn_01_reel01#page/n24/mode/1up