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He died this week at age 96, leaving behind a legacy from which we can all learn.
The British publishing giant Lord George Weidenfeld – who died on January 20, 2016 at the age of 96 – was 90 when he said, “There is a German phrase which roughly translates as the 'panic before the closing of the doors' and I am aware that I'm a man in a hurry. I try not to think that I might not be here when some of my projects come to fruition."
He was explaining his eagerness to take on new projects at work, embark on ambitious journalism roles, and to establish new forms of philanthropy – even at his then-advanced age. Little did he know that one of his greatest projects was still several years in the future: saving hundreds of lives of Christians in the Middle East in a major project he would launch at the age of 95.
George Weidenfeld was born in Vienna in 1919. In 1938, after Germany annexed Austria, Weidenfeld left the University of Austria (all Jewish students were expelled once the Nazis took power) and fled to Britain. There, like many Jewish refugees, he was helped by members of the Quakers and Plymouth Brethren Christian churches, who set up charities to feed, clothe, and provide for transportation for the newly arrived Jews.
These churches also helped coordinate the Kindertransport, the rescue of nearly 10,000 Jewish children from Austria, Germany and other Nazi-occupied countries who were brought to Britain between 1938 and 1940. It was a monumental act of kindness that George Weidenfeld would never forget.
Once in Britain, Weidenfeld threw himself into aiding his new country during World War II. Working for the BBC’s Overseas Service, he was charged with making contact with governments in exile. Weidenfeld soon showed a flair for making these connections, becoming friends with France’s wartime leader Charles de Gaulle and Yugoslavian President Tito.
After the War, Weidenfeld decided – along with London socialite Nigel Nicolson – to launch a satirical magazine. But there was one snag: in the intense rationing of post-War Britain, paper was in short supply and it was illegal to start a new magazine. A lawyer suggested getting around the ban by publishing articles in books which weren’t restricted. "He also said, just to be on the safe side, we should try and publish some genuine books," Weidenfeld later recalled. The publishing company Weidenfeld & Nicolson was born.
Almost as soon as the new company got off the ground, Weidenfeld left for a year – to work for Israel’s first President, Chaim Weizmann. Weidenfeld & Nicolson would go on to publish a number of Jewish and Israel-related books, including the memoirs of Israeli Prime Ministers Golda Meir and Yitzhak Rabin. The firm’s first major success was the famous essay The Hedgehog and the Fox by the Jewish philosopher Isaiah Berlin.
Weidenfeld remained an impassioned Zionist throughout his life and a vociferous backer of Jewish causes. Decrying the cult of death in jihadism, Weidenfeld posited Israel – and Western culture – as an antidote: “My starting point is the assumption that we are not morbid, and that we choose life over death,” he explained. Weidenfeld openly talked about his belief in a Supreme Being with journalists, and was proud of his Jewish family tree which he could trace back to the 14th Century.
Weidenfeld kept in close touch with German culture – writing influential columns in German newspapers several times a month and helped organize the German Jewish Dialogue after the Fall of the Berlin Wall. He met former German Chancellor Helmut Kohl at a German Jewish Dialogue event, and the pair soon became close friends. (Kohl later introduced Weidenfeld to a young junior minister named Angela Merkel; ever the convivial extrovert, Weidenfeld became good friends with Merkel, too, and she often relied on him as an informal advisor.)
In 2015, as ISIS made gains in Syria and Iraq, executing Christians and forcing women into sexual slavery, Weidenfeld publicly decried the West’s limited response to ISIS’ advance, saying, “I am appalled by the lack of action... The lack of desire to fight the enemy, to slay the dragon in his lair.”
ISIS’ advance reminded Weidenfeld of his own family’s tragedy. “ISIS is unprecedented in its primitive savagery compared with the more sophisticated Nazis... When it comes to pure lust for horror and sadism, they are unprecedented. There never was such scum as these people.” As ISIS continued to kill, Weidenfeld knew that he had to act.
In 2015, aged 95, Lord Weidenfeld established the Weidenfeld Safe Haven Fund to rescue Christians in Syria and Iraq. He explained: “I can’t save the world… but I had a debt to repay. It was Quakers and Christians who brought those [Kindertransport] children to England. It was a very high-minded operation and we Jews should also be thankful and do something for the endangered Christians.”
One of his inspirations, he explained, was Sir Nicholas Winton, the British Jew, dubbed the “British Schindler,” who brought more than 650 Jewish children out of Nazi-occupied Czechoslovakia to Britain. Nicholas Winton passed away at the beginning of July, but his legacy carried on in Weidenfeld’s work. Later that month, in July 2015, the Weidenfeld Safe Haven Fund chartered private airlines to fly the first 150 refugees to safety in Warsaw.
They were the first of approximately 2,000 refugees the Fund expected to rescue. In addition to flying the refugees to Europe, the Weidenfeld Safe Haven Fund pledged to support them financially for the first twelve to eighteen months in their new homes.
Weidenfeld was criticized heavily in his last year of life for not focusing on saving Muslims in war-torn parts of the Middle East as well. Weidenfeld defended his decision, saying “I can’t save the world, but there is a very specific possibility on the Jewish and Christian side.”
Weidenfeld accomplished much more in his 96 years of life than many of us ever will. May countless blessings live on in his memory.