I am far abroad at the moment but have just learnt the sad news from home of the death of George (Lord) Weidenfeld, at the age of 96. As a publisher, philanthropist, convener, guru and friend he was one of the most extraordinary people in 20th and 21st-century Britain.
Born in Vienna in 1919, he fled the Nazis and came to the UK in the 1930s where he was housed and looked after by a Christian family. Throughout the extraordinary life and career that followed he constantly acted on the gratitude he felt towards the country and people that had taken him in. Only last year he set up a fund to help save Christian children from the fighting in Syria. Asked in a BBC interview why he was prioritising Christian children, he stated with typical clarity that it was because these were the children most under threat.
As a publisher and mentor he knew and helped almost everybody. His friendships with statesmen, writers and other public figures were legendary, and apart from his warmth, kindness and huge encouragement, one of the great pleasures of knowing him was to spur him to reminisce. It was always a profound opportunity to hear him talk of pre-war Austria. But it was equally extraordinary to hear him speak of almost everything that had happened in the world of culture and politics since. No one else could speak with such insight and with such personal experience of Nabokov, Picasso, Isaiah Berlin and a thousand others besides. Before one recent dinner I mentioned a book by Stefan Zweig that I had been reading. ‘Ah, yes, Stefan Zweig’ George began. Of course he had known him in London when Zweig too was in flight from Hitler. I’m sure I can’t have been the only friend of George’s to worry that he may have been not just one of the greatest receptacles and advocates for high European culture, but also perhaps one of the last.
George Weidenfeld was also a passionate Zionist. At a recent public talk on Theodor Herzl he spoke of his his own association with the State of Israel since its inception, during which he had been at Chaim Weizmann’s side. But he also focussed on what an extraordinary thing it was that in any single human lifespan such a magnificent and necessary vision could have been achieved.
Yet perhaps even more than the past, George Weidenfeld was passionately concerned with the future. He never stopped befriending, encouraging and inspiring the young. There was never any social or formal event at which he did not arrange for students and other young people to be present. He set up countless scholarship schemes and similar learning opportunities for students in the UK and abroad. This was always born of the knowledge that the study of history is not an abstract thing but something vital in order to take better steps in the future. Many people who had left a country as he had done would have shaken the dust from their feet. But George always retained a deep pleasure in the success (despite all the vicissitudes) of postwar German politics and society – a success in which he played a part.
In recent years he was desperately concerned by the rise of Islamic fanaticism, concerned for the state of Israel and concerned for Christian civilisation – indeed concerned for civilisation everywhere.
There is much more to be said. A proper estimate of George Weidenfeld’s life would require many, many words from many, many writers. In the meantime everyone who knew George will be thinking of his family and especially his wife Annabelle. In the Jewish tradition people say of the dead, ‘May his memory be a blessing’. George Weidenfeld’s long life was, and his memory already is.