Remembering George Weidenfeld — a Pioneer and Friend of Israel
The French have a delightful saying — “Il s’impose” — which refers to an individual who is a force of nature, a colorful and charismatic figure who thrusts himself into life, and makes an extraordinary impact on people and public affairs.
Such a man was George Weidenfeld who died at age 96 in London on January 20, 2016. His impact and his achievements were all the more remarkable as a secular Jew and proud Zionist in a traditional British society dominated by the Establishment.
Born in Vienna in 1919, he escaped the Nazi Anschluss of Austria and arrived in London in 1938. After working for a time with the BBC Overseas Service, George co-founded, with Nigel Nicholson, the publishing firm of Weidenfeld and Nicholson, now part of the Orion Publishing Group.
That firm published an outstanding array of books by authors ranging from Isaiah Berlin and James Watson to Henry Kissinger and the Pope. George was most proud of publishing Nabokov’s Lolita in 1959, a book that had been banned in Britain three years earlier.
Though he was best known as a publisher, George was a public figure engaged as a philanthropist and patron of many activities. With a sharp mind, a concern for political and social issues and boundless energy, he played a considerable role in public service. As a result, he was made a life peer in 1976, and spoke frequently in debates in the House of Lords.
George was a gregarious person who seemed to know everyone in Britain, the United States, and Germany. He not only had a passion for books but loved people, especially women, whom he married four times. Meeting George in his office and in his grandiose somewhat bizarre home in London was always a delightful and rewarding experience. George exuded charm, was endlessly helpful, a fascinating conversationalist and a generous friend.
George was a courageous individual both physically and intellectually. He showed this in 1937 when as a member of a Jewish fraternity in Vienna, he challenged an antisemitic Nazi student to a duel, in which neither was wounded. He showed his compassion when, after World War II, he visited his opponent, who had a lost a leg during the war, and helped him financially.
Even more striking was his independent attitude towards then UN Secretary General Kurt Waldheim, who was accused of at least moral complicity in Nazi atrocities during the war. Waldheim had been a school classmate of George who remained friendly to him, and George thought he was being treated unfairly. Weidenfeld even published Waldheim’s memoir.
In 2015, George began repaying what he called a debt to the Christian community. On arrival in 1938 in London, penniless and alone, he had been helped by the Quakers and Plymouth Brethren. Now, George organized a plan to save 20,000 Syrian Christians and bring them to safety from the cruelties in Syria. The first part was implanted in July 2015 by an airlift of Christians to Warsaw.
To the end, George was a strong, devoted supporter of the State of Israel, though he disagreed with some of the policies of Israeli political leaders. He had been for some months in 1949 a political adviser, the chef de cabinet, of Chaim Weizmann, the president of Israel. He also served on a number of the boards of Israeli educational institutions.
In his last visit to New York he gave a remarkable lecture, which I attended, on November 19, 2015, on Theodor Herzl. George said that Herzl, pragmatic and sensible, had permeated his personal, his political, and his professional life. He saw Herzl not simply as a prophet, but as a person who managed to make some of his prophecies come true, particularly by founding the World Zionist movement, and was, like George himself , an apostle to the gentiles.
George’s last words, at least in New York, were a strong warning of the threat of Islamist fundamentalism. He called for action to be taken against the jihadism that was threatening the democratic world.
George was buried on the Mount of Olives in Jerusalem. May he rest in peace.