GE­ORGE WEI­DEN­FELD 1919-2016

The Jewish Chronicle - - FRONT PAGE - BY STEPHEN POL­LARD

IF WE are all unique, Ge­orge Wei­den­feld was, well…more unique than ev­ery­one else.

Pub­lisher, states­man, writer, phi­lan­thropist, fixer — and much, much more. In each of his many roles he soared to heights that most of us would never come close to in just one ca­reer. At 96 he was the mas­ter of all his trades, the Jack of none.

It is dif­fi­cult to imag­ine a world with­out Ge­orge. Even in his nineties he had more en­ergy than most twen­tysome­things, plan­ning schemes that would take a decade to come to fruition and fret­ting about events that will af­fect fu­ture gen­er­a­tions.

When Ge­orge de­cided to do some­thing, it hap­pened. Not least be­cause his con­tacts list, with the likes of An­gela Merkel and the Prince of Wales, made Who’s Who look like a list of non-en­ti­ties. When Ge­orge called, you were de­lighted to do what­ever he asked.

He ex­celled at putting peo­ple to­gether. When I pro­filed him last year, he said that the older he got, the eas­ier it be­came: “I gather 70 years of ac­tiv­ity so my net­works are greater, things be­come much eas­ier and I sim­ply try to in­spire other peo­ple. I try to bring peo­ple to­gether and to en­cour­age their nat­u­ral con­tacts.”

But that was al­ways his way. When he wrote a piece for The Times wel­com­ing Ger­man uni­fi­ca­tion af­ter the fall of the Ber­lin Wall, the first call he re­ceived was from Hel­mut Kohl ask­ing him to lunch at the “Bun­ga­low in Bonn’’, a lunch which ended up last­ing more than three hours.

“Are there oth­ers like you?” Kohl asked. When Ge­orge said yes, Kohl said “find them for me”, picked up the phone to the pres­i­dent of the Ber­tels­mann Stiftung and told him: “I want you to fi­nance a bi-an­nual con­fer­ence to talk about Ger­man-Jewish and Ger­man-Is­raeli re­la­tion­ships”.

That emerged as the Ger­man Jew- ish Di­a­logue. Kohl be­came a per­sonal friend, and came to Ge­orge’s birth­day party with his “side-kick”, one An­gela Merkel. She then, when she was a ju­nior min­is­ter, reg­u­larly in­vited Ge­orge to her con­stituency to take part in an an­nual sem­i­nar on for­eign affairs. When she be­came Chan­cel­lor she treated him as an in­for­mal ad­viser.

It would re­quire an en­tire is­sue of the JC to list his life­time’s projects, but at 96 the cur­rent range of his projects and links was as­ton­ish­ing, from fundrais­ing for a se­ries of pro­fes­sor­ships of mod­ern Is­rael stud­ies to work­ing on his think-tank, the In­sti­tute for Strate­gic Di­a­logue, which (among many other things) ar­ranges schol­ar­ships to Ox­ford and meet­ings be­tween lead­ing politi­cians and cul­tural fig­ures.

He was joint chair­man of the Blavat­nik School of Govern­ment’s In­ter­na­tional Ad­vi­sory Board at Ox­ford, which works with an­other of his cre­ations — the Wei­den­feld Hoff­man schol­ar­ships, a form of Rhodes Schol­ar­ship for East­ern Europe, Rus­sia, Cen­tral Asia and the Middle East.

He held hon­orary doc­tor­ates from Ox­ford, Ex­eter Univer­sity and King’s Col­lege; Fel­low­ships of St Anne’s and St Peter’s Col­leges, Ox­ford; a post as a Sen­a­tor of Bonn Univer­sity; an hon­orary de­gree from Vi­enna Univer­sity; and the high­est or­ders in Ger­many, Italy and Aus­tria. And he was awarded the GBE, which has only ever been given to four Jews (Her­bert Sa­muel, Vic­tor and Ja­cob Roth­schild and Ge­orge) and which made him the most dec­o­rated Jew in Bri­tain.

Ge­orge was born in Vi­enna in 1919 and fled to Lon­don in 1938 af­ter the An­schluss. Taken in by the Ply­mouth Brethren, he spent the rest of his life show­ing us that he was the great­est gift Vi­enna has ever given this coun­try.

Last year he launched the Wei­den­feld Safe Havens Fund to res­cue 2,000 Chris­tians from IS-held ar­eas in Syria and Iraq.

“I had a debt to re­pay”, as he put it. “It ap­plies to so many of the young peo­ple who were on the Kin­der­trans­port. It was Quak­ers and other Chris­tian de­nom­i­na­tions who brought those chil­dren to Eng­land. It was a very high-minded op­er­a­tion and we Jews should also be thank­ful and do some­thing for the en­dan­gered Chris­tian.” He went on: “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.”

In his later years, Ge­orge was driven by the need to awaken peo­ple to the dan­ger posed by rad­i­cal Is­lam and the likes of IS. Most tra­di­tional an­tisemitism, he be­lieved, is now al­most an ir­rel­e­vance which can be dealt with through savvy and ef­fort. Where it re­mains dan­ger­ous is when it is fo­cused on Is­rael, un­der the guise of anti-Zion­ism. His mo­ti­va­tion, he told me last year, was to make us all aware that much of this is a mat­ter of life and death — of Is­rael’s life, and the West’s, too. “My start­ing point is the as­sump­tion that we are not mor­bid, and that we choose life over death.”

The roots of his ex­tra­or­di­nary ca­reer lie in his first job af­ter ar­riv­ing in Bri­tain, work­ing with the BBC’s mon­i­tor­ing ser­vice then swiftly be­com­ing a political com­men­ta­tor and news­pa­per colum­nist. In that ca­pac­ity, he made con­tact with gov­ern­ments in ex­ile, be­friend­ing the likes of de Gaulle and Tito. Speak­ing to such peo­ple be­came en­tirely nor­mal for Ge­orge.

In 1948, he met Nigel Ni­col­son and they de­cided to start an up­mar­ket mag­a­zine, a mix of the New States­man, the New Yorker and For­tune. But

the wartime pa­per ban re­mained, and a clever lawyer sug­gested a way round it by print­ing some of the con­tent be­tween hard cov­ers and call­ing it a book, and, to avoid any prob­lems with the au­thor­i­ties, also print­ing some gen­uine books. Thus was Wei­den­feld and Ni­col­son born.

No sooner had he started the busi­ness than he took a sab­bat­i­cal to work as Chaim Weiz­mann’s chief of cab­i­net. He told me once he was “dumb­founded” to get the job. Weiz­mann, and Is­rael, were lucky to have him.

I have been priv­i­leged to meet many won­der­ful peo­ple. But I have no doubt at all that the great­est of them all was Ge­orge Wei­den­feld, and I feel hon­oured to have called him a friend.

PHOTO: GETTY IM­AGES (IA)

Lord Wei­den­feld, man of many parts, who died on Wed­nes­day

The Ber­lin Wall’s fall was marked in a three-hour lunch with Hel­mut Kohl

PHOTO: ALAMY

An­gela Merkel, Lord Wei­den­feld, Hel­mut Sch­midt, Richard von Weizsaecker, and Henry Kissinger

PHOTO: NICK SIN­CLAIR

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