Tributes have been pouring in for crossbench peer, publisher and award-winner Lord Weidenfeld, who died this week aged 96.
The Austrian-born philanthropist, who last year launched a fund to save Christians threatened by Isis, fled to London from Vienna in 1938 following his country’s annexation by Germany, escaping Nazi persecution.
He worked at the BBC during the war and later formed a publishing company with British politician and author Harold Nicolson. Among the first books he brought to market were the memoirs of senior Nazis.
A committed Zionist, Weidenfeld worked for a year as Chaim Weizmann’s political secretary after the founding of Israel in 1948.
In 2015, he launched Weidenfeld Safe Havens Fund, a project to rescue Christians from areas held by ISIS, linking it to the generosity of those who helped save him and other Jewish children from Hitler.
“I had a debt to repay,” he said at the time. “It applies to so many of the young people who were on the Kindertransports. Quakers and other Christian denominations 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 Christians.”
Chief Rabbi Ephraim Mirvis led tributes, saying: “I am so deeply saddened to hear of the passing of Lord George Weidenfeld, a towering figure in the Jewish community whose legacy will be one of wonderful public service, generosity and compassion.”
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu also paid tribute, saying:
“I was saddened to learn of the passing”, paying tribute to a man who “led a long and amazing life, traveling a unique path from refugee to Peer.
His countless personal achievements were always accompanied by his remarkable work for the benefit of the Jewish people, the State of Israel and humanity as a whole.
He will be remembered as an innovative publisher of important works and for his dedication to higher education in Israel, the UK and across Europe.
I cherished our meetings over many years in which I profited from the breadth of his wisdom.
Sara joins me in sending our most sincere condolences to Lord Weidenfeld’s family and to all who knew him. Their loss is our loss.”
Board of Deputies of British Jews President Jonathan Arkush said: “I am very saddened to hear about the death of Lord Weidenfeld. A refugee from the Nazism, he became a successful publisher and an influential figure on the world stage. He was also a tireless worker for Israeli, Jewish and other causes and a philanthropist who only last year funded a rescue mission for Christian Syrians. His energy, charm, warmth and intelligence will be remembered by all who met him.”
Sir Mick Davis, Chairman of the Jewish Leadership Council, said: “Lord Weidenfeld was a leader, thinker and businessman whose thoughts and understanding of our changing world were sought after by leaders the world over. He had a broad view of the world and how it could be shaped for the benefit of mankind. He was innovative and tireless in his search for solutions to the challenges of our time. He was a remarkable philanthropist and amongst his last acts was the rescuing and resettling of Christian families from Syria and Iraq. That epitomises his legacy. I am deeply saddened by his loss but take comfort that we are all better off for his extraordinary contribution to this country and society across the world.”
Rabbi Pinchas Goldschmidt of the Conference of European Rabbis said: “Lord Weidenfeld was a man who epitomised community service and leadership whilst his perception of the new challenges facing Europe was both unique and powerful.”
He added: “One of Lord Weidenfeld’s last acts – rescuing Christian families from Syria and Iraq and resettling them elsewhere – exemplifies the legacy of a man we should all endeavour to replicate.”
Former Chief Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks said: “George Weidenfeld was so much larger than life, and so inexhaustible in energy, that it is hard to believe he is no longer with us. I knew him not only as a publisher, a connector, a man who seemed to know everyone, but as an elemental force for good. He was always thinking of new ways to fight prejudice, heal ancient wounds, and bring peace to troubled regions of the world. Even in his nineties he seemed constantly to be coming up with new projects, among them a series of university professorships to advance peace in the Middle East, and a plan to rescue 20,000 endangered Christians from Syria as a way of thanking Christians who saved Jewish lives in the Holocaust. I remember a remarkable interview he gave to a newspaper on his 92nd birthday. The interviewer said to him, “Most people if they reach your age think about slowing down. You seem to be speeding up. Why is that?” He replied, “When you reach 92 you begin to see the door closing, and I have so much to do before the door closes that, the older I get, the faster I have to go.” And he meant it. Every few months he would be on the phone with another brilliant idea – and, whatever he undertook to do, he did. He was bold, he was visionary, he was hard working, and he was fun. He was a giant, and without him the world will seem a smaller and less vivid place.”
The Community Security Trust (CST) said he was a “committed supporter of efforts to combat anti-Semitism” while former Polish foreign minister Radoslaw Sikorski tweeted: “Very sad to hear of the death of my publisher. What a life! He was doing good works until a month ago.”
The Israeli Embassy in the UK commented: “Lord Weidenfeld, who passed away earlier today was a stalwart of the UK Jewish community, and exemplified the very best of UK-Israel relations. His work throughout his life echoed Jewish values, from his role as adviser to Israel’s first president Chaim Weizmann, to his activities to challenge threats to international peace. He published and wrote newspaper columns and books, and was also dedicated to Israeli charities and most recently to the cause of Syrian refugees, drawing on his experiences as a young man fleeing Nazi Austria. He will be greatly missed; may his memory be a blessing.”
Journalist Melanie Phillips added: “The cliché is true: we will never see his like again. He embodied 20th century European history.”