LONDON — On the eve of Nazi Germany’s annexation of Austria in 1938, 19-year-old George Weidenfeld escaped Vienna for the United Kingdom. He began work at the British Broadcasting Corporation and within ten years had co-founded the publishing firm Weidenfeld & Nicholson.
The former refugee, now Lord Weidenfeld, has long been associated with Jewish and Israeli charities. However, since he was helped by a Christian group, the Plymouth Brethren, when he first arrived in Britain, he says, it is time to repay this debt.
A partial payment came last week in the form of a poignant rescue of 42 Syrian Christian families, who are now safe in Warsaw.
“We have been deeply moved by the plight of Christians in conflict-torn Middle East countries, and we are supporting the transfer of Christian families to safe havens where they can lead normal lives,” Weidenfeld told The Times of Israel on Tuesday.
The rescue operation was conducted in partnership with the British UK Jewish National Fund, which made the decision to aid Weidenfeld at a board meeting just before Passover this year.
According to Michael Sinclair, vice chairman of JNF in Britain, the overture made by Jewish philanthropists Weidenfeld and Martin Green to the JNF was unusual but ultimately compelling. Martin Green heads the Euripides Foundation, which works for better relations between Jews and Christians.
“We viewed it as the right thing to do, to offer help,” Sinclair said. “We were mindful of those rare but special occasions when Christians reached out to Jews during the Second World War. People realized it was a really worthy cause.”
The honorable repayment of a debt from the Holocaust was a prime motivator for Weidenfeld.
“In the 1930s thousands of Jews, mainly women and children, were helped by Christians who took enormous personal risks to save them from certain death. We owe a debt of gratitude,” said Weidenfeld.
However, Sinclair acknowledged that there had been internal discussion as to whether humanitarian rescue was the right sort of project for the JNF, an organization that is known for its work in greening and developing the Land of Israel, as well as for Zionist education and advocacy.
‘We thought about how we would have felt if we had learned that a Christian group had had the opportunity to save Jewish lives during the Holocaust — and turned that opportunity down’
“But we felt that our donors would approve — and we also felt that once we had been approached, we could not say no,” said Sinclair. “We thought about how we would have felt if we had learned that a Christian group had had the opportunity to save Jewish lives during the Holocaust — and turned that opportunity down. So that was really the most compelling reason to do this.”
The move to take the Christians from their homes in an Islamic State-controlled territory — unspecified for reasons of safety — was coordinated by the Barnabas Fund, an international relief agency which works with what it calls “the persecuted church.”
Under conditions of great secrecy, the 42 families — 149 people in all — were flown from Beirut to Warsaw, where many of them have asked not to be identified for fear of retaliation against relatives still in Syria. The Polish government offered entry visas, and temporary accommodation in Poland has been provided by a Warsaw-based charity, the Esther Foundation.
Sources close to the operation said there was some discussion about bringing the refugees into Israel first, a plan which was rejected for reasons of safety and security.
The plight of Christians in the Middle East, caught in the internecine war between Muslim factions, has largely been ignored by the international community. The Barnabas Fund has launched a rescue plan called Operation Safe Havens — and the separate Weidenfeld Safe Havens Fund has underwritten the costs of this first mission at a cost of £250,000. The Barnabas Fund’s patron, the Marquess of Reading, Simon Isaacs, welcomed the money contributed by Jewish charities and individuals in the UK.
Spearheading the venture has been the 95-year-old Lord Weidenfeld. A further 200 families are due to travel to Poland in the coming months.
However, the JNF’s Sinclair said this would not be a “marquee project” for his organization. “We will continue to approach friends and contacts in North America and Israel to help fund future evacuations,” said Sinclair.
To step up efforts, the Barnabas Fund is already in touch with a number of other central and eastern European governments to discuss similar rescue projects.
‘They have nowhere to go unless we open our doors to them in their hour of need’
Sir Charles Hoare, who has advised the Barnabas Fund on the evacuation, called upon other European governments to provide support.
“The Christian community in the Middle East is facing its greatest crisis. The homes of Christians are being demolished by this terrible conflict. They have nowhere to go unless we open our doors to them in their hour of need,” said Hoare.