LONDON — Jewish British publisher and philanthropist George Weidenfeld, who devoted himself to improving understanding between faiths and peoples, died Wednesday in London. He was 96.
A statement from his office said Weidenfeld died in his sleep after a brief illness.
Weidenfeld was a member of the House of Lords who had recently launched an initiative to help save Christians facing persecution at the hands of Islamic State extremists in the Middle East.
On the eve of Nazi Germany’s annexation of Austria in 1938, 19-year-old George Weidenfeld escaped Vienna for the United Kingdom to avoid Nazi persecution of Jews. He began work at the British Broadcasting Corporation and within ten years had co-founded the publishing firm Weidenfeld & Nicholson.
The former refugee was long been associated with Jewish and Israeli charities, but most recently came to the aid of 42 Syrian Christian families, funding them to leave their war-torn home and make the journey to 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 in July last year.
Weidenfeld said his work on behalf of persecuted Christians was an effort to thank British Quakers for helping him when he first arrived in Britain.
He had a lengthy career in publishing and also wrote newspaper columns and books.
German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier on Wednesday praised Weidenfeld’s commitment to better understanding between the major religious faiths.
“As a bridge-builder he devoted all of his energy toward issues that are still as topical as ever: the dialogue between the faiths to Europe’s relationship with Israel to European integration. He fought for values and ideals even when he faced resistance,” Steinmeier said in a statement.
He praised Weidenfeld’s “versatility, wit and intelligence.”
Weidenfeld’s publishing house Weidenfeld & Nicolson gained notoriety in 1959 for publishing the British edition of Vladimir Nabokov’s “Lolita,” despite the threat of prosecution for obscenity. The firm put also put out memoirs by Israeli prime ministers Golda Meir and Yitzhak Rabin.
Zionist Union leader Isaac Herzog eulogized Weidenfeld as “an avid Zionist and lover of Israel. He was a close, beloved friend of my parents, and so I knew and loved him since childhood and kept in touch with him until the day he died. Michal [Herzog’s wife] and I lament his passing, and send our condolences to his family.”
He added: “From a young age, when Weidenfeld was first president Chaim Weizmann’s right-hand man and until his last day, he envisioned, initiated and promoted programs for the State of Israel, its Jewish character, security and defense, and for his actions he won an international position that helped him with his tireless activism. He was a font of ideas and creativity, and in every conversation with him I had the privilege of learning something new.”
The president of the World Jewish Congress, Ronald S. Lauder, said he was “deeply saddened that George has left us. He had great wisdom, and he was a friend who always gave me valuable advice. Until the end, his mind was as sharp as ever, and he never retired.
“George managed to squeeze several lifetimes into one. He grew up in Vienna and fled in 1938 when the Nazis took power in Austria. He and his loved ones were saved by a Christian family, and he quickly landed a job at the BBC in London because he spoke so many languages fluently.
“George never forgot what Christians had done to save him, and only a few months ago, he set up a foundation to rescue thousands of persecuted Christians in the Middle East. He said he had a debt to repay, and he meant it,” Lauder said.
Weidenfeld is survived by his wife, a daughter, grandchildren and great-grandchildren.