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George Weidenfeld: A marvellous conversationalist who befriended them all

Tom Gross remembers a mentor and friend

    Lord Weidenfeld and Tom Gross
    Lord Weidenfeld and Tom Gross

    George Weidenfeld was still so intellectually sharp and insightful at the age of 96 that we all thought he’d live for ever.

    In our most recent meeting a few weeks ago George not only outlined highly imaginative proposals and predictions for the future of the world, but (the British official secrets act prohibition on revealing secrets having recently been lifted) he revealed some of the remarkable additional work he did on behalf of British intelligence against the Nazis during the war.

    There will no doubt be many obituaries of him but I doubt they will quite be able to convey the full breadth of George’s talents and his impact globally, especially behind the scenes. For at least the past six decades George knew everyone of influence one could imagine.

    At his dinner parties in his sumptuous Chelsea apartment, one would not only meet former heads of Israeli and German intelligence, or US senators, but also world famous composers and film stars - and of course distinguished authors.

    In previous decades one might have sat next to Jascha Heifetz or Leonard Bernstein or Vladimir Nabokov, all of whom were close to George. Now it would be Daniel Barenboim or Murray Perahia.

    And age was no hindrance. Less than two months ago he flew to New York for a series of meetings with Henry Kissinger and others. Until a week or so ago, he wrote a regular column for the leading German paper Die Welt.

    There was probably no wiser or more influential British friend of Israel stretching over the entire period since Israel’s independence - from the days when George was chief of staff to the country’s first president, Chaim Weizmann, right up to his role as advisor on the Middle East to the members of the current British government.

    George was on good terms not only with political friends, but with “enemies” too, though he didn’t agree to help everybody.

    I remember when, in the 1980s, he told me that an old school friend from pre-war Vienna called him up to ask for his help. Would George please put in a good word on his behalf with the two rotating Israeli prime ministers of the day, Yitzhak Shamir and Shimon Peres, as well as with the head of the World Jewish Congress?

    His former school friend had been exposed as a Nazi and sought George’s help in an attempt to avoid becoming a persona non grata. The friend? The former UN Secretary-General Kurt Waldheim.

    Then there was the dispute between the Catholic Church and international Jewish leaders after Carmelite nuns set up a convent in the former Zyklon B gas storehouse at Auschwitz. Who did Pope John Paul II turn to in an effort to mediate reconciliation behind the scenes? None other than Weidenfeld, who successfully helped shepherd a resolution to the dispute. The convent relocated outside the camp.

    George was also a dear and generous friend to many far less important persons, such as myself. He was sweet to me as a child (he was a close friend of my parents) and supportive of me as an adult, especially regarding my work on the Middle East. He helped shape my ideas, as he no doubt did those of many others.

    Until the end, he was a marvellous conversationalist. The great Russian-born pianist Evgeny Kissin tells me that he had a short chat on the phone with George – in German – just a few hours before he died.

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