Rosie Kinchen – The Sunday Times
At 95, the outspoken, flirtatious publisher is repaying a long-held debt by using his network of rich friends to give Syrian families a chance to escape the horrors of war.
Interviews are chaperoned for one of two reasons: to make sure the interviewer behaves or to make sure the interviewee does. In Lord Weidenfeld’s case it is almost certainly the latter. At 95, the crossbench peer says exactly what he wants to, when he wants to — speaking over questions, answering the telephone, then promptly hanging up before asking: “Am I being too outspoken?”
We meet at his stately flat on Chelsea Embankment overlooking the Thames in west London. Weidenfeld, propped up in an armchair, is not as physically expansive as he once was but he is just as loquacious. Surrounded by copies of the German daily Die Welt (for whom he writes a column) and The Times, I find him mid-conversation with an aide.
“Let me just finish my sentence,” he smiles up at me. Ten minutes later, in heavily Mittel European-accented English, he is still in full flow.
We are here to discuss his latest project. Before founding one of Britain’s most successful publishing houses, before he became known for his networking prowess and his colourful love life (he is currently on wife No 4), Weidenfeld came to Britain as a refugee, fleeing Vienna aged 19 with nothing but a postal order for 16 shilling
Almost 70 years on, he has set himself the task of saving Christians fleeing Syria.
Last week, with support from the Barnabas Fund’s Operation Safe Havens, the first plane brought 150 refugees from Syria via Lebanon to Poland, where they will be given help to start a new life.
It is an initiative which has, rightly or wrongly, seen him accused of discriminating against Muslims. He is “horrified” by the situation in Syria, he says, finally turning his gaze to me, “whole forests of crucified Christians — that has never happened in human history. The Mongols did that sort of thing, it is Stone Age mixed with 21st-century technology.”
Baffled by the lack of support from supposedly “Christian countries”, he contacted “some very high-minded friends, Jews and Christians” and has put together a rescue system in which the Jew is “the paymaster” and “the Christians do all the work”, both on the ground in Syria and Iraq and in negotiations with host nations.
The ultimate aim is to rescue up to 2,000 families (roughly 10,000 people) and relocate them to Canada, Australia, Latin America, the United States and Europe — in particular Poland, which is taking about 1,000 (he hopes the Czech Republic will do the same).
Few people would have the contacts required to make this happen, but the man who was once dubbed “il Consigliere” (the Adviser) for his behind-the-scenes influence on the likes of Chaim Weizmann, the first president of Israel, and Helmut Kohl, the former chancellor of Germany, has managed it in just four months.
Weidenfeld drops more names than Who’s Who; the most significant donors include Jacob Rothschild but the project “wouldn’t have been possible” without the philanthropist Martin Green (“his wife is a Belgian countess”) and Sir Charles Hoare (“he comes from one of the oldest banking families in Europe”). So far they have raised £250,000.