Publisher George Weidenfeld dies in London at 96

By Gregory Katz, AP

LONDON–Publisher and philanthropist George Weidenfeld, who in his later years devoted himself to improving understanding between faiths and peoples, died Wednesday in London at 96.

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. He established a “safe havens” fund that made it possible for Christians to relocate.

Born in Vienna, Weidenfeld studied at the University of Vienna before fleeing his native country in 1938, ahead of the start of World War II, to avoid Nazi persecution of Jews. He said his work on behalf of threatened Christians was an effort to thank British Quakers for helping him when he first arrived in Britain.

He told the Jewish Chronicle in a 2009 interview that he had fought a duel with a Nazi student in 1937. He said it ended in a draw — and that he looked his opponent up after the war and they shared a salami sandwich.

Weidenfeld worked for the BBC as a political commentator and also wrote newspaper columns before he and British writer Nigel Nicolson in 1949 founded a publishing house, Weidenfeld & Nicolson that eventually became quite successful.

The firm gained notoriety in 1959 for publishing the British edition of Vladimir Nabokov’s “Lolita,” despite the threat of prosecution for obscenity. No legal action was taken. The book’s strong sales put the publishers on a secure financial footing but the controversy damaged Nicolson’s political career.

Their company became part of Orion Publishing Group in 1992. Nicolson died in 2004, but Weidenfeld remained active with the company until the end of his life. Weidenfeld & Nicolson was named “Imprint of the Year” at the Bookseller Awards in 2015, providing a fitting testament to his long career.

Weidenfeld also was a strong supporter of Israel who for a year served as a director of the Israeli Cabinet and senior adviser to the Israeli president. Zionist Union leader Isaac Herzog praised Weidenfeld for his contributions to the “wellbeing, security and defense of Israel and the Jewish people.”

German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier 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.

Pinchas Goldschmidt, president of the Conference of European Rabbis, said Weidenfeld showed a strong commitment to community service.

“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 endeavor to replicate,” the chief rabbi said.

Weidenfeld is survived by his wife, a daughter, grandchildren and great-grandchildren.