Lord Weidenfeld (1919-2016)
Daniel Johnson: I wanted to talk to you about the beginning of your life here, because it seems to me that there have been three major countries that have played a big role in your life. One was England. One was Germany-Austria, a place you came from and which you've now dedicated so much of your life to reconciliation with. And finally, Israel.
When you came to England, in 1938, central Europe was collapsing; you were fleeing a burning house, as it were, and you had to leave behind your family — your father in particular was in prison. Can you talk about how that felt, and what England must have meant to you then? How easy was it to be accepted here?
George Weidenfeld: I was 19, in my first year at university in Vienna, and I was studying law. At the same time, as was the custom, I went to a thing called the Consular Academy — a diplomatic school which was founded by the Empress Maria Theresa on the assumption that a Christian gentleman can automatically be a diplomat, but to be sent to the East you had to have special preparation. So she started the Oriental Consular Academy, which then became the Diplomatic Academy.
This turned out to be a tremendous lifeline because it focused very much on foreign languages. And so I studied four or five languages at the same time.
My father was in jail. He was the director of an insurance company, which was asked by the pre-Nazi government, as many other big companies were, to divest some of its assets to help the propaganda war against the Nazis. So when the Nazis came to power they put some people who were on the board in prison, saying that they had used their money to fight against the Third Reich. So he was in jail, which proved a blessing in disguise because even in the pseudo justice that was still prevailing in those days it meant that you could have a lawyer, you could sit in prison instead of in a concentration camp, you could see your family once a week, and so on.
I saw him for the last time before I left and he signed some document saying that I was no longer a minor. My father stayed in prison until June 1939. By that time I was already in London, with a BBC contract in my possession, and I brought my parents out of Austria. I arrived in London with 16 shillings and sixpence which I was allowed to export in postal orders, and went to a refugee organisation who gave you a pound a week and signed you up to an inferior boarding house. I was misled into thinking it was going to be a grand house in Belgrave Square, because on the boat from Calais to Dover an Egyptian student gave me a list with a boarding house in Belgrove Square, near King's Cross. So I appeared in Belgrave Square in refugee clothes, a long overcoat and so on, a suitcase, and the butler opened the door, and it was Chips Channon's house! And he told me I'd got the wrong address. So I went to Belgrove Square in King's Cross, a horrible place, and stayed there.
After a few weeks of these adventures I landed in Woburn House where there were high-minded Jewish gentleman and ladies using their free time or lunch hours to help refugees. And one such day there was Evelyn Rothschild's mother, and she said, "Young men like you shouldn't live in this boarding house," so she assigned me to a family of Plymouth Brethren who lived in Parliament Hill Fields — angelic people who tried hard to turn me into a Plymouth Brother. They didn't succeed but they took it very well.
I stayed with these people until one day, my landlord was reading something out loud at the breakfast table. I think it was the right front-page end of The Times, before the ads, and there was a quotation from scripture which said something like "Who dares, wins." And he said to me: "Something's going to happen to you." Lo and behold ,on page 34-5 was a double spread ad for the BBC, who were preparing for a national emergency: foreign linguists needed. I said, "Listen, I'm 19, there must be Nobel prize-winners among those refugees," and he said, "Oh no, it's what the scripture said."
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