Accidents help shape life of refugee-turned-publisher

When George Weidenfeld arrived in London in 1938 as a refugee from Nazi-occupied Austria, he owned one suitcase and a postal order for 16 shillings and sixpence. A sympathetic tutor had helped him escape Austria on a three-month visa, and he hoped he could extend his stay.

Little did he know then that he would become an eminent BBC war correspondent, the chief political advisor to Israel's first president, Chaim Weitzmann, and an international publisher who would bring the world such classic titles as Yigael Yadin's "Masada" and Golda Meir's famous autobiography, "My Life."

Nor, probably, could he have suspected that his adopted country would honor him with a knighthood in 1969 and a peerage in 1976. But Lord Weidenfeld takes nothing for granted. On a recent visit to San Francisco, where he was to be honored for his work with Ben-Gurion University of the Negev, he spoke about his life as a series of lucky breaks.

"So much of life is accident," he said, settling into an armchair in the Pacific Heights home of his hosts, Gordon and Ann Getty. For example, "I had a great stroke of luck, of being able to join the BBC as it was equipping itself for a national emergency," he said. "It was an exciting and exhilarating time, no doubt about it."

Weidenfeld has numbered among his close personal friends former British Prime Minister Harold Wilson, novelist Vladimir Nabokov and a panoply of Israeli personalities from Moshe Dayan to Yitzhak Rabin.

Though he has published a wide range of books, he is proudest of works such as "Masada" and Chaim Herzog's "War of Atonement," which have helped explain Israel to the rest of the world.

"They're remarkable works, and very enlightening."

His lifetime interest in international politics was fostered during the war, when he interviewed exiled Allied and resistance leaders for the BBC. "I worked harder than I had before or since in mastering the intricacies of European politics," he recalled.

One of the figures he met during this time was Zionist leader Weitzmann. Having just been ousted from party leadership by David Ben-Gurion, Weitzmann was "quite broken and depressed," said Weidenfeld. "But he befriended me, we became close, and saw each other frequently."

When Weitzmann was made first president of the newly proclaimed state of Israel in 1948, he invited Weidenfeld to become his "chef de cabinet."

"I had a terrible struggle because I had just started a publishing company with other people's financial help," said Weidenfeld. "But this was the opportunity of a lifetime."

He decided to go to Israel on a year's sabbatical, and it gave him "a wonderful ringside view of a state in the making." During his stay, he met and made friends with the likes of Dayan, Meir, Rabin, Shimon Peres and former Jerusalem mayor Teddy Kolleck. Later, he was able to induce them to write their memoirs, which he published.

"I created little books," he said modestly.

He particularly remembered the time when Meir, catching him looking at a relief map of Israel, shook her head and wryly commented, "What a neighborhood to live in." Meir's autobiography, released in 1975 by Weidenfeld's publishing house, became a worldwide bestseller and was later made into a movie.

Not all of the politicians and celebrities published by Weidenfeld were skilled writers. But Dayan, who published several books with Weidenfeld, was a natural storyteller who required no help.

"He wrote everything in his own hand," Weidenfeld said.

Then there was the young Harvard professor who, in the late 1950s, presented the publisher with a book on the 1815 Congress of Vienna. "The academic cognoscenti were saying that its author might go quite far," said Weidenfeld, "though no one thought he would rise to the eminence he did."

The book was not a commercial success, but its author did indeed go quite far. His name was Henry Kissinger.

These days, Weidenfeld has taken a step back from the empire he created, while taking part in numerous religious and philosophical forums. He also serves as president of the Britain Israel Public Affairs Committee and a member of the English National Opera's board.

As chairman of Ben-Gurion University's International Board of Governors, he hopes to "help raise the profile of the humanities in a scientifically renowned university." More than anything, he would like to "open the window of knowledge to young students in a faraway university on the edge of the desert."

Now in his golden years, Weidenfeld is still putting in days that many Generation Xers would be proud of. And he's not about to slow down any time soon.

"I'm in orbit, and I can't imagine doing anything else," he said with a smile. "I'll have to leave it to slowing down through natural causes, not through an act of will."