In 1938, just before Nazi Germany annexed Austria, 19-year-old George Weidenfeld was able to emigrate from Vienna to the UK thanks to a Christian group, the Plymouth Brethren. Now, the co-founder of the publishing firm Weidenfeld & Nicholson knew it was time to repay this debt.
The former refugee financed the rescue of 42 Syrian Christian families who have now been safely resettled in Warsaw.
“We have been deeply moved by the plight of Christians in conflict-torn Middle East countries, and we are supporting the transfer of Christian families to safe havens where they can lead normal lives,” Weidenfeld told The Times of Israel.
The rescue operation was conducted in partnership with the British UK Jewish National Fund, which made the decision to aid Weidenfeld at a board meeting just before Passover this year.
According to Michael Sinclair, vice chairman of JNF in Britain, the overture made by Jewish philanthropists Weidenfeld and Martin Green to the JNF was unusual but ultimately compelling. Martin Green heads the Euripides Foundation, which works for better relations between Jews and Christians. […]
Sinclair acknowledged that there had been internal discussion as to whether humanitarian rescue was the right sort of project for the JNF, an organization that is known for its work in greening and developing the Land of Israel, as well as for Zionist education and advocacy.
“But we felt that our donors would approve — and we also felt that once we had been approached, we could not say no,” said Sinclair. “We thought about how we would have felt if we had learned that a Christian group had had the opportunity to save Jewish lives during the Holocaust — and turned that opportunity down. So that was really the most compelling reason to do this.”
The move to take the Christians from their homes in an Islamic State-controlled territory — unspecified for reasons of safety — was coordinated by the Barnabas Fund, an international relief agency which works with what it calls “the persecuted church.”
The operation, which saved 149 people in all, was conducted in total secrecy in order to protect their family members still in Syria.
The Barnabas Fund has launched a rescue plan called Operation Safe Havens — and the separate Weidenfeld Safe Havens Fund has underwritten the costs of this first mission at a cost of £250,000. The Barnabas Fund’s patron, the Marquess of Reading, Simon Isaacs, welcomed the money contributed by Jewish charities and individuals in the UK.
Spearheading the venture has been the 95-year-old Lord Weidenfeld. A further 200 families are due to travel to Poland in the coming months.
The Polish government has been fully cooperative, providing the families with entry visas, while the Esther Foundation, a Warsaw-based charity, has been assisting with temporary accommodations. The Barnabas Fund has reached out to other central and eastern European governments about assisting with similar rescue projects.
“In the 1930s thousands of Jews, mainly women and children, were helped by Christians who took enormous personal risks to save them from certain death. We owe a debt of gratitude,” said Weidenfeld, reports the Times of Israel.