Alexandra Henderson, CEO and Director of the Weidenfeld-Hoffmann Trust, recently attended Lord Weidenfeld’s funeral in Israel, and has shared her impressions of the day.
A small group of us close friends joined the family to witness George being taken to his last resting place on the Mount of Olives. A few years ago George had told me that his friend, Jacqui Safra, had suddenly announced that he had secured a very special present for him and Annabelle – burial plots for them both in Jerusalem. Although it seemed impossible that his body could be spirited there within forty eight hours, this is just what happened.
By Friday morning a group of around thirty had arrived from different corners of the world and we set off from Tel Aviv in a convoy of people carriers. It was a beautiful, sunny, warm day and as a newcomer to the country I was struck by the stark landscape that we drove through. Suddenly we found ourselves in a traffic jam winding our way around the hillside outside the walls of the city, tiny roads full of honking horns and impatient travellers whilst on each side, behind stone walls and gates was a sea of white. We stopped the traffic as we went up and down looking for the right gate. Eventually we saw a small group of people in sombre clothes and guessed we were at the right spot. We joined others who had come from Tel Aviv and then, just behind Annabelle, were two young men carrying the simple shroud which they put down, quite roughly, on a trolley feet away from the grave.
We gathered round and there followed a series of wonderful tributes: Israeli politicians joined former ambassadors, friends and relations – all highlighted how George had personally touched their lives: from friendship, to advice both personal and professional, from publishing their books (his mantra on meeting anyone was: ‘I am sure you have a book in you’), to memories of the legendary parties he gave. Above all, they reflected his interest in people: introducing people to each other, bringing people together for all his myriad projects, trying to build bridges wherever he could and all the time enjoying life to the full.
Looking around as we stood right amongst the hundreds of stone graves with olive trees and palm trees beyond and high up above us the ancient walls of the city, I couldn’t think of a more perfect place for George to be buried. The burial was a swift business – just placing the shroud in the ground, putting slabs of stone on top and adding bags of soil. It could not have fitted the words dust to dust more aptly.
We each added a clod of earth or a stone and took a last look at the beautiful surroundings. Before long we were spirited off to the King David hotel where Annabelle had arranged a welcome buffet and we did what George liked so much – we ate, we drank and we talked. We were only sad he wasn’t with us, as he would have enjoyed it all so much.
I have known George for over forty years but only got the chance to work with him in the last few, most recently to set up the Weidenfeld-Hoffmann Trust to oversee the scholarships and leadership programme for graduate students from emerging economies to study in Oxford, and the Humanitas programme of visiting fellowships in both Oxford and Cambridge. I shall miss the frequent phone calls, a rather breathless voice starting with: ‘I have just had a VERRRY interesting meeting/lunch…’ followed soon after by: ‘And what news do YOU have’. That last question urged me on and now it is up to me and my colleagues to keep that focus. We have laid the foundations, which, thanks to the great generosity of George’s friends, guarantees that there will be Weidenfeld-Hoffmann scholars in perpetuity, but we have much to do to increase the numbers and cement the leadership programme along with continuing our Humanitas events, which attract interest from across the world.
Lord Weidenfeld’s final resting place on the Mount of Olives