Memories of war prompt pounds 31m gift: Charles Oulton examines the life of George Soros, who made almost pounds 1bn from speculating on Black Wednesday

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AT THE AGE OF 14 a Jewish boy called George Soros went into hiding to escape persecution after the German invasion of Hungary. He survived and nearly 50 years later is one of the richest men in the world - and probably the most philanthropic.

Motivated by his wartime experiences and by other persecutions in eastern Europe, Mr Soros yesterday donated pounds 31.7m to voluntary organisations bringing aid to Bosnia, the most generous private donation ever made to an international humanitarian cause.

As organisations including Oxfam and Save the Children queued up to thank him at a press conference in London, Mr Soros, 62, said he had pondered long and hard what to do about the 'genocide' in Bosnia.

Calling for Nato to 'protect the civilian population', he said he felt 'particularly strongly because as a Hungarian Jew I was myself a potential victim of the Holocaust. My heart goes out to the people who are being raped, pillaged and murdered just because they are Bosnian Muslims. The civilised world must protect them if we are to remain civilised. If we do not, we shall be ruled by terrorism and fundamentalism of all kinds.'

Bosnia is the latest country to benefit from Mr Soros's philanthropy. Since 1979 he has given more than dollars 100m ( pounds 63m) through foundations in 18 central and eastern European countries.

That money has not kept pace with his personal wealth, however. After making nearly pounds 1bn out of the sterling crisis on Black Wednesday, his fortune has doubled in two years. But he decided his foundations could only absorb a certain amount of money.

'I am privileged in having greater financial means at my disposal than most people. That is what has enabled me to make the gesture I am making today.'

He was not always rich. When he came to Britain after the war, he approached the Jewish Board of Guardians for money to help him with his studies at the London School of Economics. They turned him down.

Then one Christmas holiday, while working on the railways as a porter, he broke his leg. 'This is the occasion to get money out of those bastards, I decided,' he said. He lied to the guardians that he had been working illegally when he broke his leg and he was therefore not eligible for National Assistance. The guardians caved in and gave him the money, although they made him climb three flights of stairs on crutches every week to collect it.

Later they withdrew the money and Mr Soros wrote to the chairman of the board, informing him that he would not starve - 'it only hurts me that this is how one Jew treats another in need'.

The chairman reinstated the allowance, but not after the experience had taught the young student a lesson which was to help him with his own foundations.

'I learned that it is the task of the applicant to get money out of a foundation and it is the task of the foundation to protect itself,' he wrote in his book Underwriting Democracy.

Since that lesson, Mr Soros has taken US nationality, considered and rejected a career in journalism and made a fortune on the money markets. 'I'm not totally aware of what my wealth is today, but I must now be a billionaire,' he said. 'I have been a little bit better than others at making money.'

A man of few interests - reading and tennis - and modest tastes - he has homes in New York and London, but no jets or yachts - he says he spends 90 per cent of his time looking after his foundations. But he did spare a bit of time for the sterling crisis, or as he put it, 'making money out of the West to give to the East'.

Although he had been the biggest casualty of the Black Monday stock market crash in 1987, he more than made up for that by betting dollars 10bn ( pounds 6.3bn) that the Prime Minister would fail to keep sterling above its ERM floor. That triumph earned him many headlines, as did another matter which he does not discuss so readily.

He is currently appealing against an industrial tribunal's decision that he unfairly dismissed his butler and chauffeur. One of their alleged misdemeanours was to accuse the chef of using bottles of Chateau Lafite, worth between pounds 400 and pounds 500, for cooking.

This story is firmly denied by the Soros household, which claims the financier hardly ever drinks wine and does not indulge in fine cooking, except for his guests. He was more interested in work and the development of an 'open society where nobody can dictate . . . and where there is respect for minorities'. Particularly, at the moment, the minorities in Bosnia.

(Photographs omitted)