Prince William's ancestor who saved a Jewish family in the Holocaust

The Gestapo interrogated her and her daughters married Nazi officials, but the royal daughter hid a Jewish family and saved their lives during the Holocaust.

By IRIS GEORLETTE/MAARIV
July 1, 2018 15:43
Britain's Prince William lays a wreath during a ceremony commemorating the six million Jews killed b

Britain's Prince William lays a wreath during a ceremony commemorating the six million Jews killed by the Nazis in the Holocaust, in the Hall of Remembrance at Yad Vashem. (photo credit: DEBBIE HILL/REUTERS)

"I can't explain why everyone doesn't know about Princess Alice's [Holocaust] rescue story," says Ron Prosor, former Israeli ambassador to Britain and the UN, and head of the Abba Eban Institute for International Diplomacy at the Interdisciplinary Center in Herzliya. "But it is a diplomatic asset."

This forgotten story made headlines recently with Prince William's historic visit to Israel, when his great-grandmother, who was recognized as Righteous Among the Nations, was discussed. The prince visited Princess Alice's grave on the slopes of the Mount of Olives in Jerusalem.

Princess Alice von Battenberg was born in 1885 in Windsor Castle in England, and was deaf from birth. After marrying the Greek Prince Andrew in 1903, she lived in Greece until the expulsion of the Greek royal family in 1917. In 1930, Alice was diagnosed with schizophrenia and was hospitalized in a sanatorium in Switzerland for two years.

During World War II she lived in Athens, where she helped hide Jews from the Nazis. In 1994, 24 years after her death in 1969, she received the title of Righteous Among the Nations from Yad Vashem.

After the war, she remained in Greece, where she founded an Orthodox nursing order of nuns called the "Christian Sisterhood of Martha and Mary." After the overthrow of King Constantine II of Greece and the military coup of 1967, she was invited by her son Philip, the Duke of Edinburgh, and her daughter-in-law, Elizabeth II of England, to live with them at Buckingham Palace in London, where she passed away. In 1988, her bones were transferred, at her request, to the Mount of Olives in Jerusalem.

In September, 1943, when Athens was conquered by the Nazis following Italy's surrender, the persecution of Greek Jews began. During the Nazi occupation there were thousands of Jews in Athens who sought refuge from the Gestapo, which deported  60,000 of the 75,000 Greek Jews to concentration camps. As this was happening, Alice hid the Jewish widow Rachel Cohen, along with two of her five children.

Last Wednesday during his visit to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's home, Prince William met with the descendants of Haim and Rachel Cohen, whose family members - among them Eve Cohen, Rachel Cohen's granddaughter - were saved by Princess Alice.

"I grew up in France and England and England and only heard about this story in the 1970s," Eve Cohen told Maariv Magazine. "It wasn't talked about much at home, [but] our family wat s always full of gratitude to Princess Alice. I wouldn't say we grew up on this story, but my aunt kept in contact with the princess. At the meeting the other day the prince was very warm and open to listening to us. In 1994, the year Alice was declared Righteous Among the Nations one of my uncles wrote the story, and we brought his original manuscript to the prince. It was very important to us to express out eternal gratitude to him. It touches me more than anything to see the next generation on the other side of this story."

"Princess Alice did not live the life of an ordinary princess," said Professor Dina Porat, Yad Vashem's chief historian. "She was very aware of social issues. During World War I, she established military hospitals and soup kitchens, and served as a nurse. She was socially involved, a constant social activist. Haim Cohen, Rachel Cohen's husband, was a member of the Greek parliament and close to the royal family. Alice cared for his widow and his children and all their needs until the liberation from Nazi rule, and put her life in danger for them. The rescue story was discovered by word of the family."

Surprisingly, while Alice was hiding a Jewish family in her home, her daughters were living in Germany and were close to the Nazi regime. Sophie, her youngest daughter, was married to Prince Christoph von Hessen, a Nazi official who served under Hermann Goering. Princess Margarita, the eldest daughter, married Gottfried, who fought in German uniform on the Russian front. Another sister, Cecilia, was married to the German prince Georg Donatus, who was also associated with the Nazi party. The two were killed in a plane crash in 1937. Prince Philip himself, who served in the British Navy during World War II and took part in battles against the Nazis, has previously spoken about his family's Nazi ties, but claimed that he personally never witnessed any of them expressing antisemitic beliefs.

"What's interesting is that Alice's daughters married German princes - their husbands were in the service of Nazi Germany," said Prof. Porat. "Her daughters weren't invited to Elizabeth and Philip's wedding in 1947 because of their marriages to pro-Nazi Germans. The Gestapo suspected Alice and interrogated her several times, but she [claimed she could not understand] due to her hearing disability, though she could understand and speak. They were initially convinced she was pro-German because of her daughters, but she was not."

When Princess Alice received the title of Righteous Among the Nations in 1994, Prince Philip came to Israel to plant a tree in her name at Yad Vashem. In 2016, her grandson, Prince Charles, took advantage of his visit to Jerusalem after Shimon Peres's funeral and went to her grave.

"Alice wanted to be buried next to her aunt, the great duchess Alexandra Fyodorovna, who was murdered by the Bolsheviks and also buried in the Greek Orthodox Church," Porat added.

Why don't more Israelis know about the story of Princess Alice?

"Alice's story doesn't exist in the Israeli school curriculum. She truly risked her life to save the Cohen family, and it's important that people know about it."

According to estimates, one of the main reasons for Prince William's visit to Israel - a visit that caused a storm in Israel due to its labeling east Jerusalem as "occupied Palestinian territory" - is his desire to visit his great-grandmother's grave. Prince Philip came to Israel on an unofficial visit in 1994, but since then he has not been able to visit his mother's grave because of the British government's opposition to a royal family visit to Israel.

A bit of politics

During his visit to Yad Vashem, Prince William laid a wreath in the Hall of Remembrance and signed the guest book: "But the actions of those few who took great risks to help others are a reminder of the human capacity for love and hope," he wrote. "I am honored that my own great-grandmother is one of these Righteous Among the Nations." When shown the museum's display of the shoes of Holocaust victims, he said he was "shocked" and added that "It is almost impossible to comprehend this appalling event in history."

However, the prince chose not to visit the tree planted in Princess Alice's memory at Yad Vashem. "This could be for security reasons, but in my opinion it is not a political matter," Professor Porat said.

"Princess Alice's story is not so well known," said Yoram Shani, coordinator of the Abba Eban Center for Israeli Diplomacy at the Hebrew University's Truman Institute, and a former political advisor at the Israeli embassy in London.

"Britain was not occupied [by the Nazis], so there were very few [British] Righteous Among the Nations. During the four years I spent in London, the subject never came up in conversation, neither formal nor informal. It was not brought up, not even in small talk. I don't think you'll find many people in Britain who know the story. But let alone the British, why doesn't it come up here, [in Israel]? Why doesn't Yad Vashem bring it up more often? There's no doubt that some politics are involved here, at least on the British side."

Translated by Tamar Ben-Ozer


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