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Princess Alice: A Legacy of Courage

September 17, 2018

by: Kathy DeGagne, BFP Staff Writer

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Prince William’s first official visit to Israel in July this year was marked by a special stopover at the Church of Mary Magdalene on the slopes of the Mount of Olives. He was there to visit the gravesite of his great-grandmother, Princess Alice.

Princess Andrew of Greece and Denmark by Phillip de Laszlo

A Life of Hardship

 Born into the British royal family in 1885, Princess Alice of Battenberg was Queen Victoria’s first great-grandchild. In 1903, she married Prince Andrew and moved to Athens as part of the Greek royal family. She and Prince Andrew had four daughters and a son, Prince Philip, the future Duke of Edinburgh.

Though her life was exceptional from beginning to end, her royal birth could not save her from hardship. She was born deaf, experienced episodes of mental illness and was forced into exile with her family after a coup d’etat overthrew the king, her husband’s brother. They were first exiled to Switzerland and later to Paris, living as refugees, poverty-stricken and helpless. Princess Alice was eventually abandoned by her husband and separated from her five children. Through those dark years, her heart ached with compassion for those who were also desperately in need and she worked tirelessly for the Red Cross to help alleviate their suffering.

In Occupied Greece

 In 1938, Princess Alice returned to Greece alone, but her peaceful existence was soon shattered by the Nazi invasion of Athens in 1941. Once again, the Greek royal family was on the run, this time to South Africa. However, Princess Alice and her sister-in-law, Princess Nicholas, chose to stay. Their only means of survival were the parcels of food sent to them by her brother, Lord Mountbatten, but these they gave away to the poor.

Princess Alice’s position in occupied Greece was complex. Her four daughters had married German princes who were affiliated with the Nazis, while her son, Philip, was a member of the British Royal Navy. Though believed by many to be pro-German because of her daughters’ husbands, Princess Alice’s loyalty remained with the Allied forces and she bluntly told one German officer to get his troops out of her country.

By 1943 the Gestapo began to round up the Greek Jews for deportation to the concentration camps. Sixty thousand out of the approximately 72,000 Jews in Greece were deported and 58,000 subsequently died in Auschwitz and Treblinka. But one Jewish family managed to escape the dragnet by appealing to the two remaining members of the Greek royal family still living in Athens.

Sheltering the Cohen Family

Haimaki Cohen was a former member of the Greek government and had done an important service for King George I of Greece in the past. In return, the king promised that he would aid the Cohens if they ever found themselves in need. The family of Haimaki Cohen appeared at Princess Alice’s door one day, armed with that promise. She upheld that royal obligation and invited them to shelter in her small apartment.

The invitation was alarmingly risky, for Gestapo headquarters were located right next door. Nevertheless, Alice decided to harbor Haimaki’s widow Rachel and their daughter, Tilde, for the duration of the war. After ensuring that Rachel and Tilde were safe, Rachel’s four sons traveled to Cairo as members of the resistance to serve the Greek government in exile. One son, Michael, eventually came back and sheltered with his mother and sister in Princess Alice’s home.

Fully understanding the risk, Princess Alice trusted no one but herself to care for the family, conveying food and information about the war to the threesome hiding in her apartment. After a while, the Gestapo became suspicious and questioned her. Princess Alice had learned to lip-read—in fact, she was able to lip-read German, English, French and Greek—but she feigned misunderstanding, using her deafness as an excuse. Frustrated, the Gestapo abandoned their interrogation.

The Jerusalem Connection

In 1967, Princess Alice was finally reunited with her son and daughter-in-law, Prince Philip and Queen Elizabeth II, when they invited her to live with them in Buckingham Palace.

She died two years later. Her final wish was to be buried in Jerusalem, close to her girlhood heroine and beloved aunt, Grand Duchess Elizabeth Feodorovna of Russia, who was murdered during the Russian Revolution. Though initially interred at St. George’s Chapel in Windsor, Princess Alice’s remains were brought to Jerusalem 19 years later.

Honoring Her Courage

Her gravesite on the Mount of Olives has been visited by her son Prince Philip in 1994, her grandson Prince Charles in 2016 and her great-grandson Prince William in 2018. Prince William also had the opportunity to meet two of the Cohen’s descendants while he was in Jerusalem. Evy and Philippe Cohen, great-grandchildren of Rachel Cohen, thanked Prince William for Princess Alice’s brave rescue of their family.

In 1993, she was declared Righteous Among the Nations by Yad Vashem, an honor given to Gentiles who risked their lives to rescue Jews during the Holocaust.

In 2010, she was named a Hero of the Holocaust by the British government for “selfless actions which preserved life in the face of persecution.”

In every age marked by evil, there have been people who risked their personal safety to do what was right. Princess Alice was one of those people. She had kept her wartime heroism a secret—even her family did not know anything about it until after she died. So, it was Prince Philip’s tribute to his mother at Yad Vashem that best summed up Princess Alice’s life and service: “I suspect that it never occurred to her that her action was in any way special. She was a person with deeply religious faith and she would have considered it to be a perfectly natural human reaction to fellow beings in distress.”

For Rachel Cohen’s descendants, Princess Alice’s actions were indeed something special: “We all owe our existence to her courage.”

Photo Credit: Public Domain/wikimedia.org

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