Prince Philip’s mother saved Jews during WWII

"I suspect that it never occurred to her that her action was in any way special. She was a person with deep religious faith and she would have considered it to be a totally human action to fellow human beings in distress," Prince Philip.
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Princess Alice with her son Prince Philip at Yad Vashem. (Courtesy: Yad Vashem)

Princess Alice, the mother of Prince Philip, is a Righteous Among the Nations for saving a Jewish family in Greece during World War Two.

Princess Alice in 1906 (Courtesy: Wikimedia Commons)

Princess Alice, who was born in the United Kingdom at Windsor Castle in 1885, married Prince Andrew of Greece in 1903 and lived in Athens during WWII (the Greek side of the family were Nazi sympathizers and fought for the Germans). At first Athens was under Italian rule and the anti-Jewish laws weren’t as severe, but Italy’s surrender to the Allies in September of 1943 changed everything.

A German Panzer Tank in Athens during World War II. (Photo: Wikimedia Commons)

With the Italians out of Athens the Nazis took over and began to roundup the last remaining Greek Jews for deportation. Caught in the fray was the family of Haimaki Cohen, a former member of parliament and friend of Princess Alice. Haimaki passed away before the Nazi takeover of the Greek capital, but his wife Rachel and 5 children (4 boys and a daughter) had to now go into hiding.

Earlier, in 1913, Haimaki Cohen aided King George I of Greece. In return, King George had offered him any service that he could perform should Cohen ever need it.

Three of the sons smuggled themselves out of Greece to Egypt and joined the Greek government in exile but the trip was too dangerous for Rachel and her daughter. After learning of the family’s situation, Princess Alice opened up the Greek palace for the family to hide in.

Left to right, Tilde Cohen, Alfred Cohen, Haimaki Cohen and Rachel Cohen in 1941. (Photo: Evy Cohen)

“What Princess Alice did, she saved the whole family,” said Evy Cohen, whose grandmother, aunt and uncle hid in the royal’s residence. “Clearly I wouldn’t be alive, I wouldn’t be here, I wouldn’t be born if it hadn’t been for her.”

The Cohens were eventually joined by another brother who was unable to make the journey to Cairo. The three remained at Princess Alice’s palace until the end of the war.

“She would often come up to my grandmother’s and my aunt’s small room. She would have tea and have an exchange, talk about religion. Although she was quite deaf, the exchange was very fruitful.”

The Germans became suspicious multiple times of Princess Alice and at one point she was visited at the palace by the Gestapo. Born deaf, Princess Alice was fluent in reading lips but played off her deafness during the interrogation pretending she did not understand their questions. Eventually the SS grew tired and left.

The actions of Princess Alice were extremely rare for the time due to indifference towards Jews and antisemitism. “Rescue in general was unfortunately and tragically a rather marginal phenomenon,” Joel Zisenwine, a Holocaust historian at Yad Vashem and the director of the Righteous Among the Nations department, told The Guardian newspaper. “You can also talk about indifference to the state of Jews, hostility towards Jews, even active collaboration of various elements and sectors in local society with Nazi Germany.”

The vast majority of Greece’s estimated 80,000 Jews were murdered in the Holocaust.

In 1993 Yad Vashem bestowed the title of Righteous Among the Nations on Princess Alice. A year later, her children, Prince Philip – the Duke of Edinburgh – and Princess George of Hanover traveled to Yad Vashem and planted the tree in her honor.

Prince William visiting a tree dedicated to Princess Alice at Yad Vashem. (Courtesy: Yad Vashem)

“I suspect that it never occurred to her that her action was in any way special. She was a person with deep religious faith and she would have considered it to be a totally human action to fellow human beings in distress,” Prince Philip said during the ceremony.

Buried in Jerusalem

After the war Princess Alice retreated more from the public eye and in January of 1949 she founded a nursing order of Greek Orthodox nuns. Withdrawing from the world completely, she set up the Christian Sisterhood of Martha and Mary on the Greek Island of Tinos.

Following a coup in 1967 she returned to Buckingham Palace and remained there until her death in 1969. She was 84 years old.

Princess Alice wished to be buried in Jerusalem next to her aunt Grand Duchess Elizabeth Fyodorovna, who also became a nun and founded her own religious order. Fyodorovna was killed in the Russian Revolution and was buried at the Church of Maria Magdalene in the Garden of Gethsemane in Jerusalem.

The Church of Mary Magdalene, Princess Alice’s burial place in Jerusalem. (Courtesy: Wikimedia Commons)

Eighteen years after her death, the remains of Princess Alice were transferred to a crypt in Gethsemane on the Mount of Olives.

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