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Righteous Among the Nations: Princess Alice of Battenberg

Princess Alice of Battenberg is best remembered today as the mother of Prince Philip, Duke of Edinburgh. What is less known of her eventful life is that she was honoured as Righteous Among the Nations by Yad Vashem, Israel’s official memorial and museum to the victims of the Holocaust. The Righteous Among the Nations are defined as non-Jews who risked their lives to help save Jews during the Shoah.

Princess Alice was a member of the Greek Royal Family through her marriage to Prince Andrew of Greece and Denmark in 1903. Having become estranged from her husband over the course of the 1930s, the Princess spent the years of second World War living in Athens, while most of the Greek royals remained in exile in South Africa.

Her position was somewhat precarious, her son Prince Philip was in the British Royal Navy, fighting with the Allies, while two of her sons-in-law, Prince Christoph of Hesse and Berthold, Margrave of Baden, were on the German side.

During the war, Princess Alice focused her efforts on working with the Red Cross to assist the poor, helping to organize soup kitchens and shelters for orphaned children. During the German occupation of Athens, Princess Alice hid Jewish widow Rachel Cohen and two of her five children, who were hiding from the Gestapo to avoid deportation. The Greek Royal Family had been well acquainted with the Cohen family, particularly with Rachel’s late husband, Haimaki, a former member of the Greek Parliament. With the threat of German occupation looming, the family’s four sons wanted to cross to Egypt, and join the Greek government in exile in Cairo. The trip proved too hazardous for Rachel and her daughter. Princess Alice heard of the family’s plight and offered to shelter Rachel and her daughter at her home. They were later joined by another son who was unable to make the journey to Egypt and had to return to Athens.

The Cohens hid in Princess Alice’s residence until liberation. There were times when the Germans became suspicious, and Princess Alice was even interviewed by the Gestapo. Using her deafness, she played dumb and pretended not to understand their questions until they left her alone.

After the war, Princess Alice remained in Greece and continued to be involved in many charitable initiatives, and went on to found a nursing order of Greek Orthodox nuns, the Christian Sisterhood of Martha and Mary. She left the country for good after the Colonels’ coup in April 1967, and went to live in Britain with her son and daughter-in-law, Prince Philip and the Queen. She died at Buckingham Palace on 5 December 1969, aged 84, and is buried at the convent of Saint Mary Magdalene on the Mount of Olives in Jerusalem, alongside her aunt, Grand Duchess Elizabeth Fyodorovna.

The risks taken by Princess Alice in giving refuge to the Cohen family were recognized on 31 October 1994, in a ceremony at Yad Vashem, the Holocaust memorial in Jerusalem. Her two surviving children, the Duke of Edinburgh and Princess George of Hanover (Princess Sophie of Greece and Denmark) were present. Prince Philip spoke briefly at the ceremony and said of his mother’s wartime actions: “I suspect that it never occurred to her that her action was in any way special. She was a person with a deep religious faith, and she would have considered it to be a perfectly natural human reaction to fellow beings in distress”.

The Righteous Among the Nations Avenue inside the Yad Vashem complex in Jerusalem (via Wikimedia Commons).

The Righteous Among the Nations Avenue inside the Yad Vashem complex in Jerusalem (via Wikimedia Commons).

Princess Alice is not the only royal to be recognized as a Righteous Among the Nations: the Queen Mother of Romania and Queen Elisabeth of Belgium have been similarly honoured.

The British Goverment also recognized the Princess’ wartime actions, naming her a Hero of the Holocaust in 2010.

The Prince of Wales most recently visited his grandmother’s grave when he was in Jerusalem to attend the funeral of former Israeli President Shimon Peres on 30 September 2016.

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