There’s a long-established ban on the British royal family visiting Israel.
Ever since the Jewish state was founded at the end of the British Mandate, either Britain’s foreign office or their royals have determined that an official visit would be inappropriate. Perhaps this is due to the fact that Israel has, technically, always been at war; maybe it’s due to a desire not to antagonize Arab sentiments; or it might be because the royals prefer to visit countries with monarchies—however corrupt—rather than republics.
In any event, no British royal has ever officially visited Israel. But one royal has twice circumnavigated this ban. Each time the foreign office was at pains to emphasize it was a “private” visit, but on two occasions Prince Philip, husband to Queen Elizabeth II, has come to Israel for, indeed, a most personal reason: to visit his mother’s grave.
It might seem strange but the Queen of England’s mother-in-law is buried in Israel, in a small crypt at the Mount of Olives in Jerusalem.
Princess Victoria Alice Elizabeth was born in Windsor Castle, England, in 1885. European royal families being what they are—inbred—the young princess, who was Queen Victoria of England’s great-granddaughter and whose parents were a German prince and princess, was related to most of the continent’s royalty. But although born into great privilege, the young princess also came into the world with congenital deafness. This disability may have engendered in the young girl a compassion for the underdogs and outsiders.
When Princess Alice was 18, like a good daughter of royalty she married a fellow royal, Prince Andrew of Greece. Thereafter Alice Princess of Battenberg’s official title became Princess Andrew of Greece and Denmark. The couple had four daughters and a son but after more than twenty years of marriage, in 1930, the family began to break apart. Prince Andrew left the princess for his mistress, whom he joined on her Mediterranean yacht off Monte Carlo, where he soon became a gambling addict.
Princess Alice was devastated. After a nervous breakdown she was sent to a Swiss sanatorium; meanwhile her daughters had all moved to Germany with their German prince husbands and her son was sent to his grandmother England. It took years of therapy but eventually Princess Alice was well enough to leave Switzerland, whereupon she devoted herself to charitable works.
When World War Two broke out, she was living in an apartment in her brother-in-law’s palace in Athens. The situation was uncomfortable—not only was she living alongside the brother of the man who left her, but her son was fighting for the British while her daughters’ husbands were all fighting for the Germans.
One day, Princess Alice, who was working with the Swedish and Swiss Red Cross, received word from a Jewish family who needed her help. The Greek royals knew the family of Haimaki Cohen—in 1913, the Jewish former member of parliament from the north of Greece had housed the royals during a flood. In return, the king had offered to help the Cohens. Now was the time. Although Haimaki died early in the war, his widow Rachel and their five children were, like every other Greek Jew, in peril. Remembering the royal offer, Haimaki and Rachel’s eldest son Freddy contacted Alice.
While Freddy and his brothers planned to cross the Aegean Sea into Egypt to join the Greek Free Forces fighting the Nazis, he worried that his mother and sister, Tilde, would not be able to make the trip. So he called in the promised favor. The princess accepted and in October 1943, Rachel Cohen, her son Michel and Tilde moved into the top floor of the princess’s home. The Cohens remained there until liberation. When the Gestapo came to the apartment, Princess Alice used her deafness as an excuse not to understand them, and the Germans left the house unsearched.
Although the Cohens survived until liberation in 1944, theirs was a most exceptional story. The vast majority of Greek Jews were murdered. In Salonika, home to the country’s largest community, more than 45,000 Jews were deported to Auschwitz in the summer of 1943. Only 300 escaped deportation. By the end of the war, approximately 65,000 of the 75,000 Jews in Greece had been killed.
A deeply religious woman, in 1949 Princess Alice founded her own order of Greek Orthodox nuns, which she named the Christian Sisterhood of Martha and Mary. Dedicating her life to helping the sick and the needy, the princess, who had had five kids, took a vow of celibacy and became known as Sister Andrew. She lived and worked and dressed as a nun, wearing the traditional habit with rosary beads. She lived in isolation on the island of Tinos until 1967, when the Greek army staged a coup d’état and she left for London. Taking up residence in Buckingham Palace, where he son lived, of course, having married the Queen of England, she tied two years later at the age of 84.
Although her life was bookended by birth and death in English royal castles, before dying Princess Alice had made it known that she wished to be buried alongside her aunt, who had also forsaken the life of a princess for that of a nun, in Jerusalem. It took nineteen years, but in 1988 her wish was granted and Princess Alice’s remains were reburied in a crypt on the Mount of Olives.
Five years later, Yad Vashem honored Princess Alice as a “righteous among the nations” for her wartime effort in saving the Cohen family. “I suspect that it never occurred to her that her action was in any way special,” said her son, Prince Philip, at the time. “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.”
It is said that when one of Rachel Cohen’s sons, Jacques, offered the princess his thanks after the war, she replied quite forcefully that she only did her duty; and that the only reason the story of her bravery became known was because a relative of the Cohens suggested a Jerusalem street be named in her honor.
Princess Alice did have a tree at the Holocaust memorial in Jerusalem named in her honor. And so it is that, despite an official royal ban, the capital of Israel is the site where the Queen of England’s mother-in-law is laid to rest, and where her lifesaving deeds during Europe’s darkest hours are officially remembered.