Following the death of Prince Philip, Duke of Edinburgh, on 9 April 2021, there was much acknowledgment his extraordinary background, life, and work. But amidst these tributes, one particular aspect of Philip’s family history might have escaped public attention was the role of his mother, Princess Alice of Battenberg.
Prince Philip’s Hidden Holocaust History
Philip’s mother, Princess Alice of Battenberg, helped to shelter Jewish refugees in Athens during the Holocaust. In 1993, Yad Vashem – Israel’s national Holocaust museum – conferred the title of ‘Righteous Among the Nations’ on Princess Alice. She also became a British ‘Hero of the Holocaust’ in 2010.
Princess Alice: a life less ordinary
Princess Alice was born at Windsor Castle in 1885. A great-granddaughter of Queen Victoria, Alice was born into a family of Germanic royalty. As a child, Alice was diagnosed with congenital deafness, but nonetheless learned to lip-read and speak.
In 1903, she married Prince Andrew of Greece and Denmark. However, the political situation in Greece became increasingly precarious. The crisis of the First World War resulted in the dramatic abdication of King Constantine I, Alice’s brother-in-law, in 1917. After a spell in exile in Switzerland, and a brief return to Greece, Alice and her family fled to Paris in the early 1920s – including the infant Philip, who had been born in 1921, and was transported in an orange crate as a makeshift cot.
By the time the Second World War broke out in 1939, Alice had returned to Greece, and was living in a large townhouse in central Athens. Greece was occupied by Axis forces in 1941. However, after the fall of Italian leader Benito Mussolini in 1943, the German Army assumed sole control of Athens. In turn, anti-Jewish policy hardened in Greece.
At this point, Alice became aware of the predicament faced by the Cohen family. Haimaki Cohen, the Jewish patriarch of the family, had been a Greek member of Parliament and an associate of the royal family. During the political crises of the 1910s, Haimaki Cohen had been a valued supporter of King George I of Greece, Alice’s father-in-law. By 1943, Haimaki died. His widow Rachel, along with their five children, were in desperate need of protection from Nazi persecution of Jews.
Bravely, Alice offered refuge to the Cohen family in her Athens residence. Until the liberation of Greece in October 1944, the Cohens successfully remained hidden in Alice’s home. By doing so, they escaped the terrible fate of 60,000 Greek Jews who perished in the Holocaust. Evy Cohen, Rachel’s granddaughter, remarked in 2021 that ‘if it wasn’t for Prince Philip’s mother, Princess Alice, my family wouldn’t exist today’.
Princess Alice’s courage was tested repeatedly during the war. Alice’s activities, which included working for the Red Cross and smuggling medical supplies out of Sweden, aroused suspicion from the Nazi authorities. Alice is said to have evaded Gestapo interrogation by citing her deafness, and pretending not to understand their questioning. Alice later revealed in a letter to Prince Philip that in the last week before liberation, she had had nothing to eat except bread and butter, and that there had been no meat for many months. During the fight for control of the capital, Alice insisted on walking the streets amidst the gun battles to hand out rations, much to the dismay of the British forces.
After the war, Alice continued to live a life in service to others by founding the Christian Sisterhood of Mary and Martha, a nursing order of Greek Orthodox nuns. She attended the wedding of her son to Princess Elizabeth in 1947, the future Queen Elizabeth, and later the coronation of Elizabeth whilst wearing a simple dress in the style of a nun’s habit. With her health failing, she left Greece for the last time after the coup of 1967 when she came to reside permanently at Buckingham Palace until her death in 1969. Her wish to be buried on the Mount of Olives in Jerusalem was not realised until 1988.
Expanding the horizons of Holocaust history
Within the framework of Holocaust history, Princess Alice’s story is significant because it expands the geographical boundaries of the Holocaust. The impact of the Holocaust was far from limited to Nazi Germany and Eastern Europe. Rather, it stretched across the globe. The Greek context represents just one example of how the genocide became a shared experience throughout the world.
Princess Alice’s actions also show how the Holocaust was a universal social experience for those involved. It affected every echelon of society. In 1609, the poet John Donne wrote that death touched ‘kings, and desperate men’ alike. Similarly, the Holocaust was a process which drew in both royalty and common people.
Princess Alice’s story further speaks to lesser-explored dimensions of Holocaust memory, and provides an opportunity to diversify the historical frameworks of the genocide. It is evidence that women, as well as men, played a crucial role in Holocaust rescue efforts. There is increasing recognition of the actions performed by women such as Princess Alice, or Jane Haining, a Scottish missionary who died at Auschwitz. Over half those who have been bestowed the award of ‘Righteous Among the Nations’ are women. There is a remarkable range of female stories on show: from the Polish resistance member Irena Sendler, to the Irish rescuer Mary Elmes, to name just a few.
Given the Princess’ deafness, her story is also of significance in the emerging field of disability history. Deaf Awareness Week is marked each May. Princess Alice is just one example of a historical figure who achieved remarkable things whilst balancing the challenges posed by her physical condition.
An enduring legacy
It is perhaps unsurprising that Prince Philip took a special interest in commemorating the Holocaust, given his familial connections to the tragedy. In 1994, Philip symbolically became the first member of the British royal family to travel to Israel, and delivered a powerful speech at Yad Vashem, decrying ‘man’s capacity for inhumanity’. This visit broke several decades of unofficial boycott of Israel by the royal family, which had been prompted in response to Zionist terrorism in the 1940s against occupying British citizens.
As a self-styled ‘refugee prince’, it is possible that Philip felt some form of affinity with the fates of those displaced by the Holocaust. He was a supporter of the activities of organisations such as the Holocaust Educational Trust. Philip said of his mother’s 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.” In 2015, the Queen and Philip paid an emotional visit to the site of the Bergen-Belsen concentration camp, which was liberated by British forces in April 1945. The royal family continue to be heavily involved with Holocaust Education and Memorialisation, with Prince Charles being patron of the Holocaust Educational Trust, and the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge are involved in Holocaust Memorial Day activities.
In the wake of Philip’s death, further anecdotal evidence emerged of the Duke’s contribution to British Holocaust education. Lord Daniel Finkelstein recounted how Philip had thrown his weight behind crucial efforts to support the Wiener Holocaust Library in London, founded by Finkelstein’s grandfather in 1933.
A chance to reflect
The recent passing of the Duke of Edinburgh has offered an opportunity to reflect on the extraordinary life story of the man who served as Consort for nearly 70 years. Unknown connections, such as the one between Princess Alice and Prince Philip, show how unexpected transnational and trans-social links can be found. Although the main events of the Holocaust might have taken place in continental Europe, there are numerous threads which tie the genocide to the history of Britain. The impact of Princess Alice’s courageous actions is still felt today, and lives on through the continued commitment of the royal family to commemorate the Holocaust.
Daniel Adamson is a PhD student at Durham University. His research centres on British Holocaust education.