Going on royal tours is part of Prince William’s job. As he essentially serves as an ambassador for the United Kingdom, though, he typically has to keep his own feelings about the places and people he sees to himself. Still, during William’s 2018 trip to Israel, he made a personal visit to a member of his family. And even though the woman in question is hardly a household name, her story is nevertheless a remarkable one.
Family is something that appears to be very important to Prince William. After all, he and his wife Kate Middleton now have three children: Prince George, Princess Charlotte and Prince Louis. But Kate didn’t accompany William on his Israel visit, and for good reason: after having given birth to Louis, she had taken maternity leave.
So, William was solo when he embarked on what would be an historic trip. And prior to the visit, Kensington Palace released a statement saying that the prince “considers it a great privilege to be undertaking the first ever official Royal tour of Israel and the Occupied Palestinian Territories and to be able to help further strengthen the friendship between Jordan and the United Kingdom.”
And while in Israel, William made a stop in Jerusalem to visit the Yad Vashem Holocaust memorial and locations sacred to followers of Christianity, Islam and Judaism. He also met with entrepreneurs and refugees – not to mention the crowds who had come out to see him. President of Israel Reuven Rivlin even called William “a prince and a pilgrim” while the duke was in the country.
But the last day of William’s tour saw him reach a site with some personal significance. There were stops at Temple Mount/Haram al-Sharif, the Western Wall and the Church of the Holy Sepulchre; perhaps none of were as important to the prince, though, as the visit to the Church of Mary Magdalene – where Princess Alice, his great-grandmother, is buried.
Princess Alice of Battenberg was Prince Philip’s mother and thus William’s great-grandmother. She was born in 1885 and would ultimately live through both world wars to the age of 84. And while Alice’s name is certainly not as well known as her son’s, she is nevertheless one of the most fascinating and accomplished royals in modern history.
Furthermore, Alice had specifically requested that she be buried at Jerusalem’s Church of Mary Magdalene – despite having been born in Britain. That would mean she would be near the final resting place of her aunt, the Grand-Duchess Elizabeth Feodorovna of Russia, who is officially a martyred saint. In 1988, then – and nearly 20 years after the princess’ death – Alice’s wish was granted.
And when William visited his great-grandmother’s grave, he consumed bread and salt at the church door – in accordance with Russian Orthodox custom. Then he placed flowers on Alice’s crypt and joined in a “prayer for the repose of [her] soul” with Archimandrite Roman, the leader of the Russian Orthodox Ecclesiastical Mission in Jerusalem.
Father Roman told the media afterwards, “[William] said he found [the visit] profoundly moving. He was certainly moved to learn more about his family history and pay his respects to his great-grandmother in such a holy place.” The priest added, “Because this is the personal part of [William’s] visit, this is his family. Everything else on this trip has been so official and public, [and] this was half an hour of totally personal peace.”
That particular aspect of William’s family history is rather remarkable, too. Despite her status as a princess, Alice’s life was not easy. From the age of eight, she was deaf, although she eventually learned how to lip-read. Then, in 1903 she married Prince Andrew of Greece in 1903 and gave him five children; the relationship was not a happy one, however.
And things went from bad to worse for Alice when she suffered a nervous breakdown. In 1930 the princess was then placed in a sanatorium in Switzerland – ostensibly for the treatment of schizophrenia. Sigmund Freud served as a consultant at the facility, however, and he recommended a treatment that would no doubt horrify mental health professionals today. Alice’s ovaries should be X-rayed, Freud said, to destroy her libido.
That wasn’t the end of Alice’s heartbreak, however, as in 1937 her daughter Cecilie was killed in a plane crash. By that point her entire family had split apart, and she hadn’t seen her husband in over half a decade. Then, when World War II started, she had sons-in-law pledging their support to the Nazis and a son – Philip – fighting for the British. But at that same time, knowing the plight of Jews during the war, she decided to do something very brave.
In 1943 Alice was asked to hide a Jewish woman, Rachel Cohen, and two of her five children from the Nazis in Greece – a mission she agreed to take on. For over a year, in fact, the princess hid the family and provided food and shelter for them. And when the Gestapo questioned Alice, she pretended that she couldn’t understand them due to being deaf.
And, arguably, Alice’s actions saved the trio’s lives; Rachel’s granddaughter, Evy, certainly thinks so. “My family would not exist without the courageous act of Princess Alice,” she told the Daily Mirror in June 2018. What’s more, talking to the great-grandson of the woman who had ensured her own existence had been a huge moment for Evy.
“Meeting Prince William was so emotional I kept losing my words,” Evy went on. “We met in the Prime Minister [of Israel]’s residency. We gave Prince William a photograph showing his great-grandfather Prince Andrew and great-great-grandfather King George I of Greece [as well as] my own grandparents. He was very touched.”
Evy also told the Daily Mirror that her relatives would almost certainly have been wiped out by the Nazis if they had been caught. She explained, “My family did not know that then, but, of course, [they] knew they were in great danger. Somehow, they contacted Princess Alice. And she took them into small apartments, [where] only a handful of trusted people knew they were there. It was an incredibly courageous act.”
And while Rachel’s three older sons ultimately fled Nazi-occupied Greece for Egypt, Evy has credited Alice with their salvation too. “As well as saving my grandmother, aunt and uncle, she saved my dad and his two brothers, because they would not have fled Greece unless they’d known the others were safe,” the woman told the Daily Mirror.
Then, in October 1994 a ceremony was held at Yad Vashem celebrating Alice as “Righteous Among the Nations.” Prince Philip attended, and according to The New York Times he said, “I suspect that it never occurred to [my mother] 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.”
Alice was also made a British “Hero of the Holocaust” in 2010, alongside several other people who had put their lives at risk to shelter or assist Jews. “These individuals are true British heroes and a source of national pride for all of us,” U.K. Prime Minister Gordon Brown said at the time. “They were shining beacons of hope in the midst of terrible evil because they were prepared to take a stand against prejudice, hatred and intolerance.”
Meanwhile, Evy told the Daily Mirror, “It was very moving for me to know [that Alice’s] great-great grandson appreciates what [Alice] did. My family and I will also do everything we can to ensure her story is told so [that] her kindness and courage is never forgotten.” And Prince William will almost certainly ensure that his great-grandmother’s legacy isn’t missing from the history books too.