How Prince Philip's mum risked her life to hide three members of a Jewish family and save them from Nazi death camps
THE colourful life of Prince Philip’s mother Princess Alice, who was born deaf, spent time in a mental institution and finally became a nun, is well-documented.
But one lesser known story, of how she risked her own life to save a Jewish family from the Holocaust, shows her immense courage in the face of danger.
The British princess, who was married to a Greek Prince and living in Athens, gave shelter to widow Rachel Cohen and two of her children, Tilde and Michel, during the Nazi occupation of Greece.
She saved them from the death camps that saw the majority of the country’s 60,000 Jews murdered.
Between April and May, 1943, 55,000 Jews were taken directly to the Auschwitz concentration camp with 42,000 immediately sent to the gas chambers.
In 1994, Prince Philip – who died last Friday at the age of 99 – paid tribute to his mum on a visit to Jerusalem as he accepted the Righteous Among the Nations award, a rare honour for non-Jews who had taken extraordinary risks to save Jews during the Holocaust.
He revealed the stoical Princess had never spoken about her quest to save the Cohens, adding: “I suspect that it never occurred to her that her action was in any way special. She would have considered it to be a perfectly natural human reaction to fellow beings in distress.”
But Rachel’s granddaughter, Evy Cohen, says Alice's selfless act saved their entire family, not just the three she sheltered.
“My family would not exist without the courageous act of Princess Alice,” she tells The Sun.
“My father and his two brothers would not have fled Greece unless they’d known the others were safe, so she saved them all.
“Princess Alice’s story of incredible courage must keep being told in her memory.”
Women seek refuge as men flee for Egypt
The granddaughter of Queen Victoria, Princess Alice married Prince Andrew of Greece in 1903 and had four daughters before giving birth to Philip, her only son, in 1921.
By the Second World War, the Princess had split from her husband and was living at the Athens home of her brother-in-law, Prince George of Greece, while working for the Red Cross.
When Germany invaded Greece, in 1941, Haimaki Cohen, a respected member of parliament, fled from the North to Athens, which was still under Italian rule, with his wife Rachel and their five adult children.
By the time the Nazis marched into the Greek capital, two years later, Haimaki had died and the four Cohen boys – Alfred, Elie, Jacques and Michel – hatched a plan to flee to Egypt, where many members of the Greek government were in exile.
Evy’s father Alfred, judging the journey too perilous for his mother and sister, was desperate to find somewhere they could find refuge – until a series of coincidences gave him a solution.
“My father saw, by coincidence, a car with a royal flag and he was surprised because he knew the royals had left Athens, so he enquired and he was told that Princess Alice was in Athens,” says Evy.
Writing later in a memorandum for the Yad Vashem Holocaust Museum in Jerusalem, which bestows the Righteous Among the Nations awards for non-Jews, he said he had a “sleepless night” worrying about a “solution for the ladies.”
Finally, he decided: ‘Simple, the ladies will go and stay with the Princess and we will go to Cairo.”
“Both my father and grandfather had good connections in the political sphere,” explains Evy.
“They decided to contact a lady who they knew played cards with the Princess and ask her to help, and she said she would get back to them in three days.”
On the day they were due to hear, Alfred and Tilde stood outside the palace waiting for news and by coincidence, bumped into the wife of former prime minister, Themistoklis Sofoulis, and told her of their plight.
As they spoke, a door of the royal residence opened and the best friend of Princess Alice’s lady-in-waiting came out, and was introduced by Mrs Sofoulis.
“An hour later, we were informed that Princess Alice would be more than happy to take in my mother and sister,” wrote Patrick.
“Princess Alice couldn’t believe how coincidental it was – she had just given a negative response to the other lady who had offered to be a go-between, fearing that she might not keep the secret.
“The Princess didn’t know how to get in contact with us, to tell us her true intentions.
“The same evening, I took my mother and sister to the back entrance of the palace.”
Fearful that news would leak to Nazi officers, Princess Alice told her 17 staff that Rachel was a former Nanny to her children who were “under threat from Hitler’s regime” and that they should be taken care of.
The two women moved into a small apartment on the third floor, where the Princess frequently visited them for long conversations in French, which she spoke fluently having lived in Paris for many years.
Family hidden from daughters and Nazi husbands
The decision to shelter the family at the royal residence, which was yards from the Gestapo headquarters, came at a huge personal risk to the Princess.
As a mother-of-five, she had close family on both sides of the conflict.
Philip, her only son, had been raised by Louis Mountbatten in England after she was committed to an asylum with schizophrenia, and he was now serving with the Royal Navy while three of her daughters were married to high-ranking Nazi officials.
At one point, when questioned by the Gestapo, the profoundly deaf Princess, an accomplished lipreader, pretended she did not understand what they were saying.
When Rachel’s youngest son, 29-year-old Michel, joined the women after failing to make it to safety with his brothers, they didn’t dare mention his presence to the Princess, as there were no men in the house.
Michel would hide in the kitchen whenever she visited although, after she was finally told, Princess Alice assured Rachel she would have been happy to let him stay.
Princess Alice kept in touch with the family after the war, frequently visiting them in their Athens flat.
But she never spoke about her courageous part in saving their lives.
According to biographer Hugo Vickers, when thanked by a member of the family some years later, “she said sharply that she had only done what she believed to be her duty”.
After the war, Princess Alice became a nun and set up her own religious order.
She died in 1969 and, by her own request, was buried in Jerusalem, on the sacred Mount of Olives.
Evy’s father Alfred began to write the story for the Yad Vashem Holocaust Museum in 1989, but didn’t feel the time was right to submit it, because she was a member of the Royal family.
But after his death, Evy’s mum sent his notes to the committee and, in 1994, Prince Philip travelled to Jerusalem to accept the honour on behalf of his late mum.
Evy, who works as an artist in Paris, was at the ceremony with her mother and uncle Michel, and she also met Prince William on his official trip to Jerusalem in 1998,
“Princess Alice very much deserves the honour and it was very moving for me to express on behalf of my family our eternal gratitude to Princess Alice and her descendants for her great act of courage which led to the saving of the entire Haimaki Cohen family,” she says.
“My family and I will also do everything we can to ensure her story is told so her kindness and courage is never forgotten.”
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