Princess Alice of Battenberg, born in 1885 at Windsor Castle, was a great-granddaughter of Queen Victoria, and raised as an English princess, although both her parents were German.
As a young child, Alice was diagnosed with congenital deafness. By age eight, she became a fluent lip reader in five languages and could speak clearly. Her handicap may have made her extra sensitive to the underprivileged and outcast.
Alice grew into a beautiful young woman. In 1902, at the coronation of King Edward VII, she met Prince Andrew, a younger son of the King of Greece, and they were soon married.
By 1914 they had four daughters. A revolution took place in Greece and, soon after Prince Philip was born in 1921, the Greek royal family was exiled. They escaped on a British warship and arrived in Paris as refugees, living on handouts from relatives. The strain greatly affected Alice’s mental state and, as a result, her deep religious beliefs grew more eccentric. Eventually she was diagnosed with schizophrenia and was admitted to a Swiss sanatorium.
She remained a virtual prisoner in the sanatorium for two-and-a-half years. Although the couple never divorced, Alice was effectively abandoned by Prince Andrew, who went to live on the French Riviera.
When Alice was released in 1932, she became a lonely drifter, staying in modest German hotels.
Mother and son were not to meet again until tragic circumstances reunited them in 1937 at the funeral of Philip’s sister Cecile, who died in a plane crash.
Alice hoped that Philip, now 16, would come to live in Athens – the Greek monarchy had been restored in 1935. However, Philip’s future lay in the Royal Navy. By 1941, Alice was stranded in Nazi-occupied Greece.
She lived in the palace of her brother-in-law, Prince George of Greece, and worked with the Swedish and Swiss Red Cross. She found herself in the difficult situation of having sons-in-law fighting on the German side and her son, the future Prince Philip, in the British Royal Navy. Her brother, Lord Mountbatten, sent her food parcels which she distributed to the needy.
The Greek royal family had been well acquainted with the family of Haimaki Cohen, a Jewish former member of Parliament, from northern Greece. In 1941, when Germany invaded Greece, the family fled to Athens – then still under Italian rule, where the anti-Jewish policy was more moderate. However, the period of relative safety lasted only until September 1943, when following Italy’s surrender to the Allies, the Germans occupied Athens and the hunt for Jews began. By that time Haimaki Cohen had died. His widow, Rachel, and her five children were looking for a place of refuge. The family’s four sons wanted to cross to Egypt, and join the Greek government in exile that was in Cairo. But the trip proved too hazardous for Rachel and their sister. Princess Alice, hearing of the family’s desperate situation, offered to shelter Rachel and her daughter, Tilde, at her home. They were later joined by another son who had to return to Athens.
The Cohens stayed there until liberation. There were times when the Germans became suspicious, and Princess Alice was interviewed by the Gestapo. Using her deafness as an excuse, she pretended not to understand their questions until they left her alone.
After the war, Princess Alice founded a convent and orphanage in a poor suburb of Athens and became a nun.
When a Greek military coup took place in 1967, Alice refused to leave Athens. Then Prince Philip sent a plane, with a special request from the Queen, to bring her home. She spent the rest of her life at Buckingham Palace.
She died in London in December 1969, at the age of 84. Shortly before her death, Princess Alice expressed a desire to be buried in Jerusalem, next to her aunt, Grand Duchess Elizabeth Fyodorovna of Russia who, like Princess Alice, had become a nun and founded a convent.
In 1988, nineteen years after her death, her coffin was transferred to the crypt in Gethsemane on the Mount of Olives in Jerusalem.
In 1993, Yad Vashem bestowed the title of Righteous Among the Nations on Princess Alice. A year later, her children, Prince Philip and Princess George of Hanover, traveled to Yad Vashem and planted the tree in her honor. During the ceremony, Prince Philip said:
“We did not know, and, as far as we know, she never mentioned to anyone, that she had given refuge to the Cohen family at a time when all Jews in Athens were in great danger of being arrested and transported to the concentration camps. In retrospect, this reticence may seem strange, but 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.”
In October 2016, after Prince Charles flew to Israel for the funeral of Shimon Peres, he visited his grandmother’s grave and placed flowers upon it from his garden.
It seems appropriate that this brave unusual woman is buried in such an esteemed location on the Mount of Olives.