Prince Philip, who has died at 99, was perhaps the closest member of the British royal family to Jews and Jewish causes, and in 1994 made a historic visit to Israel. Although the trip was a personal one, made to honor his mother, Princess Alice of Greece, who is buried on the Mount of Olives in Jerusalem, it marked the end of an unofficial boycott of the Jewish state by the British monarchy. His grandson Prince William made the first official royal visit in 2018.
Buckingham Palace announced the prince’s death on Friday. Philip — who was married to Queen Elizabeth II for 74 years, predating her ascent to the throne by five years — had been in declining health for some time.
The prince, also known as the Duke of Edinburgh, came to Israel in 1994 to accept Yad Vashem’s recognition of his mother as one of fewer than 30,000 “righteous among the nations,” for saving three members of a Jewish family during the Nazi occupation of Greece. He visited her burial site, met with members of the Cohen family she had hidden in her Athens palace, and met too with Jewish veterans of World War II.
Philip’s four sisters each married German nobles, at least three of whom became Nazis
Philip’s four sisters each married German nobles, at least three of whom became Nazis. But Philip, educated in Britain, joined the allied war effort. As an adult, he showed little patience for Nazi collaborators; he was instrumental in making a pariah of his wife’s uncle Edward, who after abdicating the throne dallied with Nazi Germany. And his support for Jewish and pro-Israel causes ran deep.
Philip over the years spoke multiple times at Jewish and pro-Israel events. He had a passion for environmental preservation, addressed several Jewish National Fund gatherings, and lent his royal sponsorship to other Jewish causes. He came under attack in the 1960s for speaking to pro-Israel groups, and, famously impervious to criticism, ignored it.
Princess Alice and the Cohen family
Prince Philip flew into Ben Gurion Airport in October 1994 in a private plane, with his older sister, Princess Sophie. He was welcomed by Israel’s education minister, Amnon Rubinstein, and was hosted during the trip by then-president Ezer Weizman.
At Yad Vashem, Israel’s Holocaust Museum, Philip planted a maple tree in memory of his mother, who was married to Prince Andrew of Greece and helped shelter three members of the family of a late Greek-Jewish politician in her palace in Athens.
The Gestapo was suspicious of Alice, even questioning her, but the princess, who was deaf, pretended not to understand their questions
The Gestapo was suspicious of Alice, even questioning her, but the princess, who was deaf, pretended not to understand their questions. She hid the Cohen family members — Rachel Cohen and two of her five children — for 13 months during the Nazi occupation of Greece. Alice later became a nun.
On his visit, Philip met with members of the Cohen family his mother had hidden.
“The Holocaust was the most horrific event in all Jewish history, and it will remain in the memory of all future generations,” Philip said at the time.
It is a very generous gesture that also remembered here [at Yad Vashem] are the many millions of non-Jews, like my mother, who shared in your pain and anguish and did what they could in small ways to alleviate the horror
“It is, therefore, a very generous gesture that also remembered here are the many millions of non-Jews, like my mother, who shared in your pain and anguish and did what they could in small ways to alleviate the horror.”
“God brings everything we do to judgment,” the prince wrote in the visitors’ book at Yad Vashem.
In September of 1943, members of the Cohen family, from the Greek town of Trikala, appealed to Princess Alice for refuge. An acquaintance of theirs, she took them in and hid them until the Nazis withdrew in October 1944.
The story was not known until 1992, when Michel Cohen, then 78, told officials at Yad Vashem of how he, his mother and sister were saved by the princess.
The surviving members of the Cohen family now live in France. They flew to Israel to attend the 1994 ceremony.
Prior to the ceremony, Philip visited the crypt in the Church of St. Mary Magdalene on the Mount of Olives, where his mother’s coffin lies. Princess Alice died in 1969. In 1988, she was reinterred at the Russian Orthodox church in accordance with her dying wishes.
‘Replace that stone’
During Philip’s visit to Israel, he also met with Jewish veterans who had fought with the British in World War II and laid a wreath at the Commonwealth war graves cemetery in the city of Ramle during a memorial service for British troops who fell in both world wars.
“The only words that could be heard from the Duke of Edinburgh at the cemetery were directed at a British official escorting him,” the UPI news agency reported. “‘There’s a crack in that stone. It needs to be replaced,’ the prince said sternly. ‘Yes, of course,’ the official responded.”
The 1994 visit broke with what was then an unofficial but nonetheless binding ban on royals traveling to Israel, which had been enforced following violence by Zionist fighters against British targets in the years that predated the establishment of the State of Israel in what had been before 1948 the British Mandate over Palestine.
During his stay, Philip stayed in the King David Hotel, which was bombed by the Jewish underground during the British mandate.
As UPI put it, he was “the first member of the royal family to visit Israel since the Jewish state shed colonial rule.”
His family followed
For all its trappings, Philip’s 1994 visit was in a personal capacity. The royal family only changed its policy on official visits to Israel almost a quarter of a century later, in 2018, when Prince William, Prince Philip’s grandson, visited Israel, the Palestinian Authority and Jordan. During that trip, William visited Princess Alice’s tomb.
Philip’s son Prince Charles subsequently also made a visit to the tomb of Princess Alice, in January 2020, when he visited Israel to attend the World Holocaust Forum, which was attended by dozens of other world leaders and coincided with the 75th anniversary of the liberation of the Auschwitz death camp.
Philip’s retirement from public life in 2017 triggered an outpouring of plaudits for a life well-lived from Israeli and Jewish groups and leaders.
Those groups expressed grief upon his death Friday.
UK Chief Rabbi Ephraim Mirvis sent the “most profound condolences” on behalf of Jews in the Commonwealth. “I enjoyed immensely my personal conversations with the Duke of Edinburgh, during which I was deeply moved by his extraordinary sense of duty. A remarkable Royal, working well into his 90s, he became a role model for staying active in one’s later years and demonstrated an unwavering sense of responsibility to our country,” Mirvis said.
He added: “We remember the Duke’s interaction with, and affection for, the Jewish community in the UK and his connection with Israel, where his mother is buried and which he visited in 1994.”
Israel’s President Reuven Rivlin joined dozens of other heads of state who expressed their sympathies. Rivlin used the traditional Jewish phrase when speaking about a deceased person, ending his tweet about Philip with “May his memory be a blessing.”
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