Princess Alice of Battenberg

The Princess in 1922
The Royal Collection © 2012, Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II

In August 1943 over 45,000 Jews were deported from Salonika to Auschwitz-Birkenhau. About 300 managed to avoid deportation, many of them escaping to the mountains.

It was in this time that the estranged Princess Alice was contacted through a mutual friend by Freddy Cohen. Freddy’s father, Haimaki, had housed the Greek Royal family during a flood in 1913 and in return King George I had offered his services to the Cohen family whenever it may be needed. Haimaki died at the beginning of the war, leaving a widow, Rachel, and five children. It was his eldest son, Freddy, who remembered the promise of King George and tracked down one of the monarch’s only living descendants, Alice. On 15th October 1943, Rachel Cohen and two of her children, Michel and Tilda, found refuge in the top floor of Alice’s Athens apartment. Rachel’s other three sons escaped across the Aegean Sea where they joined the Greek Free Forces in Egypt.

Alice was approached by the Gestapo who wanted to know who was living in her apartment but she used her lifelong deafness as a weapon and told them that she could not hear them. The Gestapo let her be and the Cohen’s continued to live in Alice’s apartment until liberation in 1944. But living conditions had not been easy. Harold Macmillan described the princess as ‘living in humble, not to say somewhat squalid conditions’. According to a letter she wrote to her son, Prince Philip, in the last week before liberation she had eaten nothing but bread and butter and had had no meat for several months. Yet, when Jacques Cohen, one of Rachel’s sons, tried to thank her later in Rome, she sternly told him that she was only doing what she believed to be her duty.

On 11th April 1993, Princess Alice was posthumously awarded ‘Righteous Among the Nations’ which recognised that she had ‘risked her life to save persecuted Jews’. On 31st October 1994, this was received by Prince Philip who said at the ceremony, ‘I suspect that it never occurred to her that her action was in any way special. She was a person with deep religious faith and she would have considered it to be a totally human action to fellow human beings in distress.’

This story was submitted by Kirsty Walters, a Young Volunteer at The Wiener Library.