Charles, Prince of Wales, who visited Israel this week for former President Shimon Peres' funeral, took the opportunity to see to some family business. After the event Friday at Jerusalem's Mount Herzl, he continued on to another mountain in the eastern part of the capital – the Mount of Olives. There, in the Church of Mary Magdalene, he paid a secret visit to the grave of his paternal grandmother.
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- The Church of Mary Magdalene
Princess Alice of Battenberg is the mother of Charles' father Prince Philip, Duke of Edinburgh, the longest serving royal consort in British history. Princess Alice – also known as Princess Andrew of Greece and Denmark – is a remarkable historical figure in her own right: She was recognized as a member of the Righteous Among the Nations for rescuing a Greek Jewish family during the Holocaust.
Charles' visit to the grave went unreported in the Israeli media, and neither his Facebook page nor his press team released a statement about it. But a number of images from the village have found their way online in recent days, mostly on the social media accounts of people working with the church.
The visit's sensitivity stems from restrictions imposed by the British royal house on official visits to Israel. While members of the royal family have traveled to Israel, their visits have been primarily defined as private, with the exception being trips for state funerals, which do not include diplomatic meetings. The British Embassy said Monday that Charles' attendance at Peres' funeral constituted an official visit. "The Prince of Wales' official overseas visits are made at the request of the British Government," the embassy said. "On his visit on the occasion of President Peres' funeral, like on all occasions, the Prince was representing the British Government."
There's another thorny issue: The burial site is in East Jerusalem, which Israel captured during the Six-Day War and later annexed, but Britain does not recognize it as part of Israel.
In the past, Charles' father Prince Philip, the Duke of Edinburgh, also visited Israel to tour Yad Vashem, where a tree was planted in honor of Princess Alice, his mother.
Who was Princess Alice?
Princess Alice was born in 1885 and was a great-granddaughter of Queen Victoria. She was deaf from birth and was later diagnosed as schizophrenic. In 1903 she married Prince Andrew of Greece and the couple had five children — a son and four daughters. The son is Prince Philip - the Duke of Edinburgh, the husband of the United Kingdom’s Queen Elizabeth II and the father of Prince Charles.
During World War II, Alice lived in Athens, which was occupied by the Nazis in 1943. “She found herself in the difficult situation,” notes the Yad Vashem website, “of having sons-in-law fighting on the German side and a son (the future Prince Philip) in the British Royal Navy." In 1993 she was recognized as a Righteous Gentile. The story began with an old friendship between the Greek royal family, to which her husband belonged, and the family of Haimaki Cohen, a Jew who had been a member of the Greek Parliament. In 1943 his widow, Rachel, and her children sought refuge from the Nazis.
“Princess Alice heard of the family's desperate situation and offered to shelter Rachel and her daughter, Tilde, at her home. They were later joined by another son,” according to Yad Vashem. The Cohen’s remained under the protection of Princess Alice until the liberation of Greece. Several times the Gestapo suspected the princess and even questioned her but she used her deafness in order to pretend that she didn’t understand her interrogator’s questions.
At this point her story touches that of Shimon Peres’ father, Yitzhak Perski. Perski, who immigrated to Mandatory Palestine from Poland in 1932, enlisted in the British Army in 1939 and set out to fight the Nazis. In 1941, like many others, he was taken prisoner by the Germans in Greece but he managed to escape and was hidden by Greek monks. Subsequently, his story was full of escapes and arrests and included a part in an amazing rescue of hundreds of Jews from Auschwitz that was organized by his fellow prisoner of war, Charles Coward (“the Count of Auschwitz"), who also eventually received the title of Righteous Gentile from Yad Vashem.
Back to Alice, Charles’ grandmother: In 1949 she founded an order of Greek Orthodox nuns and withdrew from the world to live on the Greek island of Tinos. However, in the wake of the colonels’ coup d’état in Greece in 1967, she moved to London. Two years later she died at Buckingham Palace. In 1988, in accordance with her express wish, her bones were brought to Israel and reinterred at the Church of Maria Magdalena on the Mount of Olives in Jerusalem. She was laid to rest alongside her aunt Grand Duchess Elizaveta Feodorovna, who was killed in the Bolshevik Revolution in Russia.