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William’s act of faith in holy city

The Duke of Cambridge during a visit to the Western Wall in Jerusalem's Old City, as part of his tour of the Middle East.
The Duke of Cambridge during a visit to the Western Wall in Jerusalem's Old City, as part of his tour of the Middle East.
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It had a different ending, yet the story was as harrowing and as dangerous as that of Anne Frank’s family – except that in this case, it was the Duke of Edinburgh’s mother who hid the fugitives.

Princess Alice of Battenberg, a Red Cross worker who ran soup kitchens for the starving of occupied Athens, hid a Jewish widow named Rachel Cohen and two of her five children from the Gestapo, to avoid deportation the death camps. Yesterday, her great grandson made a poignant pilgrimage in her honour.

Alice was formally recognised by the State of Israel for her bravery in harbouring a Jewish family, and on the last day of his historic, five-day tour of the Middle East, Prince William visited her tomb.

It was a day of powerful emotion and political symbolism. At the Western Wall, the holiest site in Judaism and the last remnant of Herod’s temple, William followed the centuries-old tradition of placing a written prayer in a crack in the cement.

It was, said the Chief Rabbi, Ephraim Mirvis, who had joined the Duke at the site, “a moment of history which will live long in the memory”.

He added: “To see the future monarch come to pay his respects was a remarkable gesture of friendship and a sign of the Duke’s regard for the sanctity of Jerusalem.”

Earlier this week, William had met Mrs Cohen’s descendants, Evy and Philippe Cohen. And yesterday, he went to St Mary Magdalene, a Russian orthodox church on Jerusalem’s Mount of Olives, where the remains of the princess were moved in 1988.

A nun for many years, Alice, who was married to Prince Andrew of Greece, died in 1969 and had first been laid to rest in St George’s Chapel at Windsor Castle. But it was her wish to be interred near her aunt Elizabeth, the Grand Duchess of Russia.

At the entrance to the church, in keeping with Russian Orthodox tradition, William took bread and salt. Inside, he made his way down steps to the princess’s crypt, where he laid flowers, picked from the garden of Philip Hall, Britain’s Consul General in Jerusalem.

Archimandrite Roman, Father Roman, head of the Russian Ecclesiastical Mission in Jerusalem, said the Duke had found the experience “profoundly moving”.

“He was certainly moved to learn more about his family history and pay his respects to his great-grandmother in such a holy place,” he said.

Alice was declared “Righteous Among the Nations” by Israel for protecting Mrs Cohen and her family, and, during a speech this week, William said of his great-grandmother: “Her story is a matter of great pride for my whole family.”

Later, the Duke visited Temple Mount, one of the world’s most contested religious sites, important to both Jews and Muslims, and a touchstone for religious tension through the centuries. Muslims believe it was the site of the Prophet Muhammad’s ascent to heaven in the seventh century, while for Jews it was where Abraham was instructed by God to sacrifice his son as a test of faith.

At the holiest site in the Christian world, the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem, where Jesus is believed to have been crucified, William lit a candle. There he saw the Stone of the Anointing, where according to tradition Jesus’s body was laid out for anointing by Joseph of Arimathea.

As a mark of respect, he knelt down and laid a hand on the stone.