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From the heroic actions of Prince Philip’s mother – who saved a Jewish family in Nazi-occupied Greece – to Prince Charles’s efforts today, on Holocaust Memorial Day, to keep the memory of survivors alive, the relationship between the Royal family and British Jews runs deeper than the odd speech or plaque unveiling. It’s a connection between the Crown and a community that has been embedded in the fabric of Jewish cultural life in Britain for generations and which still matters a great deal to British Jews in 2022.
This week, the Prince of Wales unveiled a “living memorial” of seven portraits of Britain’s remaining Holocaust survivors. They will remain in the Royal collection as a way to honour “the six million innocent men, women and children whose stories will never be told, whose portraits will never be painted”.
Unveiling the portraits, the Prince met 98-year-old Lily Ebert, who showed him the tattoo forced on her in Auschwitz, telling him: “Meeting you, it is for everyone who lost their lives”.
The Prince insisted: “But it is a greater privilege for me.”
For Rabbi Jonathan Romain, a historian and writer, the relationship between the Crown and the Jewish community in Britain is vitally important. Monarchy, he says, has been a “symbol of stability” for Jews in this country for centuries. As Jews fled to the UK in search of safety over successive waves of immigration “whether it was in the 1850s from central Europe, or the 1880s from Russia, Poland and Eastern Europe, the 1930s from Nazi Germany and Austria”, Romain says the monarchy has always been steadfast in its efforts to welcome Jews to Britain. “There has been a very strong sense of Britain opening its doors and being welcoming and actually, despite the hiccups here and there, being a very tolerant society,” he says.
“Yes there have been some hiccups, with Corbyn recently and every now and then you get an anti-Semitic incident, but by and large, I think most Jews would say this is one of the best countries, maybe in the top two or three in the world, for Jews to be in, feel at home, live at ease, and be part of society and very integrated into the wider community. That is all represented by the monarchy.”
Indeed, the Duke of Cambridge’s historic trip to Israel in 2018 was the first official visit by a member of the Royal family.
Karen Pollock, chief executive of the Holocaust Educational Trust, recalls first being aware of the connection between her faith and the Royal family as a child. “In shul in the children’s service and in the main service, you had an opportunity for two prayers that were read in English and in Hebrew, one for the wellbeing of the Royal family and one for the State of Israel. It’s ingrained that that is what we do and it’s something that we’re very proud to do.” Jews also include the Crown in their celebrations, toasting the Queen and the Royal family at weddings and bar mitzvahs, in the same breath as the president of the state of Israel.
All this is symbolic, says Pollock, of Jews feeling “very much accepted and part of the fabric of British society”.
When Princess Margaret visited Maidenhead synagogue in 1990 for its Golden Jubilee service, she was struck by the inclusion of a prayer asking God to sustain the good health and wise counsel of the Queen. The service marked 50 years since a Jewish community first began to grow in the area, the same year that the young princesses were evacuated to nearby Windsor ahead of the Blitz. But the prayer wasn’t for Princess Margaret’s benefit, she was told – rather, it was a permanent feature of the Sabbath service at synagogues up and down the country.
“Oh I never knew that; how nice,” she remarked, noting the Church didn’t do the same on a Sunday. “I’ll tell my sister.”
It will remain a secret as to whether the message was relayed (though you’d imagine it might not have been news to the Queen), but it is by no means through force of habit that a weekly prayer is still said for the Queen in British synagogues 70 years after her accession to the throne.
When it comes to maintaining that sense of acceptance and belonging, the Royal family “lead from the top”, says Romain, “[...] other countries, perhaps, haven’t had such a very clear, simple signal in a very understated but powerful way”.
It’s thanks to the Queen’s leadership, says Romain, that the Church of England, of which she is the head, has always extended the hand of friendship to the British Jewish community.
The church has “led the way in interfaith dialogue [...] has always been very welcoming and took its signal from the monarchy in saying this is the right way,” says Romain, adding that small cultural shifts over the years, like the Queen’s Christmas broadcast becoming more multi-faith, mean a lot.
Prince Charles, who once described his ties with the Jewish community as coming “directly into the heart of my own family” is also an important ally. He inherited the patronage of the Holocaust Memorial Day Trust from the Queen, and in a speech in 2019 spoke of his great pride at the “special and precious” connection between his family and the Jewish community. When the Chief Rabbi Jonathan Sacks died in November 2020, Charles movingly spoke of his “irreplaceable loss”, adding: “I’ll miss him more than words can say.”
Last year, the Prince wrote the foreword for a memoir written by Lily Ebert, one of the survivors whose portrait was unveiled today. Earlier this month he commissioned seven artists to paint portraits of Holocaust survivors, saying his “abiding hope” was that this collection will inspire future generations as the number of survivors “sadly but inevitably declines”.
Charles has spoken in the past of his pride that his grandmother, Princess Alice, is buried in Jerusalem. “She is counted one of the Righteous among the Nations for her actions in 1943 when, in Nazi-occupied Athens, she saved a Jewish family by taking them into her home and hiding them,” the Prince told a reception honouring the Jewish community in 2019.
“My grandmother was a formidable lady. When she announced her intention of being buried in Jerusalem, we all wondered how on Earth we were going to be able to visit her grave.
“She answered: ‘That’s perfectly alright; there’s a very good bus service from Athens.’”
Stories like that of Princess Alice are more than just stories, says Pollock, adding that it matters hugely to the community that Holocaust survivors have been honoured by the Queen. “All of these things mean so much [...] There’s a survivor who passed away many years ago called Paul Oppenheimer who wrote a book called From Belsen to Buckingham Palace. The idea that he would have thought as a child survivor of the Holocaust that one day not only would he be living in this country, speaking English, but to then be honoured by the Queen is an extraordinary thing, and not to be underestimated.”
The story of Princess Alice, she says, is still “very, very powerful because it connects us in some way. When Prince William visited Israel he met the grandson of the person that had been saved by Princess Alice.
“I just thought, what an incredible thing. It shows the bond.”
Romain recalls discussing Princess Alice’s heroism with her son, Prince Philip, some years ago. He was, by all accounts, typically self-effacing about the whole affair. “There was a special ceremony to commemorate his mother’s contribution and I gave him a copy of the commemoration service and in typical Prince Philip fashion he said: ‘yes well that’s the sort of thing one does’.
“In fact his mother did more than that, but it was just seen as the right thing to do by her and I think that permeated certainly Prince Philip, who went to a lot of Jewish cultural and religious events, and other members of the Royal family.”
It certainly seems to have filtered through to Philip’s eldest son who today hailed the portraits he has commissioned of Holocaust survivors as a reminder “not only of history’s darkest days, but of humanity’s interconnectedness as we strive to create a better world for our children, grandchildren and generations as yet unborn; one where hope is victorious over despair and love triumphs over hate.”