Kate Middleton and Prince William made a poignant tribute to the millions of lives lost during the Holocaust as they attended the U.K. Holocaust Memorial Day Commemorative Ceremony in London on Monday.
The royal couple stepped out for the official service at Central Hall in Westminster, opposite the Abbey, where the couple wed in 2011. Prime Minister Boris Johnson and leading dignitaries from public life were also in attendance.
Holocaust Memorial Day takes place each year on January 27, the anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz-Birkenau, and honors survivors of the Holocaust, Nazi Persecution, and subsequent genocides in Cambodia, Rwanda, Bosnia and Darfur. This year marks the 75th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz-Birkenau.
As they arrived, the royal couple were greeted by Olivia Marks-Woldman, Chief Executive of the Holocaust Memorial Day Trust, Sir Ben Helfgott, honorary president and a prominent Holocaust survivor. William told them, “We were talking this morning about how you carry on this message for future generations. We will do our best.”
During the ceremony, the prince gave a special reading from a letter sent by a friend of his great-grandmother Princess Alice, who has been praised for her efforts to help the Jewish people during the Holocaust.
“When the persecution of the Jews by the Germans began, Princess Alice asked to be informed about the fate of the Cohen family. Having been informed by friends and by her lady in waiting about the plight of Mrs. Cohen and her young daughter, the Princess decided to offer her hospitality to the two ladies; in fact to hide them in her home despite the danger this entailed,” the letter began.
“The Princess put a small two-room apartment on the third floor at the disposal of Mrs. Cohen and her daughter. It was thanks to the courageous rescue of Princess Alice that the members of the Cohen family were saved.
“The members of the Cohen family left the residence three weeks after liberation, aware that by virtue of the Princess’s generosity and bravery had spared them from the Nazis.
“The great-granddaughter of Rachel Cohen, Evy Cohen, said this 2 years ago: ‘My family would not exist without the courageous act of Princess Alice. Her story of incredible courage must keep being told in her memory. My generation, the past generation and the future generation are, and will eternally be, grateful to Princess Alice for the great act of bravery, risking her own life to take in a family in need.”
Prince Philip‘s late mother, Princess Alice, who set up a nursing home under a monastic Christian sisterhood in Athens, Greece, has been celebrated for her role in helping save a Jewish family during the Holocaust. She is buried Jerusalem and is considered a hero of the Holocaust. Her grandson Prince Charles, 71, spoke of her and his father Philip at a recent palace reception.
“I am immensely proud that my dear grandmother, Princess Alice of Greece, is buried in Jerusalem, on the Mount of Olives,” Charles said. “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. My grandmother was a formidable lady.”
Last week, Charles visited her tomb on the Mount of Olives in Jerusalem – she was honored as “Righteous Among the Nations” in Israel for sheltering a Jewish family during WWII.
The service members heard moving accounts of survivors and the congregation applauded a former soldier who had been among the first troops to liberate death camp Bergen-Belsen in April 1945.
Ian Forsyth, who was a wireless operator, told movingly how there were “bodies lying everywhere.” With his voice breaking, he said, “I don’t think anybody who didn’t see the place would understand what it as like. I get emotional when I think of that 11-year-old boy taken away from his mother and sleeping on the top bunk and who died during the night.”
“I hope people can realize how far mankind can sink if they are not careful. We are not all the same but that should be celebrated.”
British Prime Minister Boris Johnson referred to one survivor he met last week, who called it “industrialized murder.”
And he said that he felt “a deep sense of shame that here in Britain in 2020” that there had been a “resurgence in anti-Semitism.”
He vowed to build a Holocaust memorial in the U.K. “I will do everything I can to ensure these testimonies are shared as much as possible.”
William and Kate also took part in a candle ceremony on the stage along with survivors — including Yvonne Bernstein, 82, who was one of those featured in striking portraits recently taken by Kate. After six candles were lit (each representing a million for the six million Jews who were murdered by the Nazis), William and a visibly moved Kate ignited their own candle. They then turned and solemnly left the stage to rejoin the congregation floor and start a chain of candle lighting. In the end, 75 candles were lit in the hall.
Joe Mulhall, a Trustee of the Holocaust Memorial Day Trust, tells PEOPLE that it was the most moving ceremony they had held – partly, he believes, because it was the 75th anniversary and there are less survivors every year.
“It feels like part of the national calendar this year – the royal family was here, the Prime Minister was here and the Chief Rabbi,” Mulhall says.
Hearing from a survivor of Bergen-Belsen and then a soldier, Ian Forsyth, was immensely moving, he adds. “Everyone was crying and clapping, it was remarkable.”
And having William and Kate there was especially poignant. “It is really important to have the Royal Family here because Holocaust Memorial Day should be part of the national fabric. It should be like Remembrance Sunday, it is a huge part of our nation’s history, our armed forces’ history. So, to have the royal family here adds an extra layer of importance to the entire day, it shows the importance in which the nation takes the day.
“Many countries around the world still don’t do Holocaust Memorial Day properly but in Britain is becoming a central part of the annual calendar. Part of the day is about education as well as remembrance. This year was so important because we got to hear the story of the Royal Family’s role – listening to one of the members of the family engaged in saving the lives of Jews is a story a lot of people won’t have heard before, which is great.”