By Aron Heller The Associated Press
JERUSALEM — Prince William began the first-ever official royal visit to Israel on Tuesday with an emotional visit to Jerusalem’s Yad Vashem Holocaust memorial and a meeting with two survivors who escaped Nazi Germany for the safety of Britain.
Yad Vashem Chairman Avner Shalev, who guided the Duke of Cambridge through the museum’s exhibitions detailing Nazi Germany’s genocide of 6 million Jews during World War II, said the prince was very curious and emotional as he stopped to inquire about various elements of the Holocaust.
“The theme that repeated itself throughout the entire visit was his wondering of what kind of deep hatred could have driven people to commit such horrific acts,” Shalev told The Associated Press. “He kept saying: ‘How did they get to such a place?’ … He really identified with the victims.”
The hour-and-a-half visit included a ceremony in which he placed a wreath on a concrete slab containing the ashes of Holocaust victims and a brief meeting with a pair of survivors from the Kindertransport, a rescue effort for some 12,000 children who were sent from Germany to Britain on the eve of World War II.
Henry Foner, who was fostered by a Jewish family in Swansea, Wales, and later served overseas for the British Army, said it was like a fairy tale for a refugee child like himself to meet a member of the royal family eight decades after the country rescued him.
“I’m very grateful to Britain because it saved my life, it’s as simple as that,” said Foner, 86. “It was as if he knew us, he knew the background and he made us feel so at home. It’s as if you had met a friend you hadn’t seen in a while.”
In signing the Yad Vashem guestbook, the prince called it a “profoundly moving experience” and said the Holocaust was “almost impossible to comprehend.”
He noted with pride that his great-grandmother had been recognized as a Righteous Among the Nations, the highest honour Israel grants to non-Jews who risked their lives to save Jews during the Holocaust. Princess Alice hid three members of the Cohen family in her palace in Athens during the Nazi occupation of Greece in World War II. Thanks to her efforts, the Cohen family survived and today lives in France.
The princess died in 1969, and in 1988 her remains were brought to Jerusalem. Prince William plans to visit her gravesite later in the week as part of his tour of Jerusalem landmarks.
Though the trip is being billed as non-political, and places a special emphasis on technology and joint Israeli-Arab projects, the prince is meeting with Israeli and Palestinian leaders and visiting sites at the heart of the century-old conflict.
Three decades of British rule between the two world wars helped establish some of the fault lines of today’s Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and Britain’s withdrawal in 1948 led to the eventual establishment of Israel and Jordan.
For the 36-year-old William, second in line to the throne, it marks a high-profile visit that could burnish his international credentials.
After Yad Vashem he met with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and President Reuven Rivlin, who told him about his childhood in Jerusalem living under the British mandate and asked him to deliver a message of peace to Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas.
“I’m really looking forward to getting to meet as many Israelis as possible and understand Israeli history and Israeli culture,” the prince said.
Later on Tuesday, the prince was to visit coastal Tel Aviv to attend a soccer game of young Jewish and Arab players. He was also meeting the mayor of Tel Aviv, attending a reception the British ambassador is holding in his honour and meeting Israeli high-tech entrepreneurs.