JERUSALEM, Oct. 31, -- Soothing Israeli feelings after a half century of staying away by the British royal family, Prince Philip, the Duke of Edinburgh, Monday planted a tree at the Yad Vashem holocaust memorial and spoke of his mother's rescue of a Jewish family in Nazi- occupied Athens. 'I suspect that it never occurred to her that her action was in any way special,' the prince told an audience that included Michel Cohen, one of three members of the Cohen family protected in the Athens palace of Princess Alice of Greece until December, 1944, after the ouster of the Nazis. 'She was a person of deep religious faith and she would have considered it to be a perfectly natural human reaction to fellow beings in distress,' the prince said. Prince Philip was invited to Israel along with his sister, Princess Sophie, by the state-operated Yad Vashem in order to confer the posthumous honor of 'righteous among the nations' to Princess Alice. Before arriving at Yad Vashem, the two prayed at the burial site of Princess Alice on the Mount of Olives in Arab East Jerusalem. In accepting the honor, the prince recalled that while growing up during the 1930s, he had encountered Nazi anti-semitimism at his boarding school in Salem, Germany. One of the older students who helped him after he arrived at the school was Jewish, he said. 'One night he was overpowered in his bed and had all his hair cut off,' Prince Philip said.
'Nothing could have given us a clearer indication of the meaning of persecution.' Prince Philip said he offered his own cricket hat to the victim 'and was pleased to see that he wore it till his hair had a chance to grow again. 'It is a small and insignificant incident, but it taught me a very important lesson about man's capacity for inhumanity, and I have never forgotten it,' he said. Shevah Weiss, the speaker of Israel's parliament, hailed Princess Alice. 'A royal family in Greece, in their palace, saved a Jewish family and thus opposed the most cannibalistic phenomenon in Jewish history,' he said. The award and the royal visit come amid an improvement of British- Israeli relations since Israel signed a peace blueprint with the Palestine Liberation Organization last year. British Defense Minister Malcolm Rifkind visited Oct. 20-24 and Prime Minister John Major is slated to come in March. The prince's visit has drawn mixed reviews, with newspaper commentators saying its brevity -- 24 hours -- accentuates a long-standing suspicion that Israelis are not favorites in Buckingham Palace. 'It is hard to ignore the sense that he does not look thrilled to be with us,' wrote Anat Tal-Shir in the Yediot Ahronot daily. Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin, however, termed the visit 'very significant to us.' 'In a way it is the closing of a circle,' he said after meeting briefly with the prince.