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For­mer US am­bas­sador Nor­man Eisen tells the his­tory of Eu­rope as seen through the Petschek Palace in Prague

The Jerusalem Post - The Jerusalem Post Magazine - - CONTENTS - • SETH J. FRANTZMAN

In 2011, the new US am­bas­sador to the Czech Repub­lic found him­self en­sconced in a palace in Prague, “the most beau­ti­ful am­bas­sado­rial prop­erty owned by the United States.” One day, he was shown a dark se­cret in this palace. Un­der a French an­tique table was a small la­bel with a swastika on it. “Sim­i­lar traces of the Nazi oc­cu­pa­tion were hid­den all over the place,” writes Nor­man Eisen in The Last Palace: Eu­rope’s Tur­bu­lent Cen­tury in Five Lives and One Leg­endary House.

The palace in Prague that to­day is in­hab­ited by the US am­bas­sador was once home to the Petscheks, a Jewish fam­ily that was the Czech ver­sion of the Roth­schilds, su­per wealthy and in­flu­en­tial. In a round­about way, the house that Eisen once lived in went from be­ing built by fan­tas­ti­cally wealthy Czech Jews, to be­ing con­fis­cated by Nazis, to be­ing the house of a Jewish am­bas­sador.

“We would be keep­ing kosher, ob­serv­ing the Sab­bath, putting up mezu­zot on the door posts. What bet­ter re­venge on Hitler than that,” Eisen writes in his open­ing to a fas­ci­nat­ing book that looks at the his­tory of Eu­rope in the 20th cen­tury through this great palace in Prague.

The story be­gins with Otto Petschek, who built the or­nate build­ing. Born into an in­flu­en­tial Jewish fam­ily, Petschek, whose un­cle was a fi­nan­cial coun­selor to the Aus­tro-Hun­gar­ian Em­pire, grew his wealth at the end of World War I through buy­ing up coal. He comes across as a fig­ure of con­trasts – in­ter­ested deeply in pol­i­tics, the new Czech na­tion­al­ism and the writ­ings of John May­nard Keynes and Trot­sky, he re­mained aloof as the ris­ing threat of Nazism swept Ger­many next door. It wasn’t for lack of knowl­edge: The Petscheks were in­vested heav­ily in coal in Ger­many and his brother Paul lived in Ber­lin un­til 1931. Yet Otto spent years ob­sess­ing over build­ing his grandiose palace. It was only com­pleted in 1934, and his fam­ily fled on the eve of the Nazi con­quest of Cze­choslo­vakia in 1938.

Otto Petschek is a fas­ci­nat­ing ex­am­ple of the in­flu­ence and in­tel­lec­tual ac­com­plish­ments of Jews in West­ern and Cen­tral Eu­rope prior to the Holo­caust. But he also stands out as a sym­bol of the fail­ure to wres­tle with what was com­ing. Although a tar­get of an­ti­semitism, ac­cused of be­ing a greedy cap­i­tal­ist by the com­mu­nists and a con­niv­ing cor­rupt Jewish banker by the racist Right, he doesn’t seem to have done much to op­pose the ris­ing an­ti­semitism, de­spite his great wealth. And when his fam­ily fled, they left be­hind the ma­jor­ity of Czech Jews to suf­fer the geno­cide that was to fol­low.

With the Petscheks gone, the Nazis moved in. The palace be­came home to Ru­dolf Tous­saint, a lead­ing Ger­man Army of­fi­cer and for­mer mil­i­tary at­taché in Prague.

“The keenly ob­ser­vant Tous­saint must have no­ticed Otto’s Jewish books re­mained in the li­brary,” writes Eisen. But Tous­saint ap­pears to have been one of those Ger­man Army of­fi­cers who was not en­thused with Hitler’s an­ti­semitism. He also ig­nored other Jewish items in the palace, like an old rabbi’s chair. He stayed in the house for most of the war as Prague be­came one of the few cities un­touched by com­bat and bomb­ing. In 1945, when a brief Czech up­ris­ing tar­geted the Nazis while the Amer­i­cans and Sovi­ets closed in on the city, Tous­saint sur­ren­dered Prague to the Czechs.

The palace, like so much looted Jewish wealth in Eu­rope, came into gov­ern­ment hands after the war. Luck­ily, it at­tracted a new pa­tron, Lau­rence Stein­hardt, the US am­bas­sador. He wres­tled with Wash­ing­ton to get per­mis­sion to lease the palace, and se­cured per­mis­sion from the Petscheks. Other prop­er­ties of the fam­ily were not so lucky. Red Army loot­ers came and went, de­stroy­ing their pre­war grandeur. A lo­cal rep­re­sen­ta­tive of the In­ter­na­tional Red Cross was even squat­ting on the grounds. Stein­hardt oc­cu­pied the palace as the Soviet grip tight­ened on the city, but the palace would sur­vive to see free­dom re­stored in 1989.

Eisen’s de­ci­sion to con­cen­trate on this house, while pro­vid­ing his own in­sight from hav­ing lived there and his fam­ily’s suf­fer­ing in the Holo­caust, gives a glimpse into a long arc of Euro­pean his­tory from a new per­spec­tive. Prague sits on the di­vid­ing line of East­ern and West­ern Eu­rope and, un­sur­pris­ingly, was the cen­ter of con­flict­ing am­bi­tions of the Nazis, the Sovi­ets and the West­ern al­lies. To­day the palace rep­re­sents a world that was.

Per­haps the only thing the reader is left crav­ing more of, as Eisen ma­neu­vers through the dif­fer­ent per­son­al­i­ties and fam­i­lies that came and went, is the story of Adolf Poko­rny, the chief stew­ard of the large house from the 1930s to his death in 1967. Poko­rny saw the Petscheks, the Nazis, the Com­mu­nists, and seven Amer­i­can am­bas­sadors come and go. Poko­rny seems to be the quiet hero of this nar­ra­tive, pop­ping in and out of the nar­ra­tive and wit­ness­ing it all. His is the story of the Czechs, it seems, whereas the palace presents the story of world af­fairs. The Czechs en­dured it all to gain their free­dom, which they even­tu­ally did after be­ing be­trayed through­out the 20th cen­tury.

(Wiki­me­dia Com­mons)

THE PETSCHEK Palace has wit­nessed more than 80 years of Euro­pean his­tory.

THE LAST PALACE By Nor­man Eisen Crown Pub­lish­ing 416 pages; $28

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