Former US ambassador Norman Eisen tells the history of Europe as seen through the Petschek Palace in Prague
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.
THE PETSCHEK Palace has witnessed more than 80 years of European history.
THE LAST PALACE By Norman Eisen Crown Publishing 416 pages; $28