Just after World War I, a tremendously wealthy Czech Jewish banker/investor named Otto Petschek possessed the audacity, optimism and ego to build a sumptuous palace in Prague for his family. His obsessive and financially ruinous zeal to construct an architectural masterpiece proved to be his creation’s saving grace.
As Czechoslovakia suffered violent regime changes, the palace endured. A succession of powerful residents fell under its spell, determined to preserve it for future generations to admire. One of these recent residents, Norman Eisen, whom President Obama appointed to serve as United States Ambassador to the Czech Republic from 2011 to 2014, became fascinated with the lives and times of his palace predecessors. His curiosity, personal family history and belief in democratic ideals inspired him to write his first book, “The Last Palace: Europe’s Turbulent Century in Five Lives and One Legendary House.”
Petschek’s palace and its residents provided Eisen with rich historical material to craft a compelling work of narrative non-fiction and he does just that. Eisen took the time to do extensive research. He deployed Czech and German researchers to comb archives for primary source material, petitioned to declassify relevant State Department files and, most importantly, personally interviewed descendants of the palace’s residents. Eisen also interjected the story of his mother Frieda Grunfeld Eisen, a Czech Holocaust survivor, throughout the book. The combined personal stories, reminiscences and photographs humanize Czechoslovakia’s complex twentieth-century history.
Eisen recounts how his proud Jewish mother told people, “They took us out of there on a cattle car and my son returned on Air Force One!” After Eisen arrived at the Petschek palace, which post-World War II became the U.S. Ambassador’s residence, he encountered a shocking reminder of its second resident, German Wehrmacht Officer Rudolf Toussaint.
After the Petscheks fled the palace in 1938 to avoid Hitler’s march eastward, Toussaint moved in. His men inventoried and labeled the home’s valuable antiques with the Third Reich’s emblem, the stylized eagle and swastika. When Eisen discovered the emblem, his mother’s past horrors leapt into the present.
To Eisen’s credit, he avoids portraying Toussaint as a one-dimensional Nazi. Toussaint emerges as a cultured, complex protagonist who disliked Hitler and disrespected the Third Reich’s military aims. He strove to be an officer and a gentleman. However, as World War II progressed, the Nazi regime’s indiscriminate violence and anti-Semitism chipped away at Toussaint’s elevated code of conduct. He bore the Nazi stain but nonetheless managed to save the palace and Prague from destruction.
To the victor went the spoils. The United States’ post-war emissary to Prague, Ambassador Laurence Steinhardt, moved into the palace in 1945. A highly-assimilated and successful Jewish lawyer, he felt an affinity to Prague’s Jewish palace and developed a strategy to transfer ownership permanently to the United States. He relished his tenure in the elegant residence, until the Soviets invaded Prague in 1948 and the Iron Curtain descended on Czechoslovakia. Steinhardt and his family fled the increasingly brutal Communist regime, but the palace remained official U.S. property.
Eisen skips the narrative forward to document the history of both communism’s fall and the palace’s most famous resident, Shirley Temple Black. As the child-star box-office-bonanza of Hollywood’s Golden Age, Shirley lifted America’s spirits during the Great Depression. Fifty years later, she deployed her celebrity and diplomatic skills to aid and abet the Velvet Revolution that restored democracy to Czechoslovakia and propelled playwright Vaclav Havel to the Czech Republic’s presidency. Shirley emerges as a woman of substance and valor.
By highlighting both Shirley and his mother’s intellectual fortitude, high ethical standards and courageous survival skills, Eisen’s book proves to be the work of an enlightened feminist. (As the mother of three daughters, I appreciate his portrayal of strong female protagonists.)
My only minor quibble with “The Last Palace” is Eisen’s tendency to ascribe conjectural motives/thoughts/feelings to historical figures. These speculations distracted from the actual facts and seemed unnecessary in light of the compelling primary sources and oral history he worked so hard to gather.
If I were a book-betting woman, I’d put money on Eisen winning a Jewish literary award or two for “The Last Palace” – it’s that good. His book also makes an excellent choice for book clubs interested in twentieth-century Eastern European history.
A prior version of this review appeared in the San Diego Jewish Journal’s October 2018 issue.