Book review: The Petschek Palace in Prague

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When President Obama appointed the Jewish Norman Eisen as  America’s 2011 ambassador to the Czech Republic, his mother Frieda, was seriously disturbed. She feared Czech approach towards Jews was little changed since her youth. That, despite the 1989 Velvet Revolution which ended years of brutal Communist domination after the horror years of Germany’s 1939-1944 occupation. Her concerns were heightened when Nachman (Norman’s Yiddish name) foolishly told her he found swastika flags hidden in The Palace – the American ambassadorial residence.

Its around The Last Palace that Eisen writes this unique, masterly account how, over a century, five palace residents influenced the course of Czechoslovakian history. While Eisen paints outstanding character portraits of the  five “official” palace residents, it’s his researched findings on events leading up to and during the political turmoil of the years 1882 to the present day that keep the reader engrossed.

The Last Palace is no ordinary dry history or biographical book. Not only is Eisen an attorney, diplomat, Washington’s board chair of Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics, he also served on the White House Special Council for Ethics and Government reform. To those credentials add intellect. And, because his roots are Czechoslovakian, the story he writes swarms with a personal interest, that brings alive every word. 

Frieda’s memory goes back to her early youth when wealthy Jewish banker, and coal mine owner, Otto Petschek built The Palace.  She’d often stand gazing wide eyed at Petschek’s enormous home under construction. She remembered how frequently Petschek changed architect Max Spielmann’s designs and it took from 1923-1929 to complete… at what cost!

Generally buildings are regarded as inanimate objects. As such life to buildings only comes when people live in them, and the stories they tell. The stories Eisen tell, give The Last Palace life. Beginning in 1882 with the birth of Otto Petschek and his background, Eisen writes about the young Otto’s never-ending desire to learn, his love of books, travelling as well as his eccentricities.  He didn’t idealise wealth. However, partnered by his family, they made a great deal. Certainly no Midas, Petschek lavished expensive gifts on his wife. 

So much so, when the Petschek’s eventually moved into their multi-storeyed neo-classical home, furnishings and furniture he’d given her and gathered during his travels filled the palace. Treasures faithfully cared for and guarded by major-domo Mr Pokorny and his wife. Shortly before the Nazi invasion, the Petschek’s sold up and left. Hitler’s determination to wage war is thoroughly documented. So too is Neville Chamberlain’s appeasement policy. What isn’t is Chamberlain’s policy stemmed from his own World War 1 experiences. He didn’t want young men conscripted to their deaths.

Shortly after Germany’s invasion the magnificent palace attracted Colonel Rudolf Toussaint’s attention. Toussaint, a professional Wehrmacht World War 1 veteran, and  German military attache in Prague spent the war years living there with his wife Lilly. His belief that wars be fought by uniformed men not civilians led to friction between evil acting Reichprotektor Reinhard Heydrich – widely regarded as “the most dangerous man in the Reich.’  

As much as Toussaint tried to protect the Czechs, Heydrich had no qualms sending those he chose, and Jews in particular, to concentration camps. Not surprisingly he fell victim to a partisan assassination – a detailed description given by Eisen.
Eisen’s clearly blames General Dwight Eisenhower for allowing Communism to flourish in Czechoslovakia. Eisenhower’s orders held back American troops from relieving Prague. Instead Soviet armies did.

Laurence Steinhardt, US ambassador to Czechoslovakia, arrived in Prague in July 1945. His were the brains and energy behind the US purchasing The Palace as ambassadorial residence. He fought long and hard to gain permission and find funds to save from destruction what he considered one of the world’s treasures. The fifth and final occupant Eisen examines is Shirley Temple Black. Older readers will remember her as a child film star from 1935 – 1938. 

In her adult years, Shirley turned business woman, diplomat, multiple sclerosis activist and US ambassador to Prague in 1989 – a time of internal upheaval. The Czech’s had had enough of Communist oppression and determined to send them packing. Shirley. a woman of courage, whose schoolgirl charm still opened doors, backed the passive revolution to the hilt. Standing shoulder to shoulder with citizens, her extraordinary spirit, contributed  to seeing the Communist regime fall. The Last Palace is not holiday reading. But, with useful snapshots. Eisen reveals a fascinating era in Eastern European history that could easily have been lost.  Thankfully Eisen didn’t allow it to.

This review was compiled by Sheila Chisholm.