The day he arrived in 2011 at the Prague “palace” where he was to live as United States ambassador to the Czech Republic, Norman Eisen, the son of a Czech Holocaust survivor, found a swastika on the bottom of a table.
A shocked Eisen questioned the butler of his new residence about the startling discovery and was told the hateful symbols could be found throughout the 150-room mansion, remnants of its occupation by the Nazis during World War II.
“That first day I realized this house and the world I was looking out on from the window was a microcosm of the last 100 years,” Eisen told NJJN during a phone interview from the Brookings Institution in Washington, where he is now senior fellow.
The momentous events that shaped the 20th century and the intrigue surrounding the palace, set against the horrifying backdrop of his own mother’s harrowing experience during the war, became the basis for Eisen’s book, “The Last Palace: Europe’s Turbulent Century in Five Lives and One Legendary House.”
On Sunday, Jan. 27, Eisen will speak at Anshe Emeth Memorial Temple in New Brunswick. In preparing to write the book, he searched through historical records to uncover the house’s secrets — he was able to get American government documents declassified — including how the United States came to acquire it after the war through the efforts of an American-Jewish diplomat.
Eisen’s mother was born Frieda Grunfeld in a Czech shtetl in 1923, around the same time Otto Petschek, a wealthy Czech Jew, began construction on his new mansion.
“My mother liked to say to people, ‘The Nazis took us out of Czechoslovakia in cattle cars, and my son flew back on Air Force One,’” said Eisen, also a CNN political commentator and board chair of Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington. “She saw me move back to that historic house representing the most powerful nation on earth and make that house kosher…. She became my best adviser.”
Frieda Eisen, who died in 2012, lost her entire family during the Shoa, but survived Auschwitz and the Neuengamme concentration camp in Germany. She returned to Czechoslovakia after the war, but as communism was overtaking the country, she fled to Israel. There she met Eisen’s Polish-born father, Irvin, whose family had made aliyah before the war. He had returned to Europe to rescue fellow Jews and escaped to the United States in 1940; he fought with the American Army and became a citizen before moving back to Israel. The couple came to the States in 1950.
Raised in Los Angeles, Noman Eisen, a classmate of former President Barack Obama at Harvard Law School, went on to become counsel to various political campaigns, founded political watchdog groups, and worked to get ballots released in Florida during the contested 2000 presidential race. Later, his “old friend” Obama asked Eisen to be part of his transition team and made him special counsel for ethics and government reform when he took office in 2009.
Two years later, when the Czech ambassadorship opened up, Obama, who was aware of Frieda’s story, “thought it would be a wonderful American success story” for Eisen to return to his mother’s homeland, he said, and for her to see her son installed in one of Prague’s grandest edifices.
“While my mother may have been the poorest Czech Jew, Otto Petschek was the richest,” said Eisen.
“He made his money in coal mining and finance and bet big on the Americans entering World War I. He won big and spent it all on buying this property and building this house.”
A “relentless perfectionist” and great admirer of all things American, Petschek built the 100-room manse “as a statement of faith in European democracy.” It is generally considered “the last palace” of the Gilded Age built in Europe.
Eisen said Petschek lived in the house and fled with his family as the Nazis occupied Czechoslovakia.
The next occupant of the palace was Wehrmacht Gen. Rudolf Toussaint, described by Eisen as a “cultured, compromised German,” who had a “change of heart,” and ultimately put his life on the line to save both the house and the city from destruction. Eisen said he believes it was the beauty of the house that transformed the Nazi.
After the war, Laurence Steinhardt, a Zionist who helped rescue Jews during the war, was sent as the American ambassador and decided he was going to save the mansion.
“Amb. Steinhardt engineered an incredible set of arrangements, but you’ll have to read the book to see how he outsmarted the communists,” explained Eisen.
Later former child star Shirley Temple Black, who was an eyewitness to the “Prague Spring” revolution being crushed by the Soviets in 1968, vowed to return to the country as a diplomat. She was appointed ambassador in 1989 and took up residence in the palace.
“She was there for the Velvet Revolution of 1989, which is viewed as the most successful of any in the former communist countries,” said Eisen. He said he was able to have documents declassified that show how Temple “behind the scenes encouraged the revolution and helped put an end to totalitarianism.”
After returning to the U.S., Eisen felt “the collision of history” between his family and the house, compelling him to dig deeper into what happened; in doing so, he said, he discovered “a tale of the 20th century.”
If you go
Who: Norman L. Eisen, former ambassador to the Czech Republic
What: “The Last Palace: Europe’s Turbulent Century in Five Lives and One Legendary House”
When: Sunday, Jan. 27, 10:30 a.m.
Where: Anshe Emeth Memorial Temple, New Brunswick
Cost: $18, $15 for members, $10 for seniors and students