Even before its official release this month, Norman Eisen’s “The Last Palace: Europe’s Turbulent Century in Five Lives and One Legendary House” ranked No. 1 on Amazon’s list of new Jewish biographies.
That would probably come as an unpleasant surprise to Rudolf Toussaint, the Nazi commander in Prague whose story occupies roughly one sixth of the book. But as Eisen, the former U.S. ambassador to the Czech Republic, sees it, Toussaint is as much a part of the Jewish struggle as his own mother — or Jewish coal magnate Otto Petschek, U.S. ambassadors Laurence Steinhardt and actress-turned-diplomat Shirley Temple Black, Albert Einstein, Franz Kafka and the other luminaries who found themselves in the palace’s orbit.
“This is a story about Jewish engagement with the Wilsonian century,” Eisen, 57, said. “It tells the struggle between democracy and illiberalism.”
Inspired to investigate the personalities
of the Prague palace after finding a swastika underneath a table after he moved into the U.S. ambassadorial residence, Eisen sees a bit of poetry in his being tapped for the diplomatic post. His mother, Frieda, had grown up in Czechoslovakia and suffered the extermination of her family in the Holocaust. When she and her Polish survivor
husband moved to L.A. after World War II, they founded a hamburger stand and saw their son off to Brown University and then Harvard.
After a career that included a role as White House special counsel for ethics and government reform, Eisen regarded his appointment as a quintessential Jewish success story. Eisen’s “maminka” saw things differently. “You know what happened to us there,” she told her son after Obama offered him the ambassadorship.
“The Last Palace” begins with a portrait of Petschek. But it alternates between the diplomats who lived amid such splendor and Eisen’s mother, who never got to see the palace from the inside.
“In many ways, this is the book that my mother would have liked to have written,” he said. “But she just couldn’t come to the house.”
Eisen appears very much the optimist, looking across a sweep of Jewish history that experienced the lowest of lows. But Jewish identity, in all of its manifestations, survived. Petschek’s daughter, who represented a kind of modernity in which her family served pork roast for holiday meals at the palace, lived to raise Hebrew-speaking children of her own; Eisen’s mother lived to see her son kasher the kitchen of Petschek’s palace for Passover.
He applies that optimism to the present day and the new rise of illiberalism he sees in the current White House. “Certainly my mother was right … as were the other realists that I write about,” Eisen said. “They were right about the nature of the challenge — this recurring tendency of portions of society to seek the illiberal mean, which is mean in every sense of the world. On the other hand, I classify myself with the optimists in the book like Otto Petschek … Clearly, the trend is while democracy has its ups and downs, on the whole, the downs tend to get less.”
In that sense, Petschek’s palace isn’t so much as a tribute to the past but a vision of what might be, a kind of perfected ideal that mankind — and the Jewish people — struggle to build and rebuild. JN