A sweeping yet intimate narrative about the last hundred years of turbulent European history, as seen through one of Mitteleuropa’s greatest houses—and the lives of its occupants
When Norman Eisen moved into the US ambassador’s residence in Prague, returning to the land his mother had fled after the Holocaust, he was startled to discover swastikas hidden beneath the furniture in his new home. These symbols of Nazi Germany were remnants of the residence’s forgotten history, and evidence that we never live far from the past.
From that discovery unspooled the twisting, captivating tale of four of the remarkable people who had called this palace home. Their story is Europe’s, and The Last Palace chronicles the upheavals that transformed the continent over the past century. There was the optimistic Jewish financial baron, Otto Petschek, who built the palace after World War I as a statement of his faith in democracy, only to have that faith shattered; Rudolf Toussaint, the cultured, compromised German general who occupied the palace during World War II, ultimately putting his life at risk to save the house and Prague itself from destruction; Laurence Steinhardt, the first postwar US ambassador whose quixotic struggle to keep the palace out of Communist hands was paired with his pitched efforts to rescue the country from Soviet domination; and Shirley Temple Black, an eyewitness to the crushing of the 1968 Prague Spring by Soviet tanks, who determined to return to Prague and help end totalitarianism—and did just that as US ambassador in 1989.
Weaving in the life of Eisen’s own mother to demonstrate how those without power and privilege moved through history, The Last Palace tells the dramatic and surprisingly cyclical tale of the triumph of liberal democracy.
In this engrossing tale by Eisen, former U.S. ambassador to the Czech Republic, the changes of 20th-century Europe are illuminated by the stories of one historic Prague building, some of its notable residents, and the author's mother, a feisty Holocaust survivor. When Eisen, appointed to his post by President Obama, moved in 2011 into the palace of the title, now the U.S. ambassador's residence, he was intrigued by a Nazi label on an antique table. What, he wondered, was the true story of the mansion, constructed between the world wars by Jewish coal magnate and banker Otto Petschek as an homage to European culture? Eisen's nonagenarian mother, Frieda Grunfeld Eisen, wasn't surprised by his finding; she survived Auschwitz, only to flee her Czech homeland as the Communists consolidated power after the war. Eisen interweaves Frieda's story with those of Petschek and his family; Rudolf Toussaint, the conflicted German colonel who lived in the palace during the Nazi occupation; Lawrence Steinhardt, the U.S. ambassador who kept it out of Communist hands; and Shirley Temple Black, who, as ambassador beginning in the late 1980s, witnessed the end of communism. Together their stories illuminate the ebb and flow of totalitarianism, painting a picture both hopeful and disheartening. This action-packed yet lyrically written page-turner confers a fascinating human understanding of Europe's past and present.