At one point even before its release next week, 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 who sought to examine the colorful history of the palace he called home for three years, sees it, Toussaint is as much a part of the Jewish struggle of the 20th century 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 at one point or another found themselves in the palace’s orbit.
“This is a story about Jewish engagement with the Wilsonian century,” Eisen, 57, said last week from his book-lined office at the Brookings Institution off Dupont Circle, pausing every so often for handfuls of almonds from a bag on his table. “It tells the struggle between democracy and illiberalism, that for me begins with 1918 and is going on this minute with [Russian President Vladimir] Putin and the illiberals of Europe — [Turkish President Recep Tayyip] Erdoğan, the Polish law [against speaking about that country’s involvement in the Holocaust], [Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor] Orban.”
The last century presented a “cycle of democracy and illiberalism,” according to Eisen, and “The Last Palace,” which Crown Publishing releases Sept. 4, is the “story of the Jewish voyage through this century.”
Inspired to investigate the personalities of the Prague palace after finding a swastika underneath an ornate table shortly after he moved into the U.S. ambassadorial residence, Eisen had always, he said, seen a bit of poetry in his being tapped by Obama for the diplomatic post. His mother, Frieda, had grown up Czechoslovakia — although amid far humbler surroundings than the Petscheks, industrialists responsible for much of the country’s emergence as a European leader after World War I — and suffered the extermination of her family in the Holocaust. When she and her Polish survivor husband moved to Los Angeles after World War II, they eventually founded a hamburger stand and saw their son off to Brown University and then Harvard, where he was a law school classmate of Obama’s.
Eisen regarded his appointment, after a career as an assistant director at the Los Angeles office of the Anti-Defamation League, high-powered Washington lawyer, co-founder of the government watchdog Citizens for Responsibility in Ethics in Washington and then the White House special counsel for ethics and government reform, as the quintessential Jewish success story, rising from humble beginnings and the ashes of the Holocaust to return triumphantly to the Europe that almost wiped out his people.
Eisen’s “maminka” saw things differently. “You know what happened to us there,” she told her son when he excitedly called her from Air Force One after Obama offered him the ambassadorship.
“The Last Palace” begins with a portrait of Petschek, who in addition to being a successful industrialist was a bit of a madman in the way he approached designing, redesigning and finally building — with more redesigning — one of the last landmarks to a bygone age of magnificent European residences. But it alternates between the handful of diplomats — Jewish and non-Jewish — who lived amid such splendor and Eisen’s mother, who never did get to see the palace from the inside.
Her absence from the ornate home wasn’t from lack of trying on Eisen’s part.
“In many ways, this is the book that my mother would have liked to have written,” he said. “But just like she couldn’t come to the house, she couldn’t deal” with the emotional pain wrought by the Nazi regime. “It’s almost as if she couldn’t let go.”
Eisen appears very much the optimist, looking backward across a sweep of Jewish history that experienced the lowest of lows — the loss of 6 million souls at the hands of the Germans and their allies — but also, he quickly points out, the highest of highs. The establishment of the State of Israel doesn’t figure prominently in the book, but it’s there, as is the fact that Judaism and 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, raised in the “old world” shtetl but bursting as a child to break free, lived to see her son kasher the kitchen of Petschek’s palace for Passover.
He takes that optimism and applies it to the present day and the new rise of illiberalism he sees in the current White House and in Europe (although he doesn’t write about the current struggles in his book).
“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,” he added, “I classify myself with the optimists in the book like Otto Petschek, who were disabused of their optimism. … Clearly, the trend is while democracy has its ups and downs, on the whole, the downs tend to get less. As horrible as Stalinism was, the Nazis were even worse.”
In that sense, Petschek’s palace isn’t so much as a tribute to the past but a vision of what might be again, a kind of perfected ideal that mankind — and the Jewish people — struggle to build and rebuild. It’s a theme that is sure to feature prominently in Eisen’s next book, the idea for which is already marinating in his mind.
“It’s going to be called ‘The Last Stand,’” he announced excitedly. Like “The Last Palace,” “it’s going to be a journey through the 20th century. This is going to be my father’s journey starting in the Polish shtetl and ending up in his hamburger stand.
“It culminates in the American dream.”