STARRED REVIEW
September 2018

A century in Czechoslovakia

By Norman Eisen
Review by

In a sense, The Last Palace was conceived when Norman Eisen, U.S. ambassador to the Czech Republic under Barack Obama, was lying under a table. Eisen had just had a thought-provoking phone conversation with his mother, Frieda, a Jewish Czech-American and Holocaust survivor who was reluctant to visit him at his gorgeous ambassador’s “palace” in Prague because of her harrowing memories of the Nazi and Communist years. A table in his new palatial home had an inventory label underneath it signifying that it had been used by the Nazis, and Eisen wanted a closer look. As he peered up, he realized that it also had marks affixed by the wealthy Jewish family that built the mansion and, more recently, by the U.S. government. There it was, on a piece of furniture: the Czech experience of the 20th century.

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In a sense, The Last Palace was conceived when Norman Eisen, U.S. ambassador to the Czech Republic under Barack Obama, was lying under a table. Eisen had just had a thought-provoking phone conversation with his mother, Frieda, a Jewish Czech-American and Holocaust survivor who was reluctant to visit him at his gorgeous ambassador’s “palace” in Prague because of her harrowing memories of the Nazi and Communist years. A table in his new palatial home had an inventory label underneath it signifying that it had been used by the Nazis, and Eisen wanted a closer look. As he peered up, he realized that it also had marks affixed by the wealthy Jewish family that built the mansion and, more recently, by the U.S. government. There it was, on a piece of furniture: the Czech experience of the 20th century.

Eisen, ambassador from 2011 to 2014, has written a genuinely exciting history of the era, seen through the lives of Frieda and four people who lived in the mansion: Otto Petschek, the Jewish magnate who built it; Rudolf Toussaint, the general in charge of German troops in Nazi-occupied Prague; Laurence Steinhardt, the first postwar U.S. ambassador; and Shirley Temple Black, child superstar-turned-ambassador, stationed there during the Velvet Revolution.

Based on voluminous research, the book offers a detailed, novelistic view of stirring times and impressive characters. For all his riches, Petschek is ultimately a sad figure, unable to understand the fragility of his world. Even the conflicted Toussaint evokes some modest sympathy, as he loathed the Nazis.

Steinhardt and Black, however, were inarguably heroic. Steinhardt fought to preserve democracy; when he lost, he helped endangered friends escape. With impeccable timing, Black publicly supported the dissidents who overthrew the Communists. And through it all, we follow the indomitable Frieda, who survives the Holocaust to raise the American son whose success completes her family’s journey from persecution to prominence.

 

This article was originally published in the September 2018 issue of BookPage. Download the entire issue for the Kindle or Nook.

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The Last Palace

The Last Palace

By Norman Eisen
Crown
ISBN 9780451495785

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