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The Last Palace

Europe's Turbulent Century in Five Lives and One Legendary House

by Norman Eisen

Hardcover, 403 pages, Random House Inc, List Price: $28 |


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The Last Palace
Europe's Turbulent Century in Five Lives and One Legendary House
Norman Eisen

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Book Summary

A former U.S. ambassador describes the prior occupants of his residence in Prague, including a Jewish financial baron and a Nazi general who carved swastikas into the furniture, and in the process creates a detailed history of Central Europe in the 20th century.

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Note: Book excerpts are provided by the publisher and may contain language some find offensive.

Excerpt: The Last Palace

Part I


The Golden Son of the Golden City

Prague, Czechoslovakia; Spring 1924

It was shortly before dawn. on the hill above the Old Town, just north of Prague Castle, a thirty-nine-year-old man awoke in his small yet elegant house. It was one of the little villas that speckled the Bubeneč neighborhood; rural not so long ago, it had become the most fashionable district in the city. He slid his feet into his slippers, inserted his arms into his robe, and cinched the belt. He moved carefully, so as not to wake his wife, whose slender form was rising and falling beneath the covers. Gingerly opening the door to the terrace, he stepped outside.

Every morning, Otto Petschek greeted the rising sun, now stirring below the horizon. His butler, who was wearing a swallowtail coat and a striped vest, would join him in the soft blue light and set down a coffee service with his white-gloved hands. Today, with practiced efficiency, he poured out a cup, handed it to Otto, and returned indoors. Otto felt the coffee’s warmth radiating through the delicate Meissen china, which was intricately patterned with pink flowers and gold leaves. The set had been a gift for his wife, Martha. After eleven years and four children together, it still delighted Otto to see her face light up when he brought her beautiful things.

Otto sipped his coffee and gazed out at the view. Although he lived near the center of Prague—a city that had been built up for a millennium, with new construction perpetually squeezed in and layered on—a remaining slice of wilderness sprawled just behind his home. His parents and then he had accumulated multiple plots over decades, stitching them together into a single, rambling, five-acre parcel. He studied its contours. The terrain was partially obscured by the darkness still cloaking the ground, but he knew it by heart, practically down to the last leaf. He had spent years walking the individual tracts, visiting on weekends, attending family celebrations, even proposing to Martha here. Old trees reared up, tall and shaggy. Hedges ran among them, stands of flowers, swaths of lawn. In the distance, Otto could hear the clop-clop of horses’ hooves, the day’s first carts delivering produce, ice, and milk to his neighbors’ homes.

Farther behind him and this unformed tangle of land, to the east, was the heart of Prague: the city center where Otto was born, the synagogue where he was bar mitzvahed, the schools where he was educated, the business that he had helped build. He was a model citizen of the Czechoslovak capital. Still, every morning he looked to the west: to Germany, for language and literature; to France, for art and architecture; to England, whose business acumen he admired; and across the Atlantic to the United States, whose energy he embraced, grateful for its role in creating the fledgling Czechoslovak state. In the predawn haze, if he squinted he could imagine the curvature of the earth beneath his huge expanse of land and trace its arc, a vector connecting him to each of the nations he admired.

Music was likely running through Otto’s head. It was his first great passion, and he remained an intense classical aficionado, a sustainer of Prague’s German Opera, and an ardent Wagnerian, admiring the composer’s heroes and their appetite for daunting challenges. Perhaps this morning he heard the low thrum of strings that launched Das Rheingold, the day stirring like the instruments, the tones spreading like the sun.

While listening to his invisible orchestra and watching the dawn rise day after day over his sprawling, overgrown property, Otto had formed an idea about what to do with his land.

He would build a palace there—one that would compete with any other in the city. It would be huge, more than one hundred rooms, the entire length of a city block. Its façade would marry the mathematically elegant columns of ancient Greece and the muscularity of Roman sculptural forms with the golden ratios of Italian Renaissance architecture and the majesty of the French baroque. He would render the march of Western civilization in stone, marble, and brick, right up to the present—bowing the façade into a sharp, ultramodern curve, a dramatic contemporary flourish that would distinguish his creation from every other palace in a city stuffed with them.

It would be a residence befitting his status as a leading banker and industrialist in the new democracy, the perfect home for his beloved Martha and the children they shared. And it would be an embodiment of the twentieth century’s brilliant future—the new era of peace and prosperity ushered in after the war to end all wars.

Otto’s reveries were interrupted by stirrings in the villa behind him. The sun was fully up now. Martha and the children had begun to rise, and the staff were commencing their day’s work.

As he turned his back on the sunlit yard and reentered his home, he hummed to himself, drafting elaborate plans for his palace in his head.

Things had always come easily to Otto. He was born in 1882 to Isidor Petschek and Camilla Robitschek, scions of two of the most prosperous Jewish families in the Austro-Hungarian provinces of Bohemia and Moravia. He was the first child of his generation, and the Petscheks anticipated his arrival no less eagerly than a nation would await the birth of royalty. On October 17, the musical wail of the plump infant was heard for the first time inside the family town house in Prague’s center. Otto was delivered at home, cleaned by the midwife, and presented to his mother. Isidor and his brother, Otto’s uncle Julius, inspected the baby in Camilla’s arms closely. Their stern demeanors concealed the affection they felt as they studied little Otto’s marked Petschek features: a large cranium, broad forehead, and stubby nose.

Three generations occupied the same sturdy house, stacked on top of one another in a Petschek layer cake. Otto was taught there by a tutor through age six—a naturally confident child. In short pants, a jacket, and a floppy black cravat, he was brought before Isidor and Julius to do his sums. He stood at attention in the parlor, and the numbers flowed out of him. Otto took after his father, Isidor, square headed and handsome, albeit without his father’s luxuriant goatee. Uncle Julius was pear-shaped and balding, with a long, drooping mustache, and his mass often settled into one of the parlor’s overstuffed sofas. The brothers were pleased with Otto’s talent. They were financiers, making loans and buying and selling shares of coal mines and other companies, and expected great things from Otto in the same line of work. Otto was a born showman, which is perhaps why he enjoyed these performances so much. If he seemed a little too fond of the spotlight, well, the brothers believed they would expunge that in due time.

Young Otto’s gifts extended to music. It was everywhere in Prague. Recitals, concerts, symphonies, opera—melodies poured into the streets, flowing through the city as freely as the Moldau (or as the Czechs called it, the Vltava) River. Song also swam within the walls of the Petschek town house: when the extended family gathered, the horse-drawn carriages often pulled up to Stadtpark Street filled with hired musicians. Family members dressed in their finest, the men wearing tails, the women high-necked gowns over their corsets. Although the family was Jewish, the high culture of the Austro-Hungarian empire and neighboring Germany was every bit as much their religion. Several family members performed with the professionals, singing or playing the piano.

Some of the children fidgeted on the edges of settees, faces scrubbed and hair plastered down. But young Otto was transfixed. He begged for piano lessons and was soon perched before the keys, his fingers mastering the spellbinding meter of Schubert, Chopin, and Schumann. With his parents, he visited the new German opera house that opened in 1888. Wagner’s Die Meistersinger inaugurated the building, and his other works were performed in the seasons that followed. Otto stared up at the whorls of its neobaroque ceiling as the sounds washed over him, sparking a lifelong adoration of the composer. Otto loved Mozart and Beethoven, too, both of whom had created and conducted in Prague—and all the other German-speaking masters. He amazed his family by coming home from musical performances and stretching his own fingers across the ivory keys, playing solely from the fresh memory of the show he had just seen.

Otto found beauty everywhere. Liberated from the confines of the family dwelling as he began attending school, Otto wandered the city wide-eyed, studying the rhythms in the stucco, marble, and plaster lining the city streets, amalgams of centuries of European building. “Music is liquid architecture; architecture is frozen music” went the saying attributed to Goethe, a venerated authority in Otto’s German-speaking home. The Old New Synagogue and the other medieval buildings were baritones, deep in solid stone. Renaissance monuments, such as the Royal Summer Palace, were sopranos, trilling. Saint Nicholas Church and the Wallenstein Garden, baroque giants, were tenors. To some, the juxtaposition of these styles seemed discordant. But to Otto, the cityscape was a harmonious chorus.

Prague’s admirers cherished its idiosyncratic façades and knew them as well as their own faces. There were details that less-practiced eyes missed: a bawdy fresco here, a secret passageway leading to an ancient grotto there. Residents of the city had long formed a cult that worshiped its beauty. They preserved the history that gave the façades life: extravagant legends, unwritten secrets, legacies of seers and oddballs. Parents and grandparents whispered tales to their children of the clairvoyant founder of the city, Princess Libuše; the miracle-working priest, Nepomuk; Rabbi Löew and his golem; and a thousand others—pointing out the dwellings where they lived and walked.

All great cities have their guardians, but Prague’s were particularly fierce in their devotion. These Praguers, the ones who did not forget, who always observed, who passed down the city’s lore from generation to generation, were the Watchers of Prague.

Otto was one of their number. But he was not content to only observe. He did not know how yet, but like the operatic protagonists whom he admired, he fully intended to make his own heroic mark on the city that he loved.

In 1892, at age ten, Otto graduated to university preparatory school, “gymnasium,” spending the next eight years immersed in the classical liberal-arts curriculum. He clambered from Europe’s roots, Latin and Greek, to its treetops: contemporary literature, science, and mathematics. The course of study was intended to instill the Enlightenment’s faith in reason and progress, and in Otto’s case, it succeeded. But Isidor and Julius made sure that Otto’s exposure to Athens and Rome, Paris and Vienna, did not come at the expense of Jerusalem. They had been raised in an Orthodox home and, although they had become more liberal, they still had Otto study Jewish law, lore, and history in daily religion lessons.

In 1895, his clear voice rang out in the Old New Synagogue as he chanted his bar mitzvah portion in well-practiced Hebrew, marking his ascension to Jewish adulthood. His head bent low to read the tiny calligraphy in the Torah scroll, his hand guided a silver yad right to left along the ancient Hebrew script. The notes of his cantillation floated high overhead in the dim light among the five-ribbed Gothic vaulting. (The fifth rib was purely decorative, to avoid forming a cross.) In the attic above, the golem slumbered, legend had it—ready to arise again if needed to protect Prague’s Jewish community. Below, its newest member confidently led the service. He had grown taller, become lean, but still had his marked family looks, a shock of black hair above his high forehead. His father and uncle, bulkier versions of the young Otto, flanked him on the bimah, while his mother and her sister Berta, now married to Julius, peered at them through slits in the foot-thick walls that separated the women from the men.

In the years following his bar mitzvah, Otto learned that not everyone in his city and the lands surrounding it was equally fond of his tribe. Czech nationalism was surging: the reassertion of Czech language and identity almost three centuries after the Slavic Bohemians and Moravians had been conquered by the German-speaking Austrians. The Petschek family enthusiastically supported the current Austro-Hungarian ruler, the benign, long-serving Franz Joseph. He was known for his warm relations with his Jewish subjects throughout the vast span of his empire, stitching together dozens of nationalities across Europe. Indeed, Uncle Julius served him as an Oberfinanzrat, a financial counselor to the empire.

But ethnic Czechs resented the centuries of Habsburg domination over Prague and the lands around it. The nationalists, dissatisfied with their fragmentary representation in Franz Joseph’s parliament, wanted self-determination or independence. As the new century approached, a vocal minority of Slavic nationalists began to focus their ire on culturally German residents of Prague, with Jews prominent among their targets. Anti-Semitic pamphlets titled “Pro Lid” (“For the People”) circulated, slandering the Jews for their assimilation of German language and culture. Bigots marched to demand the boycott of Jewish stores, stomping down the streets and chanting “svůj k svému” (“each to his own”), resulting in the failure of many of those businesses.

Worst of all, some among the nationalists revived the ancient slander that Jews killed Christians to procure blood as a secret ingredient in Passover matzo. An itinerant Jew, Leopold Hilsner, was falsely prosecuted for ritually murdering a Gentile woman. Throughout the period, there were anti-German and anti-Semitic riots and street fighting in Prague, with Jews beaten, their store windows smashed, and the stock looted. Jewish homes and synagogues were attacked and destroyed as well, until Franz Joseph sent his army in, marching through streets littered with broken glass to restore order.

The fin de siècle waves of anti-Semitism made Otto’s father and uncle nervous. They had fled to Prague to escape a pogrom, and still it haunted them. They grew up in Kolín, where their father had acquired land cheaply from the townspeople, then resold it at a substantial profit to the government for a railroad. In 1876, an angry mob gathered in front of their home. The family looked out cautiously from behind the curtains, wondering if they were going to be violently attacked. They decided to flee, settling in Prague and quietly succeeding as passive investors who stayed out of public view. The Petscheks were not eager to have to up stakes again.

With all the idealism of a seventeen-year-old, Otto took a more optimistic view. The Petscheks were not only Jewish; they were Austro-Hungarian, Bohemian, German-speaking Praguers. Surely anti-Semitism was guttering out—a periodic eruption on the fringes of society. After all, a non-Jew, the Czech nationalist Tomáš Masaryk, the leading defender of Hilsner, was against the blood libel. A philosopher, writer, and publisher of a liberal newspaper, the forty-nine-year-old Masaryk, his stare fierce behind his pince-nez, was a formidable champion of the Jews. The nationalist ranks included many others who welcomed Jews—and even some Czech Jews themselves (though Otto was not among them).