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The U.S. Ambassador in Prague has more than diplomatic ties to the Czech Republic. Norm Eisen is the son of a Holocaust survivor. His mother grew up in the former Czechoslovakia. The Nazis sent her to a concentration camp, Auschwitz.
NPR's Ari Shapiro visited the ambassador's residence in Prague to talk with Ambassador Eisen about the intersection of family history and world history.
ARI SHAPIRO, BYLINE: The drive into Prague is like a journey into the past. As you approach the city, grand castles and cathedrals appear on the horizon. Three years ago, Norm Eisen made this journey in a motorcade. It was his first day as ambassador, a whirlwind of formal greetings and arrival ceremonies. After his family went to sleep that night, Eisen sat in the ornate wood-paneled library of his new home, soaking in the reality of his new life.
The head of the household staff, Miroslav Cernik, came into the room.
NORM EISEN: And he said, Ambassador, there's something I'd like to show you.
SHAPIRO: Cernik led the new ambassador to a small antique table. He said, please, look underneath.
EISEN: I thought what a strange request. Why does he want me to look under the table? But I did. I knelt, I peered up under the table and he showed me the swastika.
SHAPIRO: A sticker marking the table as Nazi property. Cernik did not want Eisen to discover it himself and get upset.
During World War II, this house served as the Czech headquarters of the Nazi secret police, the very people who sent the ambassador's mother to Auschwitz in a cattle car.
EISEN: It was like a punch in the gut. It literally took my breath away. I think that before I saw the swastika, I had grasped what my life was going to be like here on an intellectual level but that really struck me on an emotional and on a physical level.
LINDAY KAPLAN: (Singing in foreign language)
SHAPIRO: It's Friday night, and Eisen's wife Lindsay Kaplan is lighting the candles to start the Jewish Sabbath. Eisen hosts Shabbat dinner here every week. Tonight's guests include the French and British ambassadors, a famous Czech novelist, and the head of Prague's Jewish Museum, Leo Pavlat.
LEO PAVLAT: It's something almost unbelievable sitting at the table, which was used by Gestapo, and at the same time this is American Embassy to have Shabbat dinner there.
SHAPIRO: Like Eisen, Pavlat is also the son of a Holocaust survivor.
PAVLAT: My mother survived one among thousands, thousands, thousands, thousands of people. And to be here, it's a big privilege for me. I know it. This is big privilege because I was not supposed to live. And I think that Norman Eisen has the same feeling.
(SOUNDBITE OF CHOPPING)
SHAPIRO: In the basement kitchen, a team of chefs is preparing the evening meal. This is now a kosher home. There's one kitchen for meat and a separate one for dairy.
MIROSLAV ÄERNÃK: Every kitchen has its own china, its own dishes, which cannot be combined and used for mixing together.
SHAPIRO: Miroslav Cernik says when Eisen arrived, the staff learned how to make traditional Jewish foods, like challah and matzoh ball soup. They went into overdrive mastering the Jewish dietary laws. Prague doesn't even have a kosher butcher, they have to order meat from Berlin or Vienna.
ÄERNÃK: We completely changed the purchasing philosophy, completely. We cancelled all our relations and all our connections. And we have started new deliveries, new suppliers.
SHAPIRO: Jews have lived in Prague for centuries. The old town is full of ornate synagogues - gothic, Renaissance, baroque.
Rabbi Manis Barash has led a small, struggling congregation here for 18 years. He says until World War II, these ancient buildings were full of life.
RABBI MANIS BARASH: And every synagogue had a congregation, had a chazan, a rabbi, they had a bar mitzvah. They had wedding celebrations. You know, there was people coming to pray and to study. Today, most of the synagogues are museums. People, you know, buy a ticket to come in. It's very commercialized.
SHAPIRO: That makes Ambassador Eisen's role in this community as an active, observant Jew much more powerful. When he arrived, he spoke to his mother every day from her retirement home in Los Angeles. He urged her to come and revisit the country of her birth with him. She kept putting it off. Finally he went with relatives to see his mother's hometown. And he went to Auschwitz for the first time.
He kept her on the cell phone from California as he toured the camp.
EISEN: And so, I was able to have her voice literally in my ear as my cousins and I walked through Auschwitz. And she guided us which barracks she'd been in and the exact spot where the train had arrived.
SHAPIRO: Soon after that visit, Norm Eisen's mother, Frieda, died. He says she left the world with a sense of completion, that after just one generation, her son returned to the place she was born, representing the most powerful nation on Earth.
EISEN: That was a great sense of triumph for my mother. And I think it was very meaningful to her.
SHAPIRO: At the end of our conversation, Ambassador Eisen took me up a small flight of stairs. There, a small table sat in the window. Framed Eisen family photos sat on the inlaid tabletop. Curved wooden legs reached down to the floor.
EISEN: Come on down, we'll take a look at it.
SHAPIRO: OK, I'm getting literally on the ground here.
EISEN: And here is the - here you can see the label.
SHAPIRO: Oh, my God.
EISEN: And there is the Nazi iron eagle, clutching the swastika. And there you have the serial number.
SHAPIRO: Eisen says when he arrived here, he thought he might feel triumphant, a sense that we survived. Or maybe he'd feel desolation, surrounded by the ghosts of the past. Instead, he says, in the land where his mother was born, he feels determination, a sense that the fight against discrimination and oppression is never over.
Ari Shapiro, NPR News.
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