Thursday, February 21, 2019

The Last Palace

Title:  The Last Palace
Author:  Norman Eisen
Publication Information:  Crown. 2018. 416 pages.
ISBN:  0451495780 / 978-0451495785

Book Source:  I received this book through the Penguin First to Read program free of cost in exchange for an honest review.

Opening Sentence:  "I picked up the heavy white receiver on the phone beside my seat and asked the operator to place a call to my mother."

Favorite Quote:  "The past is never dead. It's not even past."

The Last Palace is a history anchored by a home and told almost as four novellas. The Petschek Villa located in Prague was built in the 1920s and has been the home of the US ambassadors to Czech Republic since  the 1940s. Norman Eisen was the US ambassador from 2011 until 2014. This appointment brought him to Prague and the Petschek Villa.

The house and its history intrigued him, especially the fact that the house and its major residents capture four distinct periods of Czech and European history - from the 1920s, through World War II, through the Cold War, and to an emergence into current times. It is these stories that this book tells, and through the story of this one home, Mr. Eisen walks us through decades of European history.

Otto Petschek, a Jewish financier and businessman, built the home. Otto's story is one of faith in democracy and an obsession like pursuit to build the ultimate home. His faith is shattered by the Nazi regime, and he is forced to abandon his beloved home and escape for his life.

Then come the Germans and Rudolf Toussiant, a German general during World War II. The World War II episode again highlights that, at an individual level, heroes and villains exist on all sides of a conflict. The home of a Jewish community leader becomes a headquarters for Nazi operatives.

Following the war comes the question of ownership, upkeep, and reparations. US ambassador Laurence Steinhardt is instrumental in saving the home from Communist takeover and bringing it under US ownership.

Shirley Temple Black's interest in international relations is inspired by a trip to the city in the 1960s. She returns to the city as an ambassador in the 1980s. The post World War II quest to save the home reflects on the US leadership that existed and was respected in the world.

The book contains detailed notes as to the source documents. The author's note state that the research comes from diaries, correspondence, and other papers. It also comes from interviews with descendents of the individuals he writes about. His mother's story is, of course, his own. Mr. Eisen has synthesized all this information and crafted it into a cohesive, quickly read history lesson. The history reads like a well-crafted story.

The individuals who lived in the Petschek Villa were those with power and influence. They present one perspective.  Norman Eisen comes decades later, bringing to the home his own mother's story of escape and loss. His mother is from a Jewish family from a small Czech village. The family was sent to Auschwitz. Frieda survived. By weaving his mother's story throughout the book, Mr. Eisen brings the impact of those events down to an individual level - the ordinary person, if you will. The son's story is one of a belief in democracy and American leadership. The mother's story is a reminder hate and persecution is never far and must be continually guarded against. That makes this a lesson for current times.

Please share your thoughts and leave a comment. I would love to "talk" to you.

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