Norm Eisen on new book ‘The Last Palace’
Norm Eisen with former Czechoslovakia President Vaclav Havel at the 2011 Forum 2000 conference in Prague
INTERVIEW — Norm Eisen, former White House ethics czar and ambassador to the Czech Republic, discussed his new book titled The Last Palace: Europe’s Turbulent Century in Five Lives and One Legendary House in a phone interview with Jewish Insider‘s Jacob Kornbluh.
The book tells the story of the fight between democracy and illiberalism in Europe and the US over the past century through the lives of four occupants of the United States Ambassador’s residence in Prague, the Petschek Palace, which was built in the late twenties by a rich Jewish banker Otto Petschek. Those accounts are woven together by the story of Eisen’s Czechoslovak mother, Frieda, who was deported to Auschwitz by the Nazi regime that once seized that house.
Eisen was appointed as Ambassador to the Czech Republic by his former Harvard Law School classmate, President Barack Obama in 2010. “I was shocked when I was asked to take the job,” Eisen said in an interview on Friday. “Even though it wasn’t my idea, I did see the historic nature of it and the American nature of it. This is the very American story of an immigrant child of an immigrant, a first-generation American, going back to represent America in his parents’ land, and to live in this historic house which was built by a Jewish family, and to put a mezuzah on the door, to make it kosher, to light the Shabbat candles on Friday night, and keep Shabbat in that same house where the Nazis and the Soviets once dominated.”
Eisen details in the book how he tried to persuade his mother to come to visit him at the residence. “I thought she would be excited when I called her from Air Force One to tell her” about my appointment as Ambassador to the Czech Republic, Eisen recalled. “Instead, she was anxious. She didn’t want me to go. Eventually, I persuaded her to let me go.” He later tired convincing her to come to visit him by explaining that living there was the best revenge on Hitler. Eisen insisted we don’t publish how the story ended so that readers could read it for themselves when purchasing the book. “For any readers of Jewish Insider who have a Jewish mother, it will put a smile on your face.”
In the book, Eisen describes how he performed the Passover Seder in the formal dining room of the palace with the participation of many friends and dignitaries. “As far as I knew, these were the first seders to be held here since the Petscheks had left,” he said. “The most important people from the country came and mingled with the Jewish community of Prague for my Pesach Seder. The transformative effect of being in this house, hosted by a Czech-Jewish-American ambassador, had very profound effects on people. Because I am a liberal, I even had an Iftar dinner for all of the Islamic ambassadors.”
In 2016, Eisen told a Jewish audience in New York that every time he ate a kosher lamb chop in Prague, he would say ‘take that Hitler!’ “People loved hearing that,” Eisen tells us. Jews and non-Jews alike, Americans, Czechs, and Israelis who visited me, wherever you came from, people loved hearing that. For me, it was a great act of historical vindication.”
Q: How many lamb chops did you consume there?
Eisen: “Thousands. We had thousands of lamb chops. I’m afraid that having a Kosher Ambassador in a house with such a large dining room was very bad for the lamb population, but very good for the kosher butchers of Europe.”
Eisen says the book gives him “a dose of strength to fight for democracy. We’re in a moment like that in Europe. Viktor Orban in Hungary, the Polish government. The illiberals in Russia, led by Vladimir Putin. Donald Trump, here in the United States. It’s a surge just like we saw before of anti-democratic feeling, but the lesson of the book is all of us have faith in democracy. If we fight for democracy, if we work hard, democracy is stronger than illiberalism. It’s stronger than the opposite, and democracy will win. The only question is how long the winter of democracy will be.”
“The Midterms are going to be a very important moment, and I think you’re going to see democracy, accountability, and integrity are going to strike a very strong blow,” he added. “I don’t say that in a partisan way. When I was Ambassador, I welcomed Democrats and Republicans. This history of the past century that I write about is a history of bipartisan agreement on the things that bring us together. I worked just as much with Republican colleagues like Eliot Cohen and Bill Kristol. This is not a partisan wish. It’s a wish for accountability, to have at least one House of Congress that will do the thing that has brought down all of the other anti-democratic people over the course of the past 100 years that I write about. It will hold them accountable. Democracy is stronger than the opposite, and if you read The Last Palace, you’ll see democracy is going to win.”