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

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A masterfully told and immersive narrative about the last hundred years of European history, as seen through an extraordinary mansion – and the lives of the people who called it home When Norman Eisen moved into the US ambassador’s residence in Prague, returning to the land his mother had fled after the Holocaust, he was startled to discover swastikas hidden beneath the f A masterfully told and immersive narrative about the last hundred years of European history, as seen through an extraordinary mansion – and the lives of the people who called it home When Norman Eisen moved into the US ambassador’s residence in Prague, returning to the land his mother had fled after the Holocaust, he was startled to discover swastikas hidden beneath the furniture. These symbols of Nazi Germany were remnants of the residence’s forgotten history, and evidence that we never live far from the past. From that discovery unspooled the twisting, captivating tale of four of the remarkable people who had called this palace home. Their story is Europe’s, and The Last Palace chronicles the upheavals that have transformed the continent over the past century. There was the optimistic Jewish financial baron Otto Petschek, who build the palace after World War I as a statement of his faith in democracy, only to have that faith shattered; Rudolf Toussaint, the cultured, compromised German general who occupied the palace during World War II, ultimately putting his life at risk to save the house and Prague itself from destruction; Laurence Steinhardt, the first postwar US ambassador, whose quixotic struggle to keep the palace out of Communist hands was paired with his pitched efforts to rescue the country from Soviet domination; and Shirley Temple Black, an eyewitness to the crushing of the 1968 Prague Spring by Soviet tanks, who determined to return to Prague and help end totalitarianism – and did just that as US ambassador in 1989. Weaving in the life of Eisen’s own mother to demonstrate how those without power and privilege moved through history, The Last Palace tells the dramatic and surprisingly cyclical tale of the endurance of liberal democracy.


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A masterfully told and immersive narrative about the last hundred years of European history, as seen through an extraordinary mansion – and the lives of the people who called it home When Norman Eisen moved into the US ambassador’s residence in Prague, returning to the land his mother had fled after the Holocaust, he was startled to discover swastikas hidden beneath the f A masterfully told and immersive narrative about the last hundred years of European history, as seen through an extraordinary mansion – and the lives of the people who called it home When Norman Eisen moved into the US ambassador’s residence in Prague, returning to the land his mother had fled after the Holocaust, he was startled to discover swastikas hidden beneath the furniture. These symbols of Nazi Germany were remnants of the residence’s forgotten history, and evidence that we never live far from the past. From that discovery unspooled the twisting, captivating tale of four of the remarkable people who had called this palace home. Their story is Europe’s, and The Last Palace chronicles the upheavals that have transformed the continent over the past century. There was the optimistic Jewish financial baron Otto Petschek, who build the palace after World War I as a statement of his faith in democracy, only to have that faith shattered; Rudolf Toussaint, the cultured, compromised German general who occupied the palace during World War II, ultimately putting his life at risk to save the house and Prague itself from destruction; Laurence Steinhardt, the first postwar US ambassador, whose quixotic struggle to keep the palace out of Communist hands was paired with his pitched efforts to rescue the country from Soviet domination; and Shirley Temple Black, an eyewitness to the crushing of the 1968 Prague Spring by Soviet tanks, who determined to return to Prague and help end totalitarianism – and did just that as US ambassador in 1989. Weaving in the life of Eisen’s own mother to demonstrate how those without power and privilege moved through history, The Last Palace tells the dramatic and surprisingly cyclical tale of the endurance of liberal democracy.

30 review for The Last Palace: Europe's Turbulent Century in Five Lives and One Legendary House

  1. 5 out of 5

    Katie B

    3.5 stars There were a couple reasons I was interested in reading this book. The first being I got to visit Prague a few years ago and it really is a beautiful city. Second, back when my husband and I lived in Germany, we loved going to see the different castles and palaces so I was intrigued by the description of this particular palace being perhaps the last one built in Europe. Sadly, I do not remember if I saw this one during my trip to Prague, at most it would have only been a quick glance du 3.5 stars There were a couple reasons I was interested in reading this book. The first being I got to visit Prague a few years ago and it really is a beautiful city. Second, back when my husband and I lived in Germany, we loved going to see the different castles and palaces so I was intrigued by the description of this particular palace being perhaps the last one built in Europe. Sadly, I do not remember if I saw this one during my trip to Prague, at most it would have only been a quick glance during our walking tour. The author, a former ambassador to the Czech Republic under the Obama administration, lived in the Petschek palace while working in Prague. Otto Petschek, a Jewish man whose family was among the richest in Czechoslovakia, had the palace constructed in the 1920s much to the chagrin of family members. After the family fled due to growing anti-Semitism in the 1930s, Rudolf Toussaint, a top German officer, occupied the palace and it became home to many meetings with Nazi leaders. After the war, the palace has been a home or meeting site for many U.S. ambassadors including Shirley Temple Black. The palace is certainly rich in history and although Otto Petschek died many years ago I think he could at least appreciate the fact that if his descendants weren't living in the massive home he created, at least it was occupied by the author who is Jewish and whose mother grew up in Czechoslovakia. By far the parts of the book I was drawn to the most was the story of Otto and how the palace came to be and the author's mother who survived the concentration camps and later was forced to leave her homeland. While the book was a good history lesson in what has taken place in Prague from the early 1900s to the current decade, I just care more in non-fiction books the parts that focus on people rather than events. This book had a fairly equal mix of both. One slight criticism I have is I didn't care for how the author ended the story in regards to his mother. The author did a fine job in telling his mom's life story and you end up feeling this emotional connection to her. I just wish a little more could have been added about whether she actually followed through and made the trip. I do think this book will appeal to even casual non-fiction fans. It certainly was more fascinating than the last few books I have read in the genre. Thank you to First to Read for the opportunity to read an advance digital copy! All views expressed are my honest opinion.

  2. 4 out of 5

    Lorna

    The Last Palace: Europe's Turbulent Century in Five Lives and One Legendary House was a moving and beautiful memoir in which author Norman Eisen relates how financial magnate Otto Petschek had a dream to build a beautiful palace unlike any other for his family in the heart of Prague following World War I, and as a testament to freedom and democracy. Otto Petschek was mindful that his father and uncle had fled to Prague to escape a pogrom and were fearful of anti-Semitism. As a young boy Otto was The Last Palace: Europe's Turbulent Century in Five Lives and One Legendary House was a moving and beautiful memoir in which author Norman Eisen relates how financial magnate Otto Petschek had a dream to build a beautiful palace unlike any other for his family in the heart of Prague following World War I, and as a testament to freedom and democracy. Otto Petschek was mindful that his father and uncle had fled to Prague to escape a pogrom and were fearful of anti-Semitism. As a young boy Otto was drawn not only to the music of Mozart and Beethoven, but he also loved the majestic architecture as he walked through the beautiful city of Prague. Eisen explores the history of the last century in Europe focusing on five individuals whose lives were part of the history and preservation of the Petschek palace from Nazi officer Rudolf Toussaint to Ambassadors Laurence Steinhardt and Shirley Temple Black. Norman Eisen was appointed in 2011 by President Obama to serve as U.S. Ambassador to the Czeck Republic and in residence at the palace. Woven through this book is the story of Prague and Czechoslovakia after World War II as well as the poignant story of his mother who had fled from Prague after the Holocaust and the fears she had for his safety. This was a lovely tribute to a palace and a city and all of the lives it impacted. "He would build a palace there . . . It would be huge, more than a 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 French baroque." ". . . 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. . . " " . . . . Their progression was punctuated by steeples, belfries, and turrets, and by the Vlatava River, which flowed through the middle of the city, crisscrossed by ancient bridges connecting the Mala Strana to the Old Town. Ruins may have been smoldering across Europe, but the City of a Hundred Spires has not lost a single one to bombing."

  3. 5 out of 5

    Bob H

    This book covers the life and times of a great house in Prague, amid a tumultuous century for the city and the country. It's worth noting that the book comes to print at a time of several anniversaries: 50 years after the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia in August 1968 and the crushing of the Prague Spring; 80 years after the September 1938 Munich conference and the abandonment of Czechoslovakia to Nazi occupation; 100 years after the end of World War I and the proclamation of Czech independenc This book covers the life and times of a great house in Prague, amid a tumultuous century for the city and the country. It's worth noting that the book comes to print at a time of several anniversaries: 50 years after the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia in August 1968 and the crushing of the Prague Spring; 80 years after the September 1938 Munich conference and the abandonment of Czechoslovakia to Nazi occupation; 100 years after the end of World War I and the proclamation of Czech independence. This is also the story of four people who cared for this beautiful landmark, beginning with the Jewish coal baron Otto Petschek, who built the palace in the 1920s, spent much of his fortune constructing, landscaping and furnishing it, and dealing with labor trouble, red tape and popular resentment of this display. It's the story of Gen. Rudolf Toussaint, the German general who occupied the place but sought to preserve it as intact as possible, even keeping Petschek's caretaker; the General would, by 1945, barely survive the liberation with his life and that of his son. It's the amazing story of the first postwar U.S. ambassador, Laurence Steinhardt, who would take up quarters there and act to preserve the house and its contents from Soviet soldiers, and try to save the house and the country from communist seizure. He would end up procuring the house as an embassy, mostly intact, despite resistance from the new city rulers and from the Petschek family estate -- but was unable to save democratic Czechoslovakia. Two future ambassadors would come to the embassy in later years because of ties to Czechoslovakia. The author, Norman Eisen, would want this post because his mother, Frieda, a Czech Jew, survived the Holocaust and returned to a bleak Prague, and her story is part of this book. Shirley Temple Black would come to Prague in 1968 as a socialite, a former child star now visiting on behalf of a charity, would witness the invasion and its bloodshed, and came away determined to somehow rise in U.S. diplomatic circles and return, which she did in 1989. We see a determined, steely side of her personality, and her presence in Prague as the communist régime was tottering would be important. Her appearances, as ambassador, at demonstrations and resistance meetings, would be a key part, although she did acknowledge that the real stars here would be the resistance leaders like Vaclav Havel. The reader will sense the very real danger, as the régime was desperate and tempted to use armed force, as did happen that year in Romania and China. Norman Eisen tells a compelling story, and when he comes to Prague as ambassador, he would absorb the palace's history and charm. He would be startled to find inventory labels under the furniture, bearing the Nazi eagle and swastika -- and find U.S. government inventory labels as well from the late 1940s, and more markings from the Petschek period well before. He would also find new controversies as ambassador: the country had become more conservative and the then-president of the Czech Republic, Vaclav Klaus, was making trouble over an LGBT pride festival and U.S. support for it. In all, a highly compelling read, with vivid characters in a rich setting -- in every sense -- amid a scary and eventful century. Highly recommend.

  4. 4 out of 5

    Meryl Landau

    Norm Eisen's The Last Palace is a fascinating look at 20th century Europe. This history unfolds through the inhabitants of a singular palace in Prague, built after World War I by a Jewish banker and industrialist, confiscated by the Nazis during WWII, then lived in by three consequential American diplomats--Eisen among them. When I turned the page after reading through the first three fascinating people, I expected number four to be a boring placeholder until we get to Eisen; imagine my surprise Norm Eisen's The Last Palace is a fascinating look at 20th century Europe. This history unfolds through the inhabitants of a singular palace in Prague, built after World War I by a Jewish banker and industrialist, confiscated by the Nazis during WWII, then lived in by three consequential American diplomats--Eisen among them. When I turned the page after reading through the first three fascinating people, I expected number four to be a boring placeholder until we get to Eisen; imagine my surprise when it turned out to be former child star-turned diplomat Shirley Temple Black. Her chapters were perhaps the most interesting of all to me. Through reading this book, I learned a great deal about Prague and Czechoslovakia (now the Czech Republic) and, by extension, Europe over the last century. I was equally impressed how well-written this history is, since Eisen is an attorney and diplomat (now a Brookings Institution fellow), not a professional writer. The chapters on fascism's and communism's slow creep into government were especially poignant, given what's going on right now in the world and the US. I can't recommend this book highly enough. Eisen even brings the building to such life that in a coincidental upcoming trip to Prague, I plan to seek out this palace. (It's the American ambassador's private residence, so he may be surprised to find me sneaking around!) (I received a free copy from Netgalley in exchange for an honest review.)

  5. 4 out of 5

    Maine Colonial

    Thanks to the publisher, Crown, for providing an advance reviewing copy. I like histories told through a place. And what a place in this case. Just imagine a Jewish man who grew up poor becoming a wealthy industrialist and deciding to build a grand, palatial house in the heart of Prague, one of the world’s most beautiful cities. Otto Petschek was well known, an influencer and financier, and a German speaker, as most important people in Prague were at that time. He was ebullient, full of confidenc Thanks to the publisher, Crown, for providing an advance reviewing copy. I like histories told through a place. And what a place in this case. Just imagine a Jewish man who grew up poor becoming a wealthy industrialist and deciding to build a grand, palatial house in the heart of Prague, one of the world’s most beautiful cities. Otto Petschek was well known, an influencer and financier, and a German speaker, as most important people in Prague were at that time. He was ebullient, full of confidence, and I’m sure he thought his success and status in the city would continue for his life. But while the palace lived on, Petschek’s life there did not, once it became clear that the Nazis would roll into the country. Norman Eisen tells a (mostly) 20th-century history of the palace, Prague, Europe and the world through the residents of the palace: Petschek; during the Nazi era Colonel Rudolf Toussaint, Germany military attaché; after the war, Laurence Steinhardt, US Ambassador; Shirley Temple Black, the former child star, who witnessed the 1968 Russian invasion while she was visiting Prague and then the country’s liberation when she became US Ambassador; and, finally, Eisen himself, who was appointed US Ambassador by President Obama. Interspersed with the stories of the residents of the palace, Eisen tells his mother’s story of growing up in an Orthodox Jewish family in a Slovak village, surviving the Holocaust but being caught up in the anti-Semitic restrictions of the Communist era and eventually managing to move to the US. When he’s appointed ambassador, Norman Eisen is excited to be going to live in the Petschek palace he’d heard so many stories about, while his mother, Frieda, is filled with worry, because of her experiences. This adds a real poignancy to the story. This is a compelling history, thoroughly researched. The Petschek part can be a little slow, with its heavy focus on Petschek himself and the building of the palace, but later parts focus more on what was going on in the city and country, with the palace taking on more of a “if these walls could talk” role. The Shirley Temple Black section is the most interesting, not because of her celebrity but because she was an eyewitness to two of the most important times in the country’s history.

  6. 4 out of 5

    Jill Meyer

    The city of Prague is geographically in the middle of what we used to call "Eastern Europe". The city, now the capital of the Czech Republic, has long been a magical, mystical place and its history is pretty much the history of the whole area. I am half-Czech, like former US Ambassador Norman Eisen, but my family immigrated to the US three or four generations ago. He has a more immediate connection with the country as his mother was a survivor of the Holocaust. Eisen's mother left Czechoslovakia The city of Prague is geographically in the middle of what we used to call "Eastern Europe". The city, now the capital of the Czech Republic, has long been a magical, mystical place and its history is pretty much the history of the whole area. I am half-Czech, like former US Ambassador Norman Eisen, but my family immigrated to the US three or four generations ago. He has a more immediate connection with the country as his mother was a survivor of the Holocaust. Eisen's mother left Czechoslovakia in Hitler's railroad cars as a young woman and her son returned as the United States Ambassador to the Czech Republic in the Obama Administration. Norman Eisen has written an unbelievably interesting book about one house, two families, three US ambassadors, and countless others who were involved in the last 100 years of history. He takes the reader through four - or is it five? - political systems which controlled and, in some cases, oppressed the Czech people. Many people reading this review will know about the famous house in the Czech/Moravian city of Brno. Known as the Vila Tugendhat, the Mies-designed house was built in the late 1920's by a wealthy Jewish family, the Tugendhats. The house is now a Unesco World Heritage site and was the subject of a work of fiction, "The Glass Room", by British author Simon Mawrer. But less well-known is a fabulous palace built in Prague around the same time, by Otto Petschek. Like the Tugendhats, the Petschek family fled Europe in the 1930's. The palace was left behind and was eventually used by the United States as an official residence both before WW2 and after. During the war, the house was used by a German general, Rudolf Toussaint. Eisen writes about Toussaint and the German occupation, post-WW2 ambassador Laurence Steinhardt, who tried to settle the Russian/US/Czech political and military crunch , and lastly, Shirley Temple Black. Black was in Prague during the 1968 "uprising" and returned in the late 1980's, presiding over the Velvet Revolution as our ambassador. Scattered through the book is the story of Frieda Eisen, her family, and her recollections of the Czechoslovakia she knew...and the one she was afraid of. \Norman Eisman is a masterful writer. His book, while long, was a pleasure to read. I hope it's issued also in Audible.

  7. 4 out of 5

    Michael

    I received this book through a GoodReads "First Reads" Giveaway. "The Last Palace" was built in the 1920s by Otto Petschek, a wealthy Jewish financier and coal baron. Through the lives of Petschek and three other former residents of the palace, Eisen takes the reader through Prague’s dramatic and tempestuous 20th century, including the German occupation during World War II, the crushing of the Prague Spring in 1968, and the Velvet Revolution in 1989. Besides Otto Petschek, Eisen’s brisk and enga I received this book through a GoodReads "First Reads" Giveaway. "The Last Palace" was built in the 1920s by Otto Petschek, a wealthy Jewish financier and coal baron. Through the lives of Petschek and three other former residents of the palace, Eisen takes the reader through Prague’s dramatic and tempestuous 20th century, including the German occupation during World War II, the crushing of the Prague Spring in 1968, and the Velvet Revolution in 1989. Besides Otto Petschek, Eisen’s brisk and engaging narrative focuses on the experiences of Rudolf Toussaint, the commander of German military forces in Prague at the end of the war; Laurence Steinhardt, the first postwar US Ambassador who acquired the property for the United States Government, and Shirley Temple Black, who witnessed the Soviet invasion in 1968 and then returned as US Ambassador in 1989.

  8. 4 out of 5

    Tony

    THE LAST PALACE. (2018). Norman Eisen. ****. This turned out to be a chatty review of the history of Czechoslovakia and the rest of Europe during the turbulent period after WW I up to the present day. The author was the U.S. ambassador to Czechoslovakia from 2011 to 2014 and has a solid background in its history. About the last quarter of the book is devoted to the ambassadorial reign of Shirley temple Black, who Mr. Eisen obviously highly respects. My memory kicked in for a while, but his review THE LAST PALACE. (2018). Norman Eisen. ****. This turned out to be a chatty review of the history of Czechoslovakia and the rest of Europe during the turbulent period after WW I up to the present day. The author was the U.S. ambassador to Czechoslovakia from 2011 to 2014 and has a solid background in its history. About the last quarter of the book is devoted to the ambassadorial reign of Shirley temple Black, who Mr. Eisen obviously highly respects. My memory kicked in for a while, but his review of here experiences there helped me remember the times more clearly. In toto, he has reviewed the lives of five different ambassadors, and, as an added bonus, also gave us the history of the “palace” that has long been the residence of the U.S. ambassador. I have not come across a better book about this region than this one. His insight into the actions of our country and our ambassadors was precise and informed. It seems as if the Czech region has long been the center for political activity that is emulated and then followed by the other countries of that region. Recommended.

  9. 4 out of 5

    Terzah

    A very enjoyable history lesson disguised as a great yarn. I learned much about 20th century Europe though the stories of one palace and its occupants.

  10. 5 out of 5

    Jonathan Tennis

    Norman Eisen’s story about the Petschek Palace is fascinating. Well researched and told, these five lives fill the pages and help show what history those walls hold. Great read. Even better audiobook with Jeff Goldblum narrating.

  11. 5 out of 5

    Kelsey

    This was a fascinating story by the former US Ambassador to the Czech Republic. Every US ambassador lives in this beautiful palace in Prague and have done so for many years. THE LAST PALACE takes the reader through the history of this famous building; we learn about its creation, role in World War II, and how it came to be the residence of the US Ambassador. Norman Eisen also weaves in the story of his mother's life as she was a Holocaust survivor from the former Czechoslovakia. This is not the This was a fascinating story by the former US Ambassador to the Czech Republic. Every US ambassador lives in this beautiful palace in Prague and have done so for many years. THE LAST PALACE takes the reader through the history of this famous building; we learn about its creation, role in World War II, and how it came to be the residence of the US Ambassador. Norman Eisen also weaves in the story of his mother's life as she was a Holocaust survivor from the former Czechoslovakia. This is not the history of one person though, THE LAST PALACE allows the reader to experience the changes in the country though the eyes of the different residents of the palace. The beginning took me a bit to get into, but I found myself moving quickly through this rather long book. Norman Eisen does a great job of fully immersing the reader in what is happening in Prague at different moments in history. Otto Petschek is the original builder of the house and we see as it falls into the hands of the Nazis, Communists, and eventually the United States. As interesting and heartbreaking as the chapters on World War II and the German occupation of Prague were, I found myself enjoying the later chapters on the US ambassadors and recent history a bit more, simply because I hadn't read much about this before . From the Soviet occupation to the student led protests, it was eye-opening to watch these citizens who had already been through so much take a stand for democracy and freedom. I also knew very little about the role Shirley Temple Black played in US government. I knew she played a role in diplomacy, but had no idea just how much she was able to accomplish and experience as US Ambassador to the Czech Republic. I am also interested in reading more about her role as Ambassador to Ghana in the future. At the center of THE LAST PALACE is, of course, the palace itself and it was an experience to be able to see how the palace survived and endured through all those years of history. I wish that the ending was a little less.. abrupt? It did feel as though the book ended rather suddenly and I was interested in getting more closure on his mother's story. All in all, I found this book to be an extremely well-written and researched story about an unusual subject- a building. I definitely recommend this to any history or political buff.

  12. 4 out of 5

    Larry Hostetler

    Would give this 4.5 stars if I could, only because the title somewhat misleads. It is not so much about “The Last Palace” itself (the content about the structure was five star worthy) as about Prague and the political world around it sine the Palace was conceived. I also found the opening section (about the individual behind its construction and his family) to be too lengthy to keep my interest. But once the subject (the subtitle is more accurate than the title) got into the construction it becam Would give this 4.5 stars if I could, only because the title somewhat misleads. It is not so much about “The Last Palace” itself (the content about the structure was five star worthy) as about Prague and the political world around it sine the Palace was conceived. I also found the opening section (about the individual behind its construction and his family) to be too lengthy to keep my interest. But once the subject (the subtitle is more accurate than the title) got into the construction it became engrossing. The palace becomes the main place from which the reader views the turbulent history of Czechoslovakia from almost its inception after World War I to almost its separation into the Czech Republic and Slovakia. We meet key players with whom the palaces’ residents interacted and find out how the various residents wended their way through a turbulent and transformative century that took Prague from a shining democracy through several totalitarian regimes and a war and a return to its current democracy. There is also a story of a Jewish Czech family as a counterpoint to the palace, showing more quotidian existence in the same times. The family’s part in the conclusion of the story is heartening and makes the book even better. This is a very good read. So much so that it has made Prague a stop on my Bucket List Grand Tour. Educational, interesting, at times engrossing, it is great as a history book but also as just a good read.

  13. 4 out of 5

    Lewis Szymanski

    I received this book in a Goodreads giveaway. The Last Palace: Europe's Turbulent Century in Five Lives and One Legendary House is the history of Otto Petschek's palace. This is the history of how the palace was built, who lived in it, and what they did while living there. It's also the history of Prague, Chekoslovia, and Europe in the 20th century.

  14. 4 out of 5

    Edna Axelrod

    This is an excellent book, a meticulously researched and detailed work of non-fiction that is written with the pace of a thriller. Spanning more than a century, the historical events related here are inherently gripping. The people who built, inhabited, occupied, preserved, and labored in “The Last Palace” come alive on the page. And laced throughout are two important themes: the importance of moral integrity and the precariousness of freedom. Highly recommended. (Note: I read an Advance Readers This is an excellent book, a meticulously researched and detailed work of non-fiction that is written with the pace of a thriller. Spanning more than a century, the historical events related here are inherently gripping. The people who built, inhabited, occupied, preserved, and labored in “The Last Palace” come alive on the page. And laced throughout are two important themes: the importance of moral integrity and the precariousness of freedom. Highly recommended. (Note: I read an Advance Readers Copy of the book.)

  15. 4 out of 5

    Brenda Schneider

    I really enjoyed this fascinating story. The history was great. I won this book through goodreads.

  16. 4 out of 5

    Mike He

    Not only is Norman Eisen a skilled diplomat representing the US interests in the Czech Republic in the Obama administration, but also he is a great story teller as evidenced in The Last Palace: Europe's Turbulent Century in Five Lives and One Legendary House. The well-researched book, intertwined with the ordeal of the author's Czechoslovakia-born mother during World War II, is a saga about the so-called "The Last Palace" in Prague, built and re-built by a wealthy Jewish banker in the 1920's who Not only is Norman Eisen a skilled diplomat representing the US interests in the Czech Republic in the Obama administration, but also he is a great story teller as evidenced in The Last Palace: Europe's Turbulent Century in Five Lives and One Legendary House. The well-researched book, intertwined with the ordeal of the author's Czechoslovakia-born mother during World War II, is a saga about the so-called "The Last Palace" in Prague, built and re-built by a wealthy Jewish banker in the 1920's who was obsessed with turning it into a masterpiece of European architecture of the century, resided by a Nazi Germany army general during wartime, and then acquired by the US government housing a number of US ambassadors including the author himself and Shirley Temple Black in then Czechoslovakia and now the Czech Republic. It is an excellent read about the history of the country of Czechoslovakia, the Prague Spring, the Velvet Revolution, as well as its long and strenuous struggle toward freedom and democracy.

  17. 4 out of 5

    Argum

    I won a free copy of this book from Goodreads First Reads. The former Ambassador to the Czech Republic tells a brilliant story of European wars, a single house, a single family, and what democracy means. As the child of a Czechoslavakian Holocaust survivor, he returned to the most famous Czech Jewish industrialist amazing house - not the US Ambassador's home in Prague. The story focuses on the life of his mother, the original home owner/builder, Shirley Temple Black a former ambassador who was th I won a free copy of this book from Goodreads First Reads. The former Ambassador to the Czech Republic tells a brilliant story of European wars, a single house, a single family, and what democracy means. As the child of a Czechoslavakian Holocaust survivor, he returned to the most famous Czech Jewish industrialist amazing house - not the US Ambassador's home in Prague. The story focuses on the life of his mother, the original home owner/builder, Shirley Temple Black a former ambassador who was there for both the beginning and end of communism, the German military man who lived there during WWII, and a US ambassador at the end of the WWII Soviet rescue. Personal and national at the same time. I especially enjoyed the stuff about Shirley Temple as I had known nothing about her role other than she was involved in diplomacy.

  18. 5 out of 5

    Kayla Tornello

    This book offered a look at Czechoslovakia's history. It centered around the opulent palace built by Otto Petschek. After the Jewish Petscheks fled the country on the brink of WWII, the palace was occupied by Germans during the war and eventually became the residence of the U.S. ambassador. I enjoyed learning about the individuals who occupied the palace and also the history of the country. Any history lover should pick up this book! I received this book as a Goodreads giveaway. Yay!

  19. 4 out of 5

    Judy

    Thank you Penguin Random House for sending me this good reads give away. Mr. Eisen does a fantastic job of telling the history of Otto Petschek's "palace" in Prague. The reader follows along the rise and fall of European good and bad guys from WW1 to the present while showing the lives of the inhabitants of the Palace. A very interesting story especially with our politics today.

  20. 5 out of 5

    Sara

    The Last Palace presents the history of Prague and Czechoslovakia through the lens of the Petschek Palace and the residents who occupied it. The palace, the most opulent in Prague, was built after WWI by a wealthy Jewish businessman, Otto Petschek, to his unique and demanding specifications. When the Nazis come to power, the Petscheks escape, leaving the palace to the occupancy of a Wehrmacht commander. Finally, thanks to the efforts of the post-War US ambassador to Prague, the Palace becomes th The Last Palace presents the history of Prague and Czechoslovakia through the lens of the Petschek Palace and the residents who occupied it. The palace, the most opulent in Prague, was built after WWI by a wealthy Jewish businessman, Otto Petschek, to his unique and demanding specifications. When the Nazis come to power, the Petscheks escape, leaving the palace to the occupancy of a Wehrmacht commander. Finally, thanks to the efforts of the post-War US ambassador to Prague, the Palace becomes the property of the State Department and the home of the US Embassy. At the same time that we learn about the Palace, we are introduced to the author’s mother, who grew up in a religious Jewish family in Czechoslovakia and, with three of her siblings, survived the concentration and work camps. Through the author’s mother and the residents of the Palace, we get a personal look at the past 100 years of history. Really enjoyed this book. The author did a masterful job of presenting this history not just as events, but how the individuals in his book -the residents of the Palace and his mothers family - reacted to the events. Thank you Penguin First To Read for providing me with a galley of this book.

  21. 4 out of 5

    Kelly

    Norman Eisen’s The Last Palace is a beautiful and personal story of Czech history over 100 years, told through his perspective and that of four previous occupants of the Petschek palace (later home of American ambassadors to the Czech Republic) as well as his own mother. It starts with the early life and then adult successes of Otto Petschek, a Jewish business magnate in Prague. His financial success leads to his decision to build his own personal palace. The Petschek family flees when the Nazis Norman Eisen’s The Last Palace is a beautiful and personal story of Czech history over 100 years, told through his perspective and that of four previous occupants of the Petschek palace (later home of American ambassadors to the Czech Republic) as well as his own mother. It starts with the early life and then adult successes of Otto Petschek, a Jewish business magnate in Prague. His financial success leads to his decision to build his own personal palace. The Petschek family flees when the Nazis take over Czechoslovakia, and a representative takes over occupation of the home. When the war ends, Communism takes hold of the country, but not before a brief period when the United States purchases the Petschek palace. The story then transitions into telling the fight against Communism from the forties into the late eighties before concluding with a brief peek into the author’s term as ambassador. This is a fantastic peek into the turmoil that the Czech Republic has battled through in the past century. While it shows the ultimate triumphs of its citizens in having a voice, it is definitely a reminder of how hard it is fought for, and how tenuous it can be.

  22. 4 out of 5

    Terri Wangard

    This is the biography of a palace and the history of a nation in the twentieth century. The story of Otto Petschek is fascinating. His father sought to keep a low profile, but not Otto. Building himself a palace proved to be folly for him, estranging his children, bringing himself to the edge of ruin, and fueling dissent against him. And he only lived there for four years. Especially interesting to me was Shirley Temple Black’s association with the palace and Czechoslovakia. Remarkable book.

  23. 4 out of 5

    Diane

    Excellent story of palace built by a man who made a family fortune in the coal industry during WWI. Describes the many years he took to bring his creation to fruition, how he lost it when his family had to leave Prague during WWII because they were Jewish. Years later it becomes the home of the American Embassy. Told by an American Embassador to Prague. Well documented and researched volume.

  24. 4 out of 5

    Margo

    This review has been hidden because it contains spoilers. To view it, click here. I really liked this book. I thought the device of using the history of the palace as a narrative device for the history was interesting and effective. The beginning section about the building of the palace was excellent. Loved the story of the Otto Petschek and the building of the family empire and of the house. I think we really got a sense of the era and of the family. I wish that the narrative of what happened to his wife and children had been clearer after Otto's death. Some of this informat I really liked this book. I thought the device of using the history of the palace as a narrative device for the history was interesting and effective. The beginning section about the building of the palace was excellent. Loved the story of the Otto Petschek and the building of the family empire and of the house. I think we really got a sense of the era and of the family. I wish that the narrative of what happened to his wife and children had been clearer after Otto's death. Some of this information comes out later in the book, but I would have liked to have learned more about them to have more closure on their story. The details about Porkorny, the house caretaker/butler were great - so wonderful to think of one individual overseeing this palace for so many decades. The next section about the German soldier, Toussaint, who occupies the building was also interesting. He definitely portrayed him as a sympathetic Nazi....The Czech partisans to take his son hostage as the city is falling. The sections about trying to get Patton's army to take the city before the Soviet's arrive was compelling. Toussaint represents the Wehrmacht vs. the SS, interesting to learn the compare/contrast between these two groups. Toussaint brings about the cease fire w/the Czechs and the Germans in Prague. Would like to learn more about the American history of Patton's army stopping and not saving Prague from the Soviets - what if we had gotten there first? The Soviet's occupy the city - and the newly arrive American Ambassador Steinhardt fights hard to save the palace by making it the home to the American ambassador. He is forced out of Prague by the Soviet occupation 1948. The story doesn't attempt to tell us what happened in the intervening years until 1968 when Shirley Temple Black is at the palace on behalf of the MS Society. Then it fast forwards again to 1989 during the Velvet Revolution. Those stories were interesting....we lost a little bit of the feel of the palace. I felt as though Eisen was relying too much on STB biography for this part of the history. Nevertheless, it was a good description of the Czech/Slovak uprising. Throughout Eisen weaves in his mother's story about her experiences growing up in her Orthodox home in Slovakia - a brief overview of her experiences during the Holocaust - and then her eventual migration to Israel and America. I didn't mind bringing in her personal experiences - I thought it made her reaction to him being at the home that had been occupied by the Nazi's more real. In all, I learned a lot - thought it was very good narrative nonfiction.

  25. 4 out of 5

    Nate

    3.5 stars The Last Palace is a book covering the politics of Prague in the most recent century through the eyes of the residence of Otto Petschek's magnificent palace: Otto Petschek himself, Rudolf Toussaint the German who tried to keep himself clean of Nazi crimes while in the army, Laurence Steinhardt the rescuer of the Palace from Soviet hands, Shirley Temple Black the ambassadress during the Velvet Revolution, and the author another ambassador from the US. It also includes two chapters about 3.5 stars The Last Palace is a book covering the politics of Prague in the most recent century through the eyes of the residence of Otto Petschek's magnificent palace: Otto Petschek himself, Rudolf Toussaint the German who tried to keep himself clean of Nazi crimes while in the army, Laurence Steinhardt the rescuer of the Palace from Soviet hands, Shirley Temple Black the ambassadress during the Velvet Revolution, and the author another ambassador from the US. It also includes two chapters about the author's mother, a Czechoslovak Jew who survived the camps. The most interesting chapters for me were those of the author himself as he details his time in Prague and those with his mother because they felt a little closer to the author and more personal, though the time of Ambassadors Steinhardt and Black were certainly interesting as well. Funnily enough, the section about Otto Petschek was the most boring, probably because the author went into too much detail about the Palace and every single room and construction detail. The single most irksome thing to me was the author affected description of the magical Prague people who love their city as the Watchers of Prague (this is what I understood Watchers to mean). He mentions that he coined the phrase himself, but I don't understand the reading behind it and because he uses it everywhere to describe the people who I guess hope for freedom, it made me cringe every time. It made the author seem pretentious. The title is a little misleading in that the Palace, though it is discussed regularly, isn't the star of the book, the subtitle being more accurate in describing the book. It was also nice to see the author's slight patriotism for Czechia come out in the way he was so optimistic for it, especially in comparison to his mother. Toussaint was treated very evenhandedly, I think, for even though he work for the Nazis, Eisen points out his small ways of rebellion and discusses the fact that he was a silent bystander and the moral problems of culpability, though not in a way as to be tangential. The book is incredibly well-researched with the majority of the information coming from the author's interviews and diplomatic papers of the various residents. Even though this book was a little slow at times, it is a decent history of Prague/Czechoslovakia given in a very human way. A copy of this book was given to the reviewer through NetGalley in exchange for an honest review.

  26. 5 out of 5

    Karyl

    I heard about this book on NPR during one of my marathon ironing sessions, and considering that I'm fascinated both by the Holocaust and by Europe in general, this book seemed right up my alley. It still boggles my mind that in my lifetime, eastern Europe was behind the Iron Curtain, and only a lucky few were able to defect to the West. Along these lines, I recently watched the movie The Lives of Others, about the lives of East Germans under their repressive regime. Unfortunately, I couldn't lov I heard about this book on NPR during one of my marathon ironing sessions, and considering that I'm fascinated both by the Holocaust and by Europe in general, this book seemed right up my alley. It still boggles my mind that in my lifetime, eastern Europe was behind the Iron Curtain, and only a lucky few were able to defect to the West. Along these lines, I recently watched the movie The Lives of Others, about the lives of East Germans under their repressive regime. Unfortunately, I couldn't love this book as much as I would have liked. For one thing, the book is more of a summary of the history of Czechoslovakia from the start of the 20th century until the Velvet Revolution in 1989 and much less about the house than I would have expected. The first section, with the building of the palace by Otto Petschek, details how the palace came to be, even after Petschek ran out of money thanks to his lavish plans. But then we see the occupation of the palace by Rudolph Toussaint, a member of the German military during the Nazi years. It's this section that tends to drag, with all kinds of political and military maneuvering and so many Nazis to keep track of. I appreciate the fact that Toussaint tried to keep Czechoslovakia unscathed, but perhaps Eisen could have hit the salient high points and tightened up his story a bit. The next portion of the book, describing the Prague Spring and Shirley Temple Black's accidental front seat to history as the Soviets invaded Prague, was quite fascinating, as it was these events that propelled her into the diplomatic service and culminated with her service as the US ambassador to Czechoslovakia in 1989, right as Communism was falling throughout Europe. That section was gripping, and gave the reader an unusual view into history, with the experiences of those at the forefront described so vividly. However, the last chapter with Eisen himself becoming the ambassador fell a bit flat. And then the book just... ends. There is no final conclusion chapter to wrap everything up and tie up loose ends. That was quite disappointing. The subject matter of the book is quite interesting; I just wish Eisen had perhaps a better editor.

  27. 5 out of 5

    Koen

    Exhilarating read by former Czech republic ambassador for the United States and Ethics Tsar for the Obama administration Norman Eisen. The Last Palace is a history of Czechoslovakia in four acts with a building at its centre. When Jewish financial baron Otto Petschek built his Petschek Palace after World War I it almost ruined him financially. Such was his commitment to building this marvellous building which would be his legacy and is said to be the last palace build in Europe. In less than a dec Exhilarating read by former Czech republic ambassador for the United States and Ethics Tsar for the Obama administration Norman Eisen. The Last Palace is a history of Czechoslovakia in four acts with a building at its centre. When Jewish financial baron Otto Petschek built his Petschek Palace after World War I it almost ruined him financially. Such was his commitment to building this marvellous building which would be his legacy and is said to be the last palace build in Europe. In less than a decade Petscheck’s family had to abandon their home and their numerous other belongings when Nazi’s occupied Prague and the palace would change hands again when it became the American embassy after the war. The Petscheck family would never return to their fatherland or the palace Otto build. Eisen tells the stories of Wehrmacht general Toussaint, first post war ambassador for the US Steinhardt and eyewitness to the Prague Spring and ambassador during the fall of communism Shirley Temple Black. All would occupy the palace and be enchanted by it. All would be first hand witnesses to the major upheavals in Czechoslovakia’s turbulent history and active actors in it. All would put in efforts in saving and shielding the people of Czechoslovakia and the palace. Woven in is the story of Eisen himself who took residence of the palace and more importantly his mother, who fled Prague in the early days of the communist regime after just returning from Auschwitz. Eisen’s narrative is fast paced and engaging. He does an excellent job of transporting you to some of the most important events in European history and THE defining moments in Czechoslovakian/Czech history. The history is heart-breaking and through the eyes of the main characters I really felt up close and personal to them. If you have read up about Czech history the book might be a bit redundant but I hadn’t and learned a lot. As some other reviewers have mentioned the title might be a bit misleading. The palace serves as sort of a centre point around which the story is told, it’s not the main character of the book. That role is reserved for the aforementioned people and the Czech people. Loved it.

  28. 5 out of 5

    Laurie

    The Last Palace isn’t a palace in the meaning that a ruler lived there. It was originally a private residence, built by Otto Petschek (who made his fortune in coal) after World War 1. He never finished the building; he was picky to the point of obsession. Once, after it was supposedly finished, he had most of it torn down and restarted. He spared no expense, and brought luxury items from around the world. It’s an amazing place. During WW 2, the Petschek family had to flee. The house was then use The Last Palace isn’t a palace in the meaning that a ruler lived there. It was originally a private residence, built by Otto Petschek (who made his fortune in coal) after World War 1. He never finished the building; he was picky to the point of obsession. Once, after it was supposedly finished, he had most of it torn down and restarted. He spared no expense, and brought luxury items from around the world. It’s an amazing place. During WW 2, the Petschek family had to flee. The house was then used by the Nazis- when author Eisen, an ambassador from the US to Czechoslovakia, came to live in the house, he was astonished to find little swastikas on the underside of the chairs and table. They were inventory marks and numbers. Thankfully for the palace, general Toussaint, who lived in the house during the war, was dedicated to preserving the house (and trying to save the country from Soviet occupation; that part failed). Shirley Temple Black was ambassador to the Czech Republic during the Velvet Revolution-the story of her time living in the palace is given in the book. The house was looted by both Nazis and Russian occupiers; fortunately, Petschek’s loyal butler guarded many treasures in the house. He stayed, regardless of who the occupier was, to protect the palace. When Eisen became ambassador, he –after much persuasion- brought his mother over to visit. She and her family had managed to escape the Nazis when they started putting Jews on railroad cars to the death camps. It’ not just the story of the house, obviously. It’s the story of 20th century Czechoslovakian history. This was something I knew nothing about, and this book provided the information in short and easy to read form. The book is very well researched; the notes and bibliography occupy over a hundred pages. At times it got very dry and a little *too* detailed for me, but for the most part, it’s a pretty interesting story. The history of the palace is sort of the history of the Czech Republic in short form. Four stars.

  29. 5 out of 5

    Marie Look

    I was excited to receive my ARC of The Last Palace from Penguin Random House's First To Read program, however I was ultimately disappointed in this book for two main reasons. First, its cover and summary had given me the impression that the incredible house itself would be a character in the book, or at least a focal point, but that turned out to not be the case. I felt this book turned out to be more of a history of Prague from the 1920s to the 1960s and the house served as very loose connectiv I was excited to receive my ARC of The Last Palace from Penguin Random House's First To Read program, however I was ultimately disappointed in this book for two main reasons. First, its cover and summary had given me the impression that the incredible house itself would be a character in the book, or at least a focal point, but that turned out to not be the case. I felt this book turned out to be more of a history of Prague from the 1920s to the 1960s and the house served as very loose connective tissue. Beyond the chronology of the palace's construction, which is shared at the outset of the book, this story is much less about the palace than it is about the political and economical timeline of Prague within the context of European and world history. Second, I had an expectation that the author, Norman Eisen, would be more present in his own book. Given the fact that he lived in the palace as the U.S. ambassador to the Czech Republic and had firsthand knowledge of the residence and of the city, I had expected his own opinions, insights and anecdotes to be injected throughout the narrative. However, only the first and last chapters were written from his point of view and the rest of the book was written in a style that to me was much more like the nonfiction narrative in a history textbook. In fact, the book left me suspecting that Eisen had contributed the opening and closing chapters and used a ghostwriter for the vast middle, which is never what you want as a reader. (Nor as an author, I would imagine.) With all of the above said, I did appreciate how well researched the content seemed to be, even if it was delivered in a manner that was way too dry for my taste. Ultimately, I wouldn't recommend this book to anyone who normally enjoys commercial nonfiction or commercial fiction. I think The Last Palace is better suited to academics and universities' required reading lists.

  30. 5 out of 5

    Bimal Patel

    Thank you Penguin Random House for sending me this unpublished copy (now published as of Sept 4th) for review. The Last Palace by Norman Eisen (US ambassador to Czech Republic) is truly an amazing read. To learn the history you can read books written by academic scholars and pour over historical documents which can be boring and downright depressing or you can study an object, a person, an event that has been affected politically, socially, culturally, etc during the time the history of which we Thank you Penguin Random House for sending me this unpublished copy (now published as of Sept 4th) for review. The Last Palace by Norman Eisen (US ambassador to Czech Republic) is truly an amazing read. To learn the history you can read books written by academic scholars and pour over historical documents which can be boring and downright depressing or you can study an object, a person, an event that has been affected politically, socially, culturally, etc during the time the history of which we are trying to study which in my opinion is more fun and better way of learning. That is exactly what Norman Eisen has done in this book. He takes us through the history of European empire particularly Czechslovakia starting from pre-WWII all the way up to now. The central object that the story revolves around is Otto Petschek's Palace that he obsessively tailored to his vision built just before WWII. How the lives of it's owner Petschek family and eventually it's various occupants were affected with rise of Fascism in Germany and later with Communism in Soviet and eventually establishment of democracy in Czech republic is so vividly articulated. The story of Petschek's Palace is the story of Czech republic in 20th century. How US foreign policy played a role in helping oust Communism in Czech is worth admiring. All those US ambassadors standing up again Communist regime including Shirley Black, the celebrity actress and how she ushured in the democracy by peripherally supporting and being a witness of the revolution that overthrew the communist regime. Overall, this is an amazing book that history buffs are sure to enjoy thoroughly.

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