Day 5: Prague

From our view at the top of the hill, we overlooked the spectacular view of Prague, and discussed its different units: The Castle Town, Lesser Town, New Town, and the Old Town which includes the Jewish Ghetto. All of these were in place by the 14th century, when Charles IV was the Holy Roman Emperor and Prague was the capital of the Holy Roman Empire. Next, we saw the Czernin Palace, which today houses the Foreign Ministry, and the Loretto Shrine, one of the finest baroque structures.

Continuing into the Castle premises, we saw a whole diversity of architectural styles, beginning at the St. Vitus Cathedral, with its unique gothic and neo-gothic architecture. As we walked through the king’s palace, Kamila explained the significance of manure in world history and how defenestration was utilized to punish individuals.

We then went into the Lobkowicz Palace. The Lobkowicz family is one of the most important in Czech nobility whose estate and property were extensive. They lost their property twice in recent history: once to the Nazis, and once to the Communists. They retrieved it in 1989 after the Velvet Revolution, and recently opened it to the public as a museum. Inside we had an intimate look at the inside of palace life, and especially at the Lobkowicz’s contribution to culture: music, painting, and architecture.

The highlight of our day was our visit to the U.S. Ambassador’s Residence.  Ambassador Norman Eisen greeted us and told us the amazing story of the Czech history that the Ambassador’s residence represents.  Built in the late 1920’s for Otto Petschek, a Jewish man whose grandfather started as a peddler selling his wares. In just two generations, this family became the wealthiest in Czechoslavakia.  Because they were Jewish, they fled in 1938 when the Nazis came.  In two days, they packed their things and left.  Untouched by the Nazi officials who lived there during the war period, all of the Petschek’s beautiful belongings, including furniture, chandeliers, and most ironically their Jewish Encyclopedia set.  Fittingly, as the Allied soldiers of General Patton’s divisions approached, the Nazis had two days in which to flee.

Following the war, the building was purchased by the United States in 1946 and has been used as the Ambassador’s Residence since then.  Mr. Eisen, whose mother was born to a very poor Jewish family in Czechoslavakia survived Auschwitz, immigrated to the United States, and gave birth to her son, Mr. Eisen, in 1960 in Los Angeles.  Mr. Eisen told us that he grew up as part of a large community of Holocaust survivor families, and that he thought tattooed numbers were on every adult’s arm. 

After posing with our group for a photograph, we got to tour the main floor of the residence with the Czech assistant who has worked as the chief of staff for the residence since 2001.

HST 2014 with US Ambassador Norman Eisen

He showed us the Jewish Encyclopedias belonging to the Petscheks, still in the same spot on the shelf of the library, the back wall of the mansion leading to the garden terrace that recedes into the floor with the push of a button, and most importantly for us, the table in the entryway that still has the Nazi inventory sticker underneath.

Encyclopedia Judaica owned by the Petscheck family remains in the library today.

The sticker, stamped with the Nazi swastika, hides beneath the surface of the table, which proudly displays a crystal Menorah.  For the first time since the 1930s, this residence keeps a kosher kitchen with the first ever United States kosher dishes for official state dinners.  In the words of Mr. Eisen, the story has come “full circle.” In a Washington Post 2013 interview, Ambassador Eisen quoted his mother as having said: “The Nazis took us out of there on cattle cars: my son flew back on Air Force One.”  Our Jewish ambassador to the Czech Republic in Prague represents not only the United States, but a Holocaust story with a happy ending fitting for this city of legends.

Student Reflections
Nicole says…
The Czech history that we had learned today taught me how religion was a part of Czech culture until the Plague and people then believed that it was irrelevant to believe in God. Religious tension which turned into irrational racial superiority of the Nazi party, was also the basis for Nazi Germany scapegoating the Jews.
Trevor says…
From my time in Berlin and Prague, the Jews and the Czechs shared a common conflict for challenging the authority of the church order. In a city full of Catholic churches and influences in Prague, the Jews and the Czechs represented a minority against the authority.
Mackenzie says…
The Strahov Library was run by the monastery and their main goal was to educate. The monasteries wanted the Catholics to be educated, so in order to do that they provided thousands of books that would be available for them.
Dana says…
St. Vitus Cathedral in the dark ages used pictures to depict stories of the bible in the stained glass because the common Czech was illiterate. In contrast, Jews were brought to Prague because they understand how to read and write.
Sarah says…
Ultimately Jewish history is Czech history. Jews, as a part of Czech society for centuries have contributed immensely to society in the areas of commerce and education; thus playing a pivotal role in the enlightenment of Europe. The Jews of Europe became increasingly assimilated, believing themselves to be Czech first and Jewish second. Today, seeing the US Ambassador’s incredible residence, built by the Petschek family, it became evident Czech Jews were Czechoslovakians; thus making it seem more astounding that the German Nazis would attempt to eliminate the entire Jewish population despite their obvious positive influence of all of Europe.
Tara says…
Since before the Golden Age of Spain, Jews had been money lenders as Christians considered it a sin. This can also be seen within the literature of Shakespeare, with Shylock the Jew featured as a money lender in the Merchant of Venice. While in Prague, I learned that a ruler named Rudolph, made a law allowing people to start their own businesses to provide economic growth in exchange for a 12 year tax exemption. Economy is the basis of any country and with the Jews and other educated people their financial niche became a monopoly at least until the Enlightenment.


  1. Wow! What gorgeous photos of the cathedral and inside the Ambassador's Residence! So amazing that the Petschek's belongings, including the Encyclopedia Judaica, survived the Nazi occupation.The Nazi inventory sticker underneath the table is an undeniable piece of history; what a find! Your personal reflections are so insightful and inspiring! Great group photo, too! 🙂


  2. What an amazing story! I wonder if Ambassador Eisen has heard about the documentary film, Misa's Fugue. It would be cool for the students to see this film now that they are familiar with Prague and its Jewish history!


  3. Prague is possibly my favorite city ever, the architecture that still remains there is so beautiful and it is remarkable how long many of the buildings have stood for, especially the building with the flying buttresses. It was very interesting to read about your experience in the ambassadors residence and how all of the families original belongings were not removed by the nazi's.


  4. Thank you all so very much for the pictures, the information and explanations, and your outstanding reflections. I could not help but think of you when I took my students to a local temple today. Keep the stories coming!


  5. Your fifth day in Praha is a prime example of how important and significant the Holocaust Study Tour is. It expands from sole concentration on the Holocaust and Nazi ideology to international influences and affairs. As high school students, having the chance to even meet a US ambassador is truly rare and remarkable.


  6. It is really interesting how you all went to the U.S. ambassador's house. That is SO COOL! That is a great experience that I'm sure you all took something away from. I remember the Strahov Library, and how amazed I was because of how many books there were and how different people were educated back then. Nowadays we google something if we do not know the answer, back then you had to actually open a book and try and figure out the answer. I remember being in awe, once entering the libaray. Glad you are all enjoying Prague!


  7. That house seemed beautiful. What an interesting residence so rich in history. While I am not a history buff by any means, I always think it's cool being in historic buildings knowing, and not knowing what has taken place their in the dozens, hundreds, or thousands of years prior. Hope everyone is having a great time and is learning a lot. See you all when you get back.-Dev


  8. Your comments remind me that different events are a result of a long history of a people – an event is not the result of 1 law or a single leader. Whenever I am reminded of the book burning during Nazi rule, I am sadden – what a tragedy. This trip sounds like an amazing experience for you guys! Keep sharing with us…


  9. The table stamped with the Nazi sticker, sporting a Menorah, is a stunning example of how much things have changed in the years after such a travesty. The stories of progress are moving and wonderfully optimistic. The architecture of the cathedral and the ambassador's residence are both spectacular–just the pictures take my breath away! You all are you lucky to be able to experience everything firsthand.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s