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.