The drive into Prague is like a journey into the past. As you approach, grand castles and cathedrals appear on the horizon and pull you into an old-world city that could be the setting for a fairy tale.
Three years ago, Norm Eisen made this journey in a motorcade. It was his first day as U.S. ambassador to the Czech Republic. He was returning to the land where his mother, Frieda, had been born almost 90 years ago.
On his first night in Prague, after a whirlwind of formal greetings and arrival ceremonies, Eisen’s wife and teenage daughter went to sleep. The new ambassador sat in the ornate, wood-paneled library, soaking in the reality of this strange new life. The head of the household staff, Miroslav Cernik, came into the room.
“Ambassador, there’s something I’d like to show you,” Cerník said.
The dignified majordomo led the ambassador to a small antique table with intricate, wood-inlaid carvings of vines and leaves. He asked the ambassador to look underneath.
“I thought — what a strange request,” Eisen recalls. “Why does he want me to look under the table? But I did. I knelt. I peered up under the table. And he showed me the swastika.”
It was a sticker, with a number marking the table as Nazi property. Cerník did not want Eisen to discover it himself and get upset.
The U.S. ambassador’s residence in Prague is called Petschek Palace. It was built in the 1920s for one of the wealthiest families in the former Czechoslovakia. The Petscheks were Jewish. The family fled its home at the start of the war. After the Nazis occupied Prague, Petschek Palace became the headquarters of the secret police — the people who sent Eisen’s mother to Auschwitz in a cattle car.
A Deeply Personal Connection
Eisen has more than diplomatic ties to this land. His mother grew up in Czechoslovakia. She survived Auschwitz and after the war moved to the United States to raise her family. For Eisen, this appointment in Prague is the completion of a family story that began almost a century ago.
Seeing the Nazi sticker on that table “was like a punch in the gut,” says Eisen. “It literally took my breath away. I think that before I saw the swastika, I’d grasped what my life was going to be like here on an intellectual level. But that really struck me on an emotional and a physical level.”
On Friday evening, Eisen’s wife lights candles to mark the start of the Jewish Sabbath. She quietly sings the blessing in Hebrew, covering her eyes with her hands in keeping with Jewish tradition.
Eisen hosts Shabbat dinner here every week. This night’s guests include the French and British ambassadors, the famous Czech novelist Ivan Klima, and the head of Prague’s Jewish museum, Leo Pavlat.
“It’s something almost unbelievable sitting at the table which was used by the Gestapo,” Pavlat says in lightly accented English. “And at the same time, this is American Embassy.”
Like Eisen, Pavlat is also the son of a Holocaust survivor.
“My mother survived one among thousands, thousands, thousands of people. And to be here, it’s a big privilege for me. I know it,” he says.
“I was not supposed to live,” says Pavlat. “And I think Norman Eisen has the same feeling.”
In the basement of the house, a team of chefs is chopping onions and stirring bubbling pots for the festive meal. This is now a kosher home, with one kitchen for meat and one for dairy.
Revamping the household to conform to Jewish dietary laws tested even the fortitude of Cernik, a man who takes great pride in his job and identifies with the character Carson from Downton Abbey.
“Every kitchen has its own china, its own dishes, which cannot be combined and used for mixing together,” Cernik explains.
When Eisen arrived, the staff members learned how to make traditional foods like challah and matzoh ball soup. They went into overdrive mastering the details of which fish are kosher and which are not. Prague does not even have a kosher butcher. The meat must be shipped in from Berlin or Vienna.
“We completely changed the purchasing philosophy,” says Cernik. “We canceled all our relations and connections. And we have started new deliveries. New suppliers.”
Jews have lived in Prague for centuries. The old town is full of ornate synagogues built in Gothic, Renaissance, and Baroque architectural styles. Rabbi Manis Barash has led a small, struggling congregation here for 18 years.
Until World War II, he says, every synagogue had a congregation.
“Had a rabbi. A bar mitzvah. They had wedding celebrations. There were people coming to pray and to study. Today, most of the synagogues are museums,” the rabbi says.
A Special Role
That makes Eisen’s role in this community as an active, observant Jew much more powerful.
When he arrived, he spoke to his mother every day from her retirement home in Los Angeles. He urged her to come and revisit her birth country.
“She promised me every month that she’d come the following month,” he says. “And I just don’t think that she was able emotionally to come back.”
At the end of his first year in the job, Eisen went with relatives to see his mother’s hometown. He met a man in his 90s who’d known his mother as a child.
The old man told Eisen a story. As a young boy, he was walking home with a pail of milk. “He spilled his milk and was terrified, started crying — terrified that his mother would beat him,” says Eisen.
“My mother said — why are you crying? And she allowed him to milk her cow, filled up his pail again, so he wouldn’t get in trouble.”
Eisen also visited Auschwitz for the first time, keeping his mother on the phone from California as he toured the concentration camp.
“So I was able to have her voice literally in my ear as my cousins and I walked through Auschwitz,” he says. “She guided us through which barracks she’d been in, and the exact spot where the train had arrived.”
Soon after that visit, Eisen’s mother died. He says she left the world with a sense of completion, knowing that after just one generation, her son returned to the place she was born, representing the most powerful nation on earth.
“That was a great sense of triumph for my mother, and I think it was very meaningful to her,” Eisen says.
At the end of our conversation, Eisen walks up a small flight of stairs. There, a small table sits in the window. Framed Eisen family photos stand on the shiny tabletop inlaid with vines and leaves. Curved wooden legs reach down to the floor.
“Come on down, we’ll take a look at it,” he says.
Lying on the ground, staring up at the underside of the table, the label is unmistakable. A Nazi iron eagle, clutching a swastika, with a serial number.
There is also a label from the 1920s, marking the table as the property of the Petschek family. And a modern sticker, identifying the antique as belonging to the U.S. Department of State.
In the three years since Eisen arrived here, he has actively spoken out for the rights of Roma, LGBT people, and other oppressed minorities. He says when he anticipated this move, he thought he might feel a sense of triumph, that his family and the Jewish people have survived. Or maybe he’d feel desolation, surrounded by the ghosts of the past. Instead, he says, in the land where his mother was born, he feels determination. A sense that the fight against discrimination and oppression is never over.