Born in 1882, Otto Petschek was a leading banker and industrialist in the new democracy of Czechoslovakia. During the years of World War I, he foresaw Czechoslovak independence and recognized that coal would be vital. He bought as many mines as he could. The Petschek bank’s holdings skyrocketed as the largest holders of lignite and controlled almost half of the brown coal in Europe. Otto was the King of Coal.
He and his parents purchased plots of land in Prague, Czechoslovakia, over several decades to form a five-acre parcel. In 1924, Otto began building himself a palace. It was to be the last palace built in Europe.
He was passionate about architecture and acquired a vast collection of books on the subject. From these and his travels, he planned his palace. It must befit his status as a prominent citizen of Prague, and embody the brilliant future of peace and prosperity after the war to end all wars.
Austria-Hungarian Emperor had offered to elevate Otto’s father Isidor and Uncle Julius to nobility, but they declined, preferring to keep a low profile. They were Jewish, and their family had escaped to Prague from a pogrom in 1876.
Otto was particular about his palace. The first architecture was dismissed when he started the construction in the wrong shape. Otto’s home was not to be a straight rectangle, but was to curve. He continuously sent the second builder alterations that required parts being ripped out, reversed, and redone.
The delays fueled Otto’s temper. He argued with his wife and snapped at his four children. His obsession with the palace and its extravagant furnishings brought him to the edge of ruin. Finally, in 1930, they moved in, but the children weren’t happy.
With the Great Depression, ethnic Czechs opposed Otto for being too German, and German Czechs disparaged him for being too Jewish. The rise of Fascism, and Communists in the mines, further plagued him. Otto died in 1934, having lived in his palace for only four years.
His widow and children escaped Czechoslovakia in 1938. The palace was taken over by the Germans.
Colonel Rudolf Toussaint had been the military attaché in Prague before World War II. He had wanted to be an artist, but his father wanted him to join the military. He favored neither the Führer nor the regime. He hated war, having survived some of the worst of the first war. During this time, the French and British assisted Hitler in dismembering Czechoslovakia, beginning with the Sudetenland. With the country notched on Hitler’s belt, Toussaint was transferred to Belgrade in 1939.
In October, 1941, promoted to general, he returned to Czechoslovakia as the Wehrmacht commander, and Otto’s palace became his home. Otto’s staff, led by majordomo Adolf Pokorny, appreciated their new proprietor with the elegant manners who treated them politely. They kept the palace running smoothly, and Toussaint gave them a free hand.
Two generals had occupied the premises before him, taking away silver and china, and stripping Otto’s wife’s closets. Everything they left behind had been stamped with the Nazi symbol, a stylized eagle clutching a swastika. Remaining in the library were all of Otto’s Jewish books.
In the final days of the war, Toussaint worked hard to keep Prague from being destroyed, violating an order from his superior to gain a ceasefire.
Laurence Steinhardt arrived in July, 1945, as the new US ambassador to Czechoslovakia. The palace was now controlled by the Czech military, and he came to call on them. Pokorny informed him of Otto and the palace’s history.
The Soviets had seized Otto’s home when they liberated Prague, and did more damage in a few days than had occurred in six years of war. They’d also trucked away silver, linen, and porcelain.
Steinhardt requested of President Beneš that the United States rent the palace. Beneš wanted to cultivate US favor, but the State Department refused. Steinhardt rented the palace himself, paying 150,000 Czech crowns per year.
Repairs were hard to obtain through the Communist government. Steinhardt wanted the State Department to buy the palace, but who had the rights to it, the government or Otto’s son Viktor? The ambassador sought to obtain the palace against Czech debts to the US. The Czechs were unlikely to be able to repay the debt, which would be necessary before the US would return the Czechs’ wartime reserve of gold held in US banks. The deal went through, and Mr. Pokorny and his wife now lived on American soil in the little gatehouse.
|A pool in the basement.
Former child star Shirley Temple Black was in Prague in 1968 to invite the Czechs to join the International Federation of Multiple Sclerosis Societies. The Soviets invaded Czechoslovakia on the day she was to leave. The event triggered a new career for her in international relations. Twenty-one years later, President George H. W. Bush appointed her as the new ambassador.
In the two decades since her visit, the popular had become downtrodden. Events were happening quickly in Eastern Europe though. Shirley soon became involved in the Velvet Revolution. The people rallied, with her whole-hearted support, and brought down the Communist regime.
|Photos U.S. Embassy Prague
Coming in September: The Last Palace: Europe’s Turbulent Century in Five Lives and One Legendary House by Norman Eisen