Norman Eisen, an old friend of Obama’s from Harvard Law School, is bolstering the forces of liberalism as ambassador to the Czech Republic
In a letter to Congress, Eisen explained that the decision to fire Walpin was due to his behavior at a corporation board meeting, in which he appeared “confused, disoriented, unable to answer questions and exhibited other behavior that led the Board to question his capacity to serve.” Yet Walpin’s defenders insisted that he was fired for political reasons—and Walpin was happy to oblige. Immediately after losing his job he appeared with Glenn Beck, who compared Walpin’s treatment at the hands of the Obama Administration to that of blacks in the segregated American south, claiming that Walpin had been fired because “he wouldn’t sit in the last row of seats; he wouldn’t get up from the counter.” Rather than continue without an ambassador to the Czech Republic, Obama sent Eisen to Prague via a recess appointment in December 2010. A year later, as Eisen’s term was approaching its end and Grassley showed no signs of lifting his hold, Eisen wrote a letter of apology, and Grassley allowed the nomination to proceed. On Dec. 12, Eisen was confirmed by the Senate, 70-16.
Two days after the death of Vaclav Havel on Dec. 18, Eisen hosted a Hanukkah party in his official residence. Among those in the crowd were David Cerny, a Czech of Jewish descent and the country’s most famous living artist, and Alan Dershowitz, whom Eisen worked for as a research assistant while at Harvard and who was visiting Prague with his granddaughter. “Our union was made in heaven,” Dershowitz told me. “He was a natural guy for me to hire because he was brilliant and shared many of the same liberal democratic, pro-Israel values that I did and that he still represents.”
Eisen’s palatial home once belonged to Otto Petschek, a German-speaking Jew and one of the wealthiest men in inter-war Czechoslovakia. Petschek died in 1934, and his family fled the country in 1938, right before the Nazi invasion. After the war, the U.S. government purchased the estate, and during the Cold War it became an important meeting place for dissidents, Havel included. Eisen arranged for one of Petschek’s daughters, now living in New York City, to address the crowd via webcam. As waitresses passed out potato latkes on silver platters (an observant Jew, Eisen had the residence kitchen kashered), he took the microphone to welcome his guests. Pointing to the large, decorated tree across the room, he remarked that it was “my first Christmas tree.”
Living in the building that once hosted the Nazi occupation forces has a special resonance for Eisen. He is the only member of his family to return to the Czech Republic since World War II. “Returning to a place where my family, and so many other Czechs and Slovaks, were oppressed by the Nazis and the Communists, was not without its challenges. Particularly the first weeks of living in my residence,” he told me. Not long after moving into the house, he found a swastika and a Nazi inventory number attached to an antique table in the foyer; seeing it was “a stab in the heart.”
He attributes his ability to overcome the initial trauma to his Jewish upbringing and religious observance. “Intellectually I recognized that my return represented a triumph over evil, but it took a little while to experience that triumph emotionally as well,” he said. In a speech last summer renaming the street outside his residence after Ronald Reagan, Eisen wowed (and surprised) the audience of conservative heavyweights with his praise for the 40th president. It was a genuine reflection of his centrist political sensibility and a worldview that was formed by two parents who experienced the worst horrors of the 20th century, only to discover the promise of freedom and acceptance in the United States. “As a child, my mother told me about growing up in the newly independent Czechoslovakia led by President Masaryk, about the horror of the Nazi occupation, and about the brief flowering of freedom after the war, only to have the Communists take over,” he says. “So, I experienced that history vicariously, and it’s fundamental to who I am and to everything I have ever done.”
Every Shabbat evening when he’s in Prague, Eisen worships at the city’s Altneu Synagogue, one of the oldest operating synagogues in the world and a place where Jews have been praying since the late 13th century. “My ancestors certainly prayed here when traveling through Prague—although as far as I know I am the first one in the family to earn an assigned seat,” he says. “After the pogroms of 1389, the walls were splashed in blood, which was left untouched for about two centuries. It was finally painted over in the 16th century, but I sometimes debate with other worshipers whether traces can still be seen. In any event, it seeps through in memory and consciousness, and yet here we still are.”
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