Published on 6 September 2016
The extended Petschk family was among the most prominent entrepreneurial families in the first Czechoslovak Republic. Its members largely dominated Czech banking and coal mining, and they had shares in other industries. At the time of their greatest peak, three brothers - Ignatz, Isidor and Julius Petschek - controlled almost fifty percent of the brown coal mining in Europe, and their total assets were estimated at almost six billion crowns. The successful development of their business was hit hard by World War II. Fortunately for them, the Petscheks had enough foresight to leave Czechoslovakia in time, but their vast economic empire was forever destroyed.
The Petschek family could serve as a prime example of how seamlessly the Jewish business elite of the late Habsburg monarchy continued its pre-war success during the First Czechoslovak Republic.
The founder and the first bearer of the surname was Samuel Petschek. The family received this surname during the Josephine Reforms; it is derived from the name of the town of Pečky, where Samuel came from. Samuel was very poor, and so was his son Izrael Petschek, who was a peddler and had ten children. The first major property was gained by Irzael’s son Moses.
Moses Petschek started as a peddler and money-lender. His family moved first from Pečky to Kolín; later they had to leave Kolín because of usery, and in the end settled in Prague. At that time, Moses forged a considerable fortune through property speculations, which allowed the family to start a business in coal mining and to buy shares in a coal mining company in Most, which was not prospering at the time.
Moses Petschek had four children: Isidor, Julius, Ignatz and Růžena. This generation of Petscheks took the family business to its absolute peak. However, the three brothers divided the business into two branches, whch competed for a certain time. Dr. Isidor Petschek and Dr. Julius Petschek founded the Prague branch, and Ignatz Petschek represented the Ústí family branch, as it was called.
The youngest of Moses’ sons, Ignatz Petschek, studied at the grammar school in Malá Strana in Prague, and in 1874 he joined Pragobank as a trainee. One of his tasks was to audit the management of a sugar refinery in Louny. Here, he was noticed by coal industrialist Jakob Weinmann, for whose business Petschke worked as a salesman from 1876. In 1880 Ignatz Petschek decided to go independent, founded his own coal business in Ústí nad Labem (Aussig), Petschek-Ústí, and began to compete intensely with his former employer. In 1882, he teamed up with capital-rich Anglobank and also bought several shares in North Bohemian brown coal companies such as Britannia AG, Duxer Kohlengesellschaft AG and others. Thanks to these investments and several newly introduced methods, among which was the consignment sale of coal, Ignatz Petschek dominated half of the North-Bohemian brown coal business sector until the late 19th century.
In the early 20th century, his company expanded to Germany. At the time of the black coal sales crisis, he began production of coal briquettes, which he exported with success to Upper Silesia and Central Germany. He managed the decisive breakthrough into the German brown coal industry in 1905, when he took part in the redevelopment of the former property of the princely Hohenlohe family and acquired a majority stake in the company “Hohenlohewerke AG”. The shareholders of the new firm were Emanuel von Friedländer-Fould and Cezare Wollheim, with whom Petschek subsequently founded the firm’s subsidiary, Fulmen, which dealt with sale of coal from German mines.
Ignatz Petschek used the inflation which occurred after World War I for the advantageous purchases of shares, and his company “Petschek-Ústí” achieved a dominant position in the German mining industry. In addition to its significant stake in Hohenlohewerke AG, the company also acquired a number of joint-stock enterprises in Central and Northern Germany; among others, Ilse Bergbau, Oehringer Bergbau and Niederlausitzer Kohlenwerke.
In addition to his investments in mining and industrial companies, Ignatz Petschek made donations to charity. In 1915 he had a medical train equipped at his own cost; in Ústí nad Labem, he financed the construction of a children's unit at the local hospital, the Institute of boy's education “Na kabátě“ and the nearby Sanatorium for tuberculosis patients.
When Ignatz Petschek died, the value of his holdings was estimated at over 200 million marks. The firm was taken over by František Petschek and Vilém Petschek. However, the heirs ran the entire business only briefly. Successful development was hampered by the rise of Nazism, the annexation of the Sudetenland, the occupation of Czechoslovakia and the subsequent Aryanisation of Jewish property. The family’s members - Vilém Petschek, Karel Petschek, Arnošt Petschek and Helena Petschková - left Ústí nad Labem before the occupation of the borderland. František Petschek left last, on 16 March 1939. First the family went to Great Britain, and later to the United States of America.
By fleeing abroad, all the family members managed to save their lives from the very real threat of the Holocaust. However, they did not manage to save their property in time. By the decision of Reichsprotector für Böhmen und Mähren of 28 October 1939 Nr. VIIú307930/39, a state manager was appointed for their company and all the company assets and the property of the Petscheks were confiscated by the district financial directorate in Brno and the relevant Reich authorities. The villa in Ústí nad Labem, in which the Petscheks had lived until their emigration, was confiscated in October 1948.
The Prague branch of the Petschek family managed to deal with the consequences of World War II much better. The Prague branch included the sons of Moses Petschek, Isidor Petschek and Julius Petschek and their children and great-children. Dr. Isidor Petschek had four sons: Otta, Pavel, Bedřich and Hanuš. Dr. Otta Petschek had a son, Viktor, and daughters Eva, Rita and Ina. Dr. Julius Petschek had three children: Waltr, Markéta and Mariann.
After Moses Petschek’s death, his elder sons Isidor Petschek and Julius Petschek were to take over the management of the coal company in Most (Brüxer Kohlenbergbau-Gesellschaft). Isidor Petschek was the first to start working in the company. After Julius Petschek left his post at the state prosecutor’s office, he too joined the family business in 1906. The youngest of the three brothers, Ignatz Petschek, had exclusive marketing rights with the company. However, when a more advantegous business connection occured, they terminated the contract with their youngest brother. This caused the above-mentioned split in the family, which, despite not being long-lasting, left its mark on the family.
In 1920, the Prague branch of the Petscheks founded the banking institution “Petschek & Co.” The company’s general partners were Julius Petschek, Otto Petschek, Pavel Petschek, Bedřich Petschek, Hanuš Petschek and Walter Petschek. In 1937 the daughters of Julius Petschek - Markéta Gellertová nee Petschová and Marianna Gellertová nee Petschková - along with Viktor Petschek were also registered as general partners in the commercial register. Their banking house supported wholesale, banking and stock-exchange services and had the right to acquire commercial, industrial and mining enterprises. The main part of the concern consisted in shares in mining companies based in the Most Basin: Mostecká společnost pro dobývání uhlí (Most coal mining company), Severočeské uhelné doly (North-Bohemian Coal Mines), Akciová společnost dolu Minerva (Minerva Mine Joint-Stock Company), Akciová společnost dolu Poseidon (Minerva Mine Joint-Stock Company) and a share in the sales companies of these mines, i.e. Ústecká montánní společnost s r. o. a spol., Ústí nad Labem. In July 1938, with the threat of the outbreak of World War II in mind, the Petscheks sold their shares in these companies to Živnostenská banka (Tradebank) in Prague, although not quite profitably, as otherwise they would have lost them, as in the case of other businesses.
Their banking institute had shares in other companies in the Falknov Basin: Bodenské uhelné doly (joint-stock company); Falknovsko-chebská důlní společnost (mining company); Fischerovy lesklouhelné doly (joint-stock company); Sylvestr v Tisové a Dolové (joint-stock company) and Johann David Starck Bergbau und Industriewerke, which also owned a glassworks and a power station in Dolní Rychnov and a chemical plant for fireclay products in Kaznějov and Břasy u Plzně. Those were transferred in 1938 from the assets of Dolové a průmyslové závody to directly under the joint-stock company Jan David Starck.
In Czechoslovakia, the banking house Petschek & Comp. had further shares in the following companies: Bohemia (ceramics factory), Nová Role (the share in this company was aryanised during the occupation), Pragolit stavební potřeby a. s. (this firm was also aryanised), Gellert a spol. (joint-stock company, paper industry) in Prague, Pražská Neusiedelská (a group including a paper mill, a cellulose factory and a wood-pulp factory), "Pražský mlýn” (a joint stock company for the factory group) and Težařstvo uhelného dolu Viktorie in Most (a mining company owning only, plots with mining rights and protective pillars in Most Basin. Furthermore, they owned shares in Pražská komerční společnost s.r.o. Prague (limited company) and through it, the firm “Neg” (paper and cellulose trading - limited company in Prague), the Pharmaceutical company Norgine in Prague (the factory in Ústí nad Labem was aryanised by the Schering company during the occupation), Prodejní sdružení českých tabuláren (sales company of sheetglass factories; this share was sold after 1945 to the national corporation Československé sklárny), the textile factory Stein&Comp. in Prague, and the company R. Karsten (malthouse and barley export - joint-stock company) - the shares were sold on 30.12.1938 to Akcionářský pivovar at Smíchov (brewery). In September and October 1938, with the permission of the National Bank, the Petschek & Comp. partners managed to export a portion of their shares to England. They represented the family’s share in Falknovsko-chebská důlní společnost (mining company), Fischerovy lesklouhelné doly (mining company), Farmaceutické závody Norgine a.s. (pharmaceutical company), Pražský labský mlýn (paper mill) and Dolové a průmyslové závody Jan David Starck (mining and industrial company).
The main seat of the banking house Petschek & Comp. met with an unfavourable fate. Its premises were originally placed in the partner’s private house at No.7 Washingtonova street, Prague 2. In January 1927, the bank moved to their own "banking palace" on the corner of Bredovská and Washingtonova street. The bank building was designed by the architect Max Spielmann and built between 1923 and 1929. Although it was built in historicising Neo-Classicist style, it was for its time a very modern reinforced-concrete building, fully air-conditioned, equipped with pneumatic tube mail, a telephone exchange, a printer, lifts and massive vaults. At the time when the Petscheks were selling off their property in Czechoslovakia, this house went to the Czechoslovak Ministry of Finances under the provision of 9.11.1938 and was to serve for public purposes. However, after the occupation in May 1939, the main office of Reich’s secret state police (Gestapo) was moved here. During the occupation, 1,200 people worked here. For the members of resistance, Petschek Palace became known as “Pečkárna”. Notorious interrogations and torture took place here. The Acting Reich Protector, Reinhard Heydrich, set up a court martial here, which in most cases sentenced convicted people to be executed or to the concentration camps. The Nazis left the building in May 1945; in 1948 the building went to the Ministry of Foreign Trade, and presently it is a seat of the Ministry of Industry and Trade.
The fate of the Petscheks’ private villas was similar. Three of the four sons of Isidor Petschek (Otto, Bedřich and Pavel) had their family residences built in the villa residential area in Bubeneč in Prague. The most luxurious of them was Otto Petschek’s villa, built between 1924 and 1930, designed by the architect Max Spielmann. Its architecture was inspired by the French classicising Baroque style. The building was constructed with the emphasis on symmetry, like the building of the banking house, and despite its conservative appearance it was equipped with the latest technical achievements and its interiors boasted exclusive furnishing. The whole building, including the equipment and the garden, cost 300 million crowns. Otto Petschek and his wife Marta and their four children moved there in 1931, and the villa immediately became a place of important social events. In 1934 it was visited by King Alexander of Yugoslavia and in 1936 King Carol II of Romania. In June 1934 Otto Petschek died of heart disease at the age of 52, and until their escape from Czechoslovakia, Marta Petschek with the children lived there. After the invasion of Czechoslovakia, the residence was taken over to serve as Wehrmacht headquarters, and in 1945 General Rudolf Toussaint, who headed the German armies occupying Prague, lived there. After liberation in May 1945, the Red Army stayed in the house for several weeks. Afterwards, it was acquired by the Ministry of National Defence, from which, after the intervention of President Edvard Beneš, it was rented by the American Embassador, Laurence A. Steinhardt, in September 1945. Since 1945, the villa has remained the residence of the U.S. ambassadors. Friedrich Petschek's villa houses the Embassy of the Russian Federation, while the Embassy of the People's Republic of China occupies the former residence of Paul Petschek.
Although the Petscheks did not manage to protect these buildings from the occupation, thanks to their political acumen they did save a considerable part of their property. Lists of things to be exported to England survive in the archive of the National Bank. The family’s administration prepared these lists in English and Czech, because these articles were subject to custom duty. The Petschek’s exported things from the villas in Bubeneč in at least 127 shipments. They did not move only objects of high value, but also purely personal, practical things necessary for everyday life. Therefore, besides the obligatory silver, tapestries, cut glass and porcelain, we can find chairs, tables, children’s stools, pillows, bedside tables, garden furniture, dining room furniture, chandeliers and wine crates, kitchenware, tower racks, flower pots, books, toys, a piano, refrigerators and vacuum cleaners on the list.
With the spread of Nazism and the impending treat of war, the issue of nationality was gaining importance in Central Europe. All members of the Petschek family were Jews who, since the times of Moses Petschek, had avowed German nationality. They did so in the census of 1930. Their private correspondence was in German, and it was logical for them to conduct their business dealings and correspondence in German, too. This was nothing unusual during the First Republic, but it was used against them after the war. Paradoxically, the Petcheks, a family that was hit by Aryanization, had to flee abroad and lost a considerable part of its property, were marked as persons promoting Germanization – Germanizers.
The report of the Ministry of the Interior dated 9 September 1947 regarding the Petchek family – property in Czechoslovak Republic, the question of confiscation, investigation under Decree no. 108/1945 Coll, says: “The investigation revealed that for its entire existence during the first Republic of Czechoslovakia, the company put Germans in the leading positions in all its businesses and the management of some of their businesses was conducted purely in German; for example, the company Pražský labský mlýn was managed as a German company; all the books and the language used in negotiations were also German. The company name was German, the administration staff was mostly German and only a very few of them were Czech; people in leading positions were ardent Nazis who sabotaged the Czech elements in the borderland.“ Further on, it says: “The investigation proves that the Petscheks put Germans in the leading positions who led the company in the German spirit and supported the Germanization of Czech territory throughout the first Republic of Czechoslovakia. This was the case with Gellert & Comp.: the company was managed in the German language, the leading figures were of German nationality, and they gave preference to Germans before Czechs when hiring new employees. The investigation shows clearly that this was demonstrably a German firm, which supported the Germanization of the Czechoslovak Republic.”
However, the cited report is in direct conflict with the testimonies given in the comprehensive report on the relationship of the Petschek family with their employees, dated 4 August 1949: “Regarding the nationality of the employees of the banking house, it must be said that the majority of them were of Jewish origin and there were also Czech and German employees. The testimonies of current employees, who have been in the services of the banking house for over 20 years, confirm that the Jewish employees mostly claimed Jewish or Czech nationality. In September 1938, the company terminated the employment of staff of German origin as they were considered unreliable in matters of state. [...] According to the testimonies of former employees, the relationship of Petschek & Comp. partners towards their employees in terms of social and national matters was correct and just. Regarding social issues, this is attested to by the fact that in 1392, Petschek & Comp. signed a pension insurance contract for their employees with the General Pension Institute. In addition, at the time of the new political situation resulting from the occupation of Czech territory by the Germans, the company paid each employee the sum of 1 ½ to 2 yearly emoluments, depending on the length of their service.”
The correctness of the second report (of August 1949) is supported by the extant records about yearly purchases of Christmas presents for personal staff of the Petschek family. The names in these records show that people working directly for the family were mostly of Czech origin and that the family members had a quite personal relationship with them, as these employees are often referred to by their first names (for example, Albinka, Růžena, Frieda), and the total sum spent on the presents was considerable. Moreover, the Petscheks contributed to buying Christmas presents for their children, too.
In addition to this unofficial evidence of the positive relationship of the Petscheks to Czechs and the First Republic, there are also official documents proving this. The Petscheks owned government bonds, and in 1938 the partners donated 2,000,000 crowns from the company funds for the defence of the state. The high esteem the Petschek family enjoyed among the highest representatives of the first Czechoslovak Republic is indicated by the visit of T. G. Masaryk to the Petschek’s banking house in March 1927.
Further evidence of the Petscheks political impartiality is the fact that they provided sponsorship for Jewish, German and Czech institutions alike. The humanitarian and cultural values of the Petschek family were generally known. The contributed financially to charity, science, culture and education. These were almost always apolitical organizations. To give an idea of how wide-ranging their contributions were and how high the sums, let's list just a few of their donations: In 1924, they donated 30,000 crowns to the Museum of Applied Arts of the chamber of trade and commerce. In the same year, they donated 50,000 crowns to the Society of Patriotic Friends of the Arts as a contribution towards the purchase of a replica of the Madonna of Krumlov, and two years later, 100,000 crowns to the state gallery for paintings by old masters. With regard to their alleged “pro-German sentiment”, it is significant that in 1933 they sent 5,000 crowns to the library of the National Museum to purchase the estate of the Czech poet Jan Neruda. Their involvement in this area is demonstrated by the fact that even in the first week of March 1938, shortly before their emigration from Czechoslovakia and the annexation of the Czech borderland, members of the Petschek family opened in person a comprehensive exhibition of ceramics, porcelain, textiles, furniture and paintings by Josef Mánes, purchased between 1920 and 1937 for the museum collection with donations from their banking house.
With either one-off donations or regular, smaller annual donations, the Petscheks supported the Nordböhmische Gewerbemuseum in Liberec, the Arts Association in Prague, the Slovak Arts Association in Bratislava, Kunstverein für Böhmen, Gesellschaft patriot Kunstfreunde in Böhmen, Deutscher Juristentag, the Czech Children’s Hospital, Turnverein Jahn in Ústí nad Labem, Kuratorium d. deutschen Akademie für Musik und d. tell. Kunst, Deutscher Prager Frauen-Erwerb. Verein, Cardiologische Gesellsachat in Prague, Hradschiner Blindeninstitut and the Rektorat der Deutschen Universität in Prague.
Their charity was not directed only at arts and science, but also at the poor. Between 1930 and 1938, during the Great Depression, the banking house Petschek & Comp. had regularly sent coal to Prague and Ústí nad Labem for the unemployed. And again, this was very generous support. In 1931, thirty wagons of coal for the poor headed to Prague, and later also a "smaller" supply of one wagonful of coal for the poor Jewish families in Královské Vinohrady. These large gifts were usually provided through the banking house. However, in addition to these must be included financial donations given by the individual family members. Amounts around 500 crowns were usually sent. This money went to poor Jewish families, poor students, widows, small Jewish associations and schools, mostly in Ústí nad Labem, Most, Prague and Ruthenia.
For political and racial reasons, liquidation of the company was forced on the company partners in 1938/1939. After the German invasion, the assets of Petschek & Comp., the whole concern and the property of all the family members were secured by the German authorities and confiscated by the Gestapo retroactively as of 16. 3. 1939, and declared forfeit to the German Reich by the legal notice of the same office as of 9. 5. 1942.
Marta Petschek (the widow of Otto Petschek) emigrated with her four children to England on 15 March 1939. Berta Petschek (the widow of Julius Petschek) emigrated with them the same day. Later the whole family resettled in the U.S. and was represented in Czechoslovakia only by their lawyers.