What They Did­n’t Burn: Uncov­er­ing My Father’s Holo­caust Secrets

September 1, 2020

What if you uncov­ered a Nazi paper trail that revealed your father as a man very dif­fer­ent from the qui­et, intro­spec­tive Dad you knew‚ or thought you knew?

Grow­ing up, Mel Layt­ner saw his father as a quin­tes­sen­tial Type B, with no inter­est in sport, music, or even a hob­by‚ a read­er, not a doer. But as he uncov­ered the Nazi doc­u­ments they did­n’t burn, anoth­er man emerged‚ a black mar­ket ring­leader and wily camp sur­vivor. Yet the tat­tered papers also shed light on painful secrets his father took to his grave.

Meld­ing the inti­ma­cy of per­son­al mem­oir with the rig­ors of inves­tiga­tive jour­nal­ism, Mel also found octo­ge­nar­i­an sur­vivors who remem­bered his father from ghet­tos and camps and who help unrav­el the com­plex truths sur­round­ing the father’s life.

An inspir­ing sto­ry of resilience and redemp­tion, What They Did­n’t Burn also shows how des­per­ate refugees turned hope­ful immi­grants rebuilt their lives in Amer­i­ca while strug­gling to over­come the lin­ger­ing trau­ma that has impact­ed their chil­dren to this day.

Discussion Questions

Cour­tesy of Mel Laytner

About the writ­ing style and author voice

  1. Do you feel the title, What They Didn’t Burn, accu­rate­ly con­veys what the book is about? Why?

  2. Author Mel Layt­ner varies the points of view, tense, and voice as the nar­ra­tive moves from time and place, present to past. Dis­cuss the book’s struc­ture and the author’s use of lan­guage and writ­ing style. How does he draw the read­er in and keep the read­er engaged? How did you respond to the author’s voice”?

  3. As he uncov­ered the trove of Nazi doc­u­ments about his father, Mel Layt­ner says the scope of the book changed from a father-son mem­oir to some­thing more ambi­tious. What do you think moti­vat­ed Mel to share this sto­ry? What do you think he want­ed to achieve?

  4. Mel wrote this book to con­nect with, and ver­i­fy aspects, of his fam­i­ly his­to­ry. If you were to embark on a sim­i­lar project, what con­nec­tions would you hope to find?


About the Holo­caust and Nazi Forced Labor Camp system…

  1. What role did the Juden­rat play in East Upper Sile­sia? Were they will­ing col­lab­o­ra­tors with the Nazis? What alter­na­tive did the Jew­ish com­mu­ni­ty have?

  2. Much of the nar­ra­tive is set in the Blech­ham­mer Forced Labor Camp for Jews. How has the book changed your per­cep­tions about the Nazi forced labor system?

  3. Does the author’s descrip­tion dai­ly life in Blech­ham­mer seem gen­uine and hon­est? He writes sur­vival was more a game of soli­taire than of bridge.” What does he mean by this?

  4. Which indi­vid­ual sto­ry or episode in the book had the great­est impact on you?

  5. If you could, what would you ask a Blech­ham­mer sur­vivor about their experiences?


About the his­to­ri­og­ra­phy of the war…

  1. What They Didn’t Burn exam­ines a small cor­ner of the war and a sin­gle slave labor camp. What do you make of such micro­his­to­ries” rather than grand nar­ra­tives? Which kind of his­tor­i­cal writ­ing do you prefer?

  2. If you could invite Mel Layt­ner to your book club dis­cus­sion, what would you like to ask him about What They Didn’t Burn, and why?