Joseph Laytner owned a candy store and then a linen shop on New York’s Upper West Side after World War II, but, before that, Josef “Dolek” Lajtner survived forced labor, Nazi ghettos, numerous selektions, the Blechhammer Camp in Auschwitz, and desperate death marches. The dad Mel Laytner grew up with is a quiet, often passive man. The man he was during the Holocaust turns out to be quite different. Who was he?
In What They Didn’t Burn, a meticulously researched memoir, Mel Laytner, a noted journalist and broadcaster, commits himself to uncovering his father’s story. Laytner’s detective work begins years after Dolek’s lifetime Polish friend and fellow survivor, artist Walter Spitzer, tells him, “Dolek was a bastard. A real bastard. You had to be if you wanted to live.” Years later, Laytner decides to pursue the subject of his father’s experiences. He had listened to bits and pieces of his dad’s occasional war stories, which never gave much personal information or details. His mother, a Hungarian survivor, never spoke of the war. He gleaned bits of knowledge from relatives and friends.
Laytner shifts into journalist mode in his writing. His background, education, and extensive broadcast work serve him well in his book. He knows witnesses are often suspect or unreliable, and he must separate their testimony and his own emotional involvement by finding documentation, corroboration, confirmation, and firsthand original sources.
As he persistently searches and follows the Nazi paper trail, his investigations lead him to return to Poland many times. He visits museums, archives, libraries, his father’s former towns and residences, and the infamous camps. He speaks to experts and ordinary citizens. He is able to track down specific documentation despite the bureaucracy and secrecy he encounters. Laytner’s explanations of his obtaining information read like a treasure hunt. One chapter thoroughly guides the reader through checking and verifying sources like a primer. The ensuing powerful narrative is dramatic, harrowing, and haunting. Dolek’s personal story turns into a historical story of Holocaust survival and determination.
The book chronicles Dolek’s early life in an old-world wealthy and cultured family that owned many factories. He is forced to work for the German war machine as an iron welder and is later transported to the Blechhammer labor area of Auschwitz. He is looked up to but rejects the offer of becoming a Kapo. He does engage in stealthily trading and smuggling small diamonds for food and contraband. Bread is the chief commodity for trading, and he quickly learns how to obtain and hide it. Dolek endures years of beatings, hunger, and exhaustion.
The author factually recounts the history of German ghetto aktions, the role of the Judenräte, the efficient killing machines of gas chambers and crematorium, POW stories, and the status and daily work of prisoners. Laytner remembers his father always saying that luck, more than money, smarts, or skills, was most important for survival.
The author also explores the subject of children of survivors and how the Second Generation view their parents’ lives in complex and contrasting ways. He discusses current and past research and studies, as well as his own thoughts on this issue.
The immigrant story plays out as Laytner explores his father’s life and legacy. He describes his dad’s journey from Ripley’s pants presser to small business owner. He was a quiet, voracious reader with a past, who worked arduous days to better himself and his family while building a new life in the United States.
What They Didn’t Burn includes many photos, drawings, graphic sketches, documents, Notes, and a valuable bibliography that bring the Laytner experience to life. This is a well-written potent story of memory and tribute told with integrity and weight.
Renita Last is a member of the Nassau Region of Hadassah’s Executive Board. She has coordinated the Film Forum Series for the Region and served as Programming and Health Coordinators and as a member of the Advocacy Committee.
She has volunteered as a docent at the Holocaust Memorial and Tolerance Center of Nassau County teaching the all- important lessons of the Holocaust and tolerance. A retired teacher of the Gifted and Talented, she loves participating in book clubs and writing projects.