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

By – December 27, 2021

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.

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?