What They Didn't Burn

Uncovering My Father's Holocaust Secrets

Non-Fiction - Memoir
304 Pages
Reviewed on 08/31/2021
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Author Biography

For nearly 20 years, Mel Laytner was a reporter and editor of hard news, much of it covering the Middle East as a foreign correspondent for NBC News and United Press International.

Mel's began his full-timee career with UPI, where he covered all manner of urban mayhem in New York City, his hometown. He was promoted to a bureau manager before moving to the General News and Cables (Foreign) Desks where he had final responsibility for selecting and editing the top stories of the day for UPI’s 400 afternoon newspaper clients.

Mel’s first foreign posting was London. A year later, UPI assigned him to the Tel Aviv bureau. Soon after, he was named Jerusalem Correspondent. NBC News recruited Mel as its Middle East Radio Correspondent.

After seven grinding years overseas, he won a prestigious Knight-Bagehot Fellowship in Economic and Business Journalism, which included a year’s residency at the Columbia Graduate School of Business.

Mel holds Master's degrees from the Columbia Graduate School of Journalism and from Columbia’s School of International and Public Affairs.

He and his wife, an artist, live in New York City and are the proud parents of three daughters.

    Book Review

Reviewed by Asher Syed for Readers' Favorite

What They Didn’t Burn: Uncovering My Father’s Holocaust Secrets by Mel Laytner is the non-fiction memoir of the author in which he documents a paper trail that leads to a search spanning the globe. Laytner is a journalist, which proves helpful in both the investigation of his father’s past, which is incredibly extensive, and the writing of this book, which is exceptional. His father is Josef “Dolek” Laytner, a survivor of the Auschwitz sub-camp Blechammer, prisoner 177904. The facts that emerge as the layers begin to truly peel back are stunning. Laytner weaves his father’s tale initially as the story of his search for information, transitioning to the story of his father from the earliest moments under a rising Nazi Party to his days as a prisoner and all that followed.

“My father survived that nightmare and went on to build a new life,” writes Mel Laytner. The line is striking to me. It parallels how very little he knew about his father initially but is written as he finally begins to grasp the scope of what was required to be one of those who survived in What They Didn’t Burn. Tightly written and compelling on every page, the progression of Dolek’s “luck” proves to be a terrifying endurance test. This is most certainly not luck. It is the grit and rapid intelligence of a man who can read a situation quickly to maximize the odds of survival. Knowing what jobs permit indoor work and rations of 1,700 calories per day compared to the 1,300 allotted to "unskilled" workers, though still far below the 2,500 calories a day required by a man doing heavy physical work. Knowing when to partner and bend power and when to fade into a box in the barracks, fighting back only when a precious blanket is stolen, and bribing his way out of a camp for transfer. The death marches are brought to life and the way Laytner describes his father’s final escape... I was choked up. Particularly as he is told: “Well, you are free now. And safe.” Very highly recommended.

Anne-Marie Reynolds

What They Didn’t Burn: Uncovering My Father’s Holocaust Secrets by Mel Laytner is a true story written from the heart and from some paperwork that taught Mel Laytner that his father wasn’t the person he thought he knew. Finding papers that didn’t get burned by the Nazis, Mel discovers that the passive, quiet man he grew up with was somebody very different, a Holocaust camp survivor and a black market ringleader who followed his own path. Mel also discovered a difficult secret his father never told, which he took to the grave with him. This is not just a personal story. It’s an investigation, a journey of redemption, a story of how camp survivors rebuilt their lives while living with everything they had seen and done, things that have a long-reaching impact on their children and grandchildren to this day.

What They Didn’t Burn: Uncovering My Father’s Holocaust Secrets by Mel Laytner is one of those stories that stays with you long after you have finished reading it. Right from the first page, you are drawn into this tale of survival: a story of secrets, of redemption, of the will and guts to carry on in the face of terror. The Nazis thought they had covered their tracks, but as this story shows, they didn’t. The research and dogged investigation has uncovered a whole host of secrets that remained with Mel’s father to his dying day. It’s not just one person’s story of his time at Auschwitz. It’s a historical masterpiece that sheds light on the camp and the Holocaust. It’s both heartwarming and distressing, a tale of discovery and reconciliation, a tale of courage written in such a way that you are there, experiencing every moment for yourself. Whether you are interested in the Holocaust or just want to read something very different, this one is for you. It’s an eye-opener that will never leave you.

Lucinda E Clarke

As I turned the pages of What They Didn’t Burn by Mel Laytner, I was amazed time and again at the extent to which he had carefully and meticulously researched the story of his father’s life. While the author himself was born in the United States, from the few stories his father told him, he knew he had survived years in Hitler’s death camps during the Second World War. How had this quiet, compassionate, and gentle man walked free after years of abuse and lived to emigrate and start a new life in America? It took many visits to Europe, hours of sifting through records, many abandoned by the Nazis themselves – what they didn’t burn – to discover the truth. Spurred on by his curiosity to uncover the facts by those who now say such atrocities never took place and that those born earlier in the twentieth century were labeled the ‘silent generation,’ this book is a testament to history. The story traces the events from their family home in Poland to the concentration camps, to liberation, through interviews, documentation from numerous sources, and long-forgotten records that the author unearthed decades later.

The biography of Mel Laytner, author of What They Didn’t Burn, tells us he is a journalist. This shows in his attention to meticulous detail in unearthing the story of how his father survived the war in Germany from his arrest until he arrived in America. He seldom relies on memories from discussions with the few survivors but digs far deeper into proving and validating their recollections. I was impressed with his understanding that memories can be distorted and false, and his years of searching and sifting through supporting evidence from many different countries are awe-inspiring. Books like this, with irrefutable evidence, are so important for future generations to read, especially in the hope that nothing like the genocide of a race of people can ever happen again. The information is written so well that it is not a dry tome wading through facts and figures, but people come alive as we learn how Laytner’s father survived through the most horrendous years of his life. This book should be prescribed reading in every classroom in the world as a warning to all young people, not only as fully documented proof of the atrocities but in the hope that actions like these will never happen again - a really great book.

Vincent Dublado

Mel Laytner’s What They Didn't Burn: Uncovering My Father's Holocaust Secrets tells the story of how he discovers some old yellowing papers that change his perception about his passive and conventional father, and this is bound to inspire some sentiment and drama as the narrative unfolds. While Laytner’s father, Josef (or Dolek to his friends), did tell him many stories of his survival and escape from the Nazis, the author didn’t simply rely on his memories to preserve the detailed accounts of his father. As a journalist, he took the effort to uncover documents that survived and were hidden in the archives in Poland, Germany, France, and Israel. What he discovers about his father is more than just a story of a survivor, but the intriguing persona of an intelligent black marketer of schnapps and diamonds to POWs and Poles.

The research that goes into the writing of What They Didn’t Burn is so intricate that it reflects what Laytner wants to impart to his own children and the world. He even talks to people who once knew his father, and their contribution to the picture of this fascinating man makes a solid representation of courage and survival. By showing documents of his father - a man who does all he can to save himself, and would have died in the process if not for his smarts and resourcefulness - he gives readers information on the way some prisoners try to cope with oppressive conditions and keep seeing the light of day. Mel Laytner’s efforts to dig deeper into his father’s experiences have resulted in a profound memoir that offers more than Dolek Lajtner ever lets on initially. What you get is a testament to the creativity of the human spirit to overcome one of the most harrowing experiences in history.

Grant Leishman

What They Didn’t Burn: Uncovering My Father’s Holocaust Secrets by Mel Laytner is an intensely personal and deep dive into the experiences of the author’s father, a Polish Jew who was a prisoner at Auschwitz and other concentration camps during World War II. What struck Mel Laytner after a casual conversation with one of the other survivors of the camps was that his description of Mel’s father’s character during the war did not seem to align with Mel’s perception of his father as a passive and conventional man. Beginning to delve deeper into the history of the concentration camps and looking specifically for any references to his father’s name, the author traces his father’s history from a well-to-do Polish family through the war years and the horrors of the concentration camps to resettlement in America and the fulfillment of the dream of settled life, away from discrimination and bigotry.

What They Didn’t Burn: Uncovering My Father’s Holocaust Secrets is an intensely personal look at concentration camp life, and there is no denying the general pain, suffering, and lack of humanity that permeate through every paragraph. Author Mel Laytner has done a superb job of summarizing the events of his father’s life succinctly and clearly, but he still conveys the sheer horror and hopelessness that all concentration camp detainees must have experienced. Although it is now over 75 years since these evil events were first made public, this narrative reminds us starkly and clearly that even today in many parts of the world, we are just one step away from revisiting the horrors and ethnic cleansing that predicated the ideas of the “Final Solution.” The author did an amazing job of fleshing out a period of history that even many of the survivors were incredibly loath to revisit, despite the passing of time. From this familial history, one gets a picture of the author’s deepening and growing respect for the man he had always thought of as just “ordinary.” Given his incredible story of survival, against all the odds, Dolek Lajtner was anything but “ordinary.” He was a survivor when so many millions of his fellow detainees were not. I commend the author for this almost scholarly work and his unceasing search for the truth which honors his father’s name.