Reviewed by Tucker Lieberman
A deep dive into Nazi records reveals one man’s diamond-hard resolve to survive
What They Didn’t Burn: Uncovering My Family’s Holocaust Secrets is former reporter Mel Laytner’s investigation of how his father survived Auschwitz against the odds.
Josef Lajtner was born in 1911 and grew up in Dabrowa, Poland. After the Nazis invaded in 1939, he was rounded up for being Jewish and imprisoned at the Blechhammer camp affiliated with Auschwitz. The younger Laytner, born years later in New York City, knew his father as a quiet man. But what might his father have done, he asked himself, to survive a place where most people died?
What the Nazis did to the Jews is well known, but Laytner retells it in an effective manner, such that the atrocities can be witnessed anew by those who have heard these stories before and simultaneously understood by those who don’t yet know much about the Holocaust.
The Nazis marched Jews to camps and separated families. They assigned serial numbers to their prisoners, and, at the Auschwitz camp, they even tattooed the number onto each prisoner’s arm. The guards put prisoners to work but gave them barely enough food to keep them alive, and many starved or died of exhaustion.
Those prisoners who made an effort to survive made a point of bathing every day, though the water was cold, because they recognized that those who ceased to bathe had already given up. Survival was not simple: Prisoners often helped each other survive by sharing bits of bread, but they sometimes turned against each other under interrogation.
In 1944, prison guards accused Josef Lajtner of having sold 15 diamonds to fellow inmates. He confessed to this during interrogation, claiming he had already used the cash proceeds to buy food.
When Mel Laytner heard this story about his father, he was fascinated. Was it true? If so, what an unexpected turn of fortune that his father had even been allowed to live after being caught! But, since the elder Lajtner had died in 1985, how could he ever learn the truth?
What They Didn’t Burn explores how Laytner tracked down the relevant information and assembled a more complete picture of his father’s story. After the war, his parents flew into New York City where he was born less than a month later. Though he experienced antisemitism as a small child in New York, he didn’t grow up with personal experience of Poland and couldn’t imagine the extent of what happened there. His father had always been “self-effacing” and prone to “quiet circumspection,” and as a young man Laytner hadn’t pondered much what his father might have endured under the Nazis, but finally he came to appreciate “what Dad did to survive.”
An especially strong feature of this family saga is how it details the author’s path: knocking on doors, interviewing people with a translator, navigating Nazi documents, reordering dates. In addition to support from family members and professionals, he sought assistance from the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum’s archives and Jewish Records Indexing – Poland.
Laytner admits his wrong assumptions and false starts as he slowly reconstructs his father’s story. Much about his father will, of course, always remain unknown, but such uncertainties may appeal to those who are drawn to the ongoing mystery of the past. What They Didn’t Burn provides an inspiring example of tracking down records in a country that one’s parents left behind.
Even if you don’t have a family story to pursue in Poland, this book reveals what to expect if you visit the Auschwitz camp, which is today a museum that aims to help educate the world about what was done there. A million people died at Auschwitz, and relatively few escaped. On display are enormous collections of eyeglasses, shoes, prosthetics and crutches, empty suitcases, and human hair.
As Laytner’s father once told him: “It was a whole world—Jewish schools and theaters and Yiddish newspapers and benevolent societies. An entire culture.” In an eyeblink, that culture “vanished, like it never existed.” A non-Jewish resident of the city of Krakow similarly tells the author that ten percent of Poland, “some three million people, just disappeared—and no one talked about it.” Neighborhoods that were formerly Jewish had buildings left “in a legal limbo because their owners of record, the Jews, were no more.”
When Laytner showed up at one building, the inhabitants seemed afraid that he would claim to be heir to it and that he might demand rent from them. That sort of interaction is a reminder that the Jews indeed once lived in that city.
With Laytner’s keen ear for dialogue and his evocative language, What They Didn’t Burn eloquently bears witness to the tragedy of a family and a people. It reminds us of the importance of shining light on atrocities and of gathering our family stories while we still can.
Genre: History / Holocaust
Print Length: 304 pages
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