Mel Laytner was shocked to discover his father had been a prisoner in Auschwitz. A BFG interview.
Imagine one day discovering that your father was harboring a secret that would change everything you thought you knew about him. Then imagine that secret was that the Nazis had imprisoned him in Auschwitz. This is the reality that jolted author Mel Laytner from an otherwise ordinary life and it is here that his riveting, harrowing, investigative work sets out through sheer passion underlying an unyielding search for answers, Laytner embarked on a path of mystery and discovery that leaves the reader with a story of historical facts, in-depth interviews and, at the end, a story of a bond between a father and son. ‘What They Didn’t Burn‘ is a story of struggle, survival and just a little bit of luck. Someimes all we really need is luck in the end. That’s where my interview with Laytner starts.
EH: The moral that your father ended his stories with throughout your youth: “So you see son, in the end it didn’t matter if you had money or not, were smart or dumb. Life was worth nothing–absolutely nothing. You needed luck.” I kept coming back to this quote in different times in the book. Do you think your father believed that it was luck that got him through? And did this moral have a new sense of meaning for you once you discovered your father’s truth?
ML: I think my father truly believed life or death was a cosmic coin toss. He repeated that quote as the point of his stories. When he could bribe, it saved his life. When he couldn’t pay a bribe, it inadvertently saved his life. That’s what he meant that it was luck. That said, what I learned was survival was more complex. You needed to be proactive to survive. The passive died very quickly. For example, if you didn’t learn how to “organize” more food, you were a dead man walking. You had to size up and seize opportunities, make snap decisions—and you had to be tough—emotionally, psychologically as well as physically. If you checked all these boxes, every day, day-after-day, then you improved your luck. My father never credited himself with these all-important survival attributes—but his friends did, and told me so.
EH: I cannot imagine what initially went through your mind when you first discovered your father’s hidden secret. What was that moment like? Was there a sense of rethinking everything you’d once known of your father? Did it change your relationship with him even though he was now gone?
ML: That’s lot to unpack and worthy of several hours on a shrink’s couch. First, I came to this an exercise in investigative reporting 101: I had uncovered some amazing Nazi documents, followed the paper trail, found eye-witnesses, etc. I bristled at suggestions that I’d have to publicly examine my relationship with my father; I say as much in the book. It took a couple of years and several drafts to move it from pure long-form journalism to what I call an investigative memoir.
Somewhere in this process it dawned on me that my father had been suffering from some form of PTSD during much of my childhood. At that moment it was a stunning revelation. The next moment, I thought, duh, of course he was. Why didn’t I know this before now? Because kids are too busy growing their lives to think much about their parents’ lives before them. It wasn’t like Dad had framed medals or grainy photos of fellow comrades in arms on the bookshelf. He was simply Dad—quiet, introspective, self-effacing. Discovering this other side—a diamond smuggler, a respected camp leader—that wasn’t the father I knew. I came to appreciate him more as a man than just a loving dad.
EH: I’ve read many books on the Holocaust, but I have to say I’ve never read one with such bone-chilling, descriptive detail. This must have been quite an undertaking as you researched the book?
ML: I sense there are two aspects to your question, the writing and the research. My biggest challenge as a writer was to get out of the way and let the story tell itself. That is, with powerful material there’s no need to dramatize or clutter copy with adjectives or adverbs. This was drummed into me as a reporter and editor over some 20 years. Every survivor has an amazing story. If they didn’t, they wouldn’t have survived. So the raw material was there.
Because the issue of Holocaust denial is always just below the surface, I would only use stories that could be independently corroborated–at least two eyewitnesses confirming key events, or like the Nazi documents that confirmed my father’s stories, or some combination of multiple witnesses and documents. An unintended consequence was, I left out a couple of cinema-worthy stories because I could not corroborate them, and I really, really tried.
EH: What was it like seeing your father’s name in those documents that were discovered? Did it seem as if the surreal became real?
ML: Surreal is the precise word. That first document I came across was a one-page form used to register prisoners into Auschwitz. My father’s tattoo number—177904—was on the upper right corner and his signature on the lower left. In between I learned more about my father at a certain time and place than he ever disclosed. Even now, many years later, I find it difficult to describe my feelings in the moment without slipping into cliché. I was stunned, in the true sense of the word.
EH: What was it personally like revisiting those places that were probably once only described to you in stories?
ML: Overall, a profound sense of emptiness, a sinking realization that the luxurious house built by my grandfather is today a faceless building subdivided into 14 working class apartments. Or that a gentrified neighborhood was once home to a disappeared community of several hundred families. Or the remains of the Auschwitz slave labor camp where my father was imprisoned are little more than archeological relics that few people will see, and fewer will appreciate.
EH: What was the hardest challenge for you in writing this book?
ML: Keeping the emotional, personal memoir from leaching into the investigative journalism. By definition, journalism is (or should be) dispassionate. Memoir is the opposite: warm and personal. If the reader does not empathize with the humanity of central characters, the book would be a failure. If the reader came away questioning the essential truths I presented, the book would also be a failure.
EH: What was the most rewarding aspect of writing this book?
ML: (Besides finishing it?) Modesty aside, I knew before sitting down to write I had nailed the “reporting” side. I could only hope I could tell the story in a compelling way that would engage the reader. So far, the response has been incredibly positive, heartwarming–and validating.
EH: What do you think your father would say if he were to read it today?
ML: First, he’d no doubt point out my mistakes. Then he’d name friends who had gone through more, suffered more, survived more than he, and say that I should have written about them. I hope he would also say that I did a good job at showing complicated truths about what it means to be a survivor of the Holocaust.
EH: I’m sure that many questions came up for you that you wish your father was here to answer. What questions would you ask?
ML: From the Nazi documents, I know he scrubbed the blood out of all of his stories, presumably because he didn’t want to upset his young son. The reporter in me would like to get his take on each of those 23 German documents I found with his name on them—the worklists, registration forms, punishment reports, sentencing protocols, death march lists, etc. What was he going through in the moment? How did he stay resilient? However, the son in me feels this would be a lot to ask because dredging up those horrors would be too painful. On a more personal level, Dad never talked much about his fractured family life before the war. His father had buried two wives and divorced a third before marrying my father’s mother. There’s a lot of family drama to unpack.