Graduate School of Journalism Director Jane Eisner and the Museum of Jewish Heritage interviewed author and journalist Met Laytner about his new book.
On Tuesday, October 5, the Museum of Jewish Heritage hosted a virtual book launch for Mel Laytner’s What They Didn’t Burn: Uncovering My Father’s Holocaust Secrets. Jane Eisner, an accomplished journalist and the Director of Academic Affairs at the Columbia Graduate School of Journalism hosted the event.
Laytner is a veteran journalist, a former foreign correspondent for NBC News, and United Press International. He grew up on the Upper West Side of Manhattan, graduated from CCNY, and got master’s degrees from the Columbia Graduate School of Journalism and Columbia’s School of International and Public Affairs. Both of his parents, who run a candy store, were Holocaust survivors, but they rarely ever talked about their experiences with Mel or his younger brother.
Twenty years after Mel’s father Joe passed away, Mel came across a document dating back to Joe’s internment in the infamous Auschwitz-Birkenau concentration camp. The document verified a fragment of a story Joe once told Mel, which got Mel thinking: what else could he find out about his father’s life? Mel’s search brought him into contact with countless records and documents, tidbits of information from family members, and detailed accounts from other survivors. He certainly gained a more complete image of his father’s experience, but as the book launch went on, it was clear to me that the true meaning of What They Didn’t Burn was something much bigger.
One key remark by Laytner set up much of the impression I was left with after the event ended: “It started as a story, not as a book.” Central to What They Didn’t Burn is the give-and-take between Laytner’s journalistic approach and the emotional reactions he had to stomach while tracking down his father’s story. Understandably, the information he uncovered was hard to grapple with. Mel knew his father as a quiet, passive, hard-working man who devoured newspaper articles like the candy he sold from his store, but here he pieced together a picture of a man who had suffered tremendously and had to fight tooth and nail just to survive.
It was particularly poignant to hear Laytner talk about his challenges in approaching the writing of this book as an objective journalistic endeavor, even as he immersed himself in such a tragic and deeply personal subject.
“At first,” Mel said, “I denied that I would have to get into the emotional side: only the facts, let them fall where they may, [just] tell the story.” He brought up times where he was overcome with emotion when coming across records of physical punishments his father was subjected to and recalled having to shut down emotionally and go ‘back to Reportorial 101.’ “The training I received as a journalist made this book possible, because there [are] times where you can’t let the emotions overwhelm you, and I had to keep emotional distance,” Mel said. However, he realized that part of the story he was telling was his own arc of discovery. “Just presenting it without saying how I did it or how I evolved emotionally, it would be half a story,” he reflected.
The event ended with a Q+A session that reminded me that these stories didn’t end in 1945, but still echo throughout modern life. A viewer explained in the chat that she’d also grown up on the Upper West Side in the 1970s, and the Laytner family store—and the Laytner name as a whole—meant something to her and the rest of the contemporary Jewish community. “We’re an immigrant story,” Mel commented, and he recounted how upon arriving in New York, his father worked in a factory and struggled to advance in the world of piecework labor before the family came into possession of the candy store. “It’s the way I think immigrant families in this country have always pulled themselves up,” Mel remarked, and he noted that “it’s happening today with South Asians and other minority groups.”
History is often thought of as an impregnable constant, yet Mel’s experience shows how quickly critical stories can slip away in spite of this, and how important it is to preserve them. Even in a world in which every painstaking detail of Joe’s internment was coldly recorded and filed away by the Nazi regime, the true nature of Joe’s story was lost even to his own son.
During the Q+A session, when asked about the sources that were most valuable when compiling the story, Mel named Walter Spitzer. Spitzer had been a friend and companion of Joe Laytner during their internment and throughout the rest of Joe’s life. Mel “didn’t realize it until the end” of the process, but Walter was central to the story he had been trying to put together and was able to provide essential insights on Joe’s experiences at nearly every step in the timeline. In another grim reminder of the modern echoes of the narrative, Mel revealed that sadly, Walter passed away from COVID-19 in April 2021. This detail drove home the cruel point that stories of past humanity are alive all the same, and that history—and the preservation of these stories—is fragile.
The story Mel Laytner tells in What They Didn’t Burn is bigger than him, or his father, or any individual instance of tragedy: it’s about the human experience, both in the face and in the wake of unimaginable hardship. Mel’s own journey, both as a journalist and a son, is central to the book and captures how these stories develop and persist across generations and within new contexts. What They Didn’t Burn began with a son trying to learn more about his father, but Mel reflected that the information he uncovered often reminded him that “it’s not just about Dad, but there’s a bigger picture here that you have to be responsible for.” Stories of humanity are more than the sum of their parts, and as vivid as they might be, they can still be so easily lost to time. Not only does Mel Laytner show us the true scope of these stories, but he demonstrates why they need to be kept alive, and why it’s worth exploring them down to their final threads.
What They Didn’t Burn: Uncovering My Father’s Holocaust Secrets is available through SparkPoint Publishing.
Image via event email.