What if you uncovered a Nazi paper trail that revealed your father to be a man very different from the quiet, introspective dad you knew… or thought you knew? Growing up, author Mel Laytner saw his father as a quintessential Type B: passive and conventional. As he uncovered documents the Nazis didn’t burn, however, another man emerged—a black market ringleader and wily camp survivor who made his own luck. The tattered papers also shed light on painful secrets his father took to his grave.
Melding the intimacy of personal memoir with the rigors of investigative journalism, What They Didn’t Burn: Uncovering My Father’s Holocaust Secrets is a heartwarming, inspiring story of resilience and redemption. A story of how desperate survivors turned hopeful refugees rebuilt their shattered lives in America, all the while struggling with the lingering trauma that has impacted their children to this day.
In this Museum program, Laytner is in conversation with Jane Eisner, Director of Academic Affairs at the Graduate School of Journalism at Columbia University and former editor-in-chief of The Forward, about What They Didn’t Burn.
Watch the program below.
This program’s original recording transcript is below. This transcription was created automatically during a live program so may contain inaccurate transcriptions of some words.
Ari Goldstein: i'm Ari Goldstein Senior Public programs producer at the Museum of Jewish heritage, a living memorial to the Holocaust and it's a real pleasure to welcome you to today's.
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Ari Goldstein: Book launch program, which is very exciting, we are here to celebrate and explore Mel listeners new book what they didn't burn uncovering my father's Holocaust secrets.
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Ari Goldstein: Mel is a longtime journalist any much of his career covering the Middle East as a foreign correspondent for NBC news and united press international.
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Ari Goldstein: We hosted mal at the museum last year for a conversation with mark Sullivan author of the neath a scarlet sky so we're particularly excited to welcome Mel back to our virtual stage as we celebrate the release of his own book.
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Ari Goldstein: mel's career shines throughout the book which melds the intimacy of personal memoir with the rigors of investigative journalism, you can order your copy of what they didn't burn uncovering my father's Holocaust secrets at the link in the zoom chat.
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Ari Goldstein: In conversation with Mel this evening is Jane eisner an accomplished journalist herself and the former editor in chief of the forward.
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Ari Goldstein: Now serves as Director of academic affairs, the graduate school of journalism a Columbia University overseeing the master of arts program both Jane and Mel attended Columbia journalism school.
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Ari Goldstein: will turn to them in a moment, as they get into this evenings conversation, please feel free to share questions in the zoom Q amp a box and we'll get to as many as we can, towards the end of the hour.
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Ari Goldstein: Without further ado welcome Jane and Mel Mel congratulations on the new book before we get started.
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Jane Eisner: Thank you, thank you Ari this is such a pleasure this book really spoke to me in so many ways it read like a detective novel in a certain sense, as we witness mel's search for his father's passed.
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Jane Eisner: And also, frankly, because I live, just a few blocks away from the family store that features prominently in the in the book, it was a delight for me to learn more about your family here on the upper West side and, of course, all over the world.
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Jane Eisner: I want to start in the beginning, you know it's so almost a cliche to ask an author what inspired you to write this book, but I think it's really essential to ask you that question first.
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Jane Eisner: Because it because of the bravery that it took and the work that it took to learn more about your father, when you did so tell us a little bit about what went into the decision to actually even write the book.
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Mel Laytner: Well, it started.
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Mel Laytner: As a story it didn't start as a book.
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Mel Laytner: I found a.
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Mel Laytner: document and I thought Oh, this will make a great story linking my father to a German document, which proved a part of his narrative and then several months later, I came across where I got a hold of another three documents, one of which.
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Mel Laytner: Was was sort of confirmed a vague story told me about his attempt to escape and.
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Mel Laytner: I thought well wait a minute that's a story that I had trouble, believing as a kid and it's a story, I never told my own children.
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Mel Laytner: and
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Mel Laytner: I just felt that, if I have that doubt about my father's own stories, what about all these other stories from other survivors and I thought well.
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Mel Laytner: Every survivor has a an amazing story, or they wouldn't have survived so let's see if I can tell the story of one man by tracking his His story and and in a sense also tell the stories of others, Google with and I was very fortunate.
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Jane Eisner: So let's set the stage for a moment you grew up on the upper West side.
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Jane Eisner: With a younger brother your parents are Holocaust survivors, you would hear you had a certain conception of your father.
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Jane Eisner: And it was only until after he died that you went on this search Is that correct what.
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Jane Eisner: Tell us the backstory there.
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Mel Laytner: It was actually 20 years after he died that I started doing this, my own kids had grown up and the stories that I had told them they come back at me.
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Mel Laytner: With well, what about this, and what about that, and what happened to this character, what happened to that character and I didn't know and I realized that.
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Mel Laytner: All I had was vague memories of his vaguer stories, so I said well there was one story in particular that I liked a lot, and it was about this British pow who at the workplace, where they were both.
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Mel Laytner: In turn, key wrote a postcard to my father's family brooklyn and the postcard my father said could only say something like.
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Mel Laytner: i'm here i'm here with my mate Joe we're doing as well as can be expected something like that.
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Mel Laytner: And I thought that would be great fiction and my kids wanted me to write about it.
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Mel Laytner: And I said Okay, let me just get some context because I don't really have any context, and as soon as I started looking for context I started tripping over all of this confirmation of where he was what he was doing Yes, he was with British people w's and that that's how it really began.
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Jane Eisner: So your father was born and raised in Poland and and was caught up in the Nazi push up persecution of Jews was at a Labor camp and at Auschwitz, how many members of his family survived.
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Mel Laytner: Well, he had a sister who had emigrated to the US.
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Mel Laytner: In 1931 he got his mother out of Poland in late 1938 because the signs weren't very good.
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Mel Laytner: But his family in Poland is three half brothers his sister.
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Mel Laytner: They and their families were wiped out, he had a half sister, who was on vacation in.
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Mel Laytner: Eastern Poland, she was skiing and that was the part of Poland that the Soviets the folder and she was then sent with her husband to Siberia, as many Jews were.
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Mel Laytner: So she survived But aside from that not a lot of relatives on that side of the family, all that that was about it, I want to make some cousins yes.
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Jane Eisner: So, what was the.
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Jane Eisner: What was your vision What was your.
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Jane Eisner: sense of what your father was like when you were growing up, and then, how did that change as you did this research, because that's really the narrative arc of this book right, I mean you had Joe leitner was one person and it to you.
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Jane Eisner: As as a as your father and yet in the in the incredible research that you did you found out so many other things about him and and I don't want to talk about some of the specifics, but, but first just described what he was like when you were growing up.
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Mel Laytner: I remember my father is being a very quiet soft spoken passive man.
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Mel Laytner: He would read incessantly as a matter of fact that's about that and taking me occasionally to the movies, that was his biggest entertainment not.
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Mel Laytner: Do any sports together, he wasn't into sports he wasn't into.
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Mel Laytner: watching TV in a big way that we did.
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Mel Laytner: He was really into reading.
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Mel Laytner: When we had the candy store because almost the second part of my childhood New York at that time had seven daily newspapers English newspapers to Yiddish newspapers, a German newspaper and he read them all.
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Mel Laytner: you read them all and from a very young age, she points out articles to me that he thought.
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Mel Laytner: I should know about.
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Jane Eisner: mm hmm.
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Mel Laytner: Maybe that.
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Jane Eisner: Affected maybe that turned you into a journalist.
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Jane Eisner: yeah so so there were a lot of challenges in reporting this book and in some sense the.
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Jane Eisner: repositories challenges are laid out in the book you see the difficulty, you had in obtaining documents that described him.
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Jane Eisner: But i'm just wondering Mel can you talk a little bit more about the emotional challenges that you faced in doing this kind of excavation of your own family, and especially your father.
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Mel Laytner: It was.
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Mel Laytner: All the first I denied that I would have okay let's put it on.
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Jane Eisner: tape right, you would have to do what.
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Mel Laytner: Be kid into the emotional side.
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Jane Eisner: Oh, I see, so you were just going to be just the reporter.
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Mel Laytner: exactly that only the facts.
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Mel Laytner: That let them fall where they may tell the story.
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Mel Laytner: As I got into and I, my colleagues my former colleagues for UPI my friends from the J school they looked at me and they said, you know.
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Mel Laytner: you're gonna have to explore your relationship with your father, you can have to put yourself out there, I said no way well, they were right, and of course I was wrong.
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Mel Laytner: Because I realized, as I was going through this.
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Mel Laytner: That part of the story was the arc of discovery and I.
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Mel Laytner: And, and the.
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Mel Laytner: I don't know validity is the right word but.
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Mel Laytner: I wanted the reader to understand that this was an adventure, and this was a trip that I was taking a reader on with me and I wanted them to appreciate that.
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Mel Laytner: Yes, you can find a lot of material out there if you're willing to put in the work if you're willing to use the shoe leather to do the reporting and I thought.
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Mel Laytner: Just presenting it without telling how I did it and how I evolved.
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Mel Laytner: Emotionally.
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Mel Laytner: It would be half a story.
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Jane Eisner: mm hmm.
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Mel Laytner: Does that answer your question.
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Jane Eisner: yeah I think so, I mean it does take you from the we reportorial observer status, like you know writing only in the third person as we're taught to do.
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Jane Eisner: To really immersing yourself in it, and then you know I think one of the reasons, a narrative so compelling is because we see you sort of getting shocked in some.
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Jane Eisner: ways and certainly saddened by what you learned so right in the beginning, you you you meet a fellow survivor and he says, your father was a bastard.
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Mel Laytner: yeah.
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But my fault.
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Jane Eisner: yeah and and.
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Jane Eisner: You were like wait what that's my father.
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Jane Eisner: Exactly you know.
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Jane Eisner: In the candy store.
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Mel Laytner: yeah that was that was a I had taken my my.
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Mel Laytner: tape recorder with me at that point i'd met him I was a reporter for in the sea and and I took my tape recorder, because I wanted to hear the story about I didn't expect that and it definitely wasn't the dad I grew up.
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Mel Laytner: And it took quite a few years before I was able to circle back to it, I wanted to make one point, the training I received as a journalist.
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Mel Laytner: made this book possible because there were times when you cannot let the emotions overwhelming I had to keep emotional distance and I think that the training of God is up is a reporter to write clearly and simply and let the story tell itself.
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Mel Laytner: And at the end of the day, work better than if I would try to fill it with adjectives and adverbs which I really try to avoid.
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Jane Eisner: So, can you tell us about an instance where where you really had to just suppress your feelings and get on with the work.
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Mel Laytner: yeah i'm.
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Mel Laytner: Almost the more than a year into my search I.
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Mel Laytner: was watching TV I googled my father's name up came a story that I hadn't seen before in the Jerusalem Post that corroborated that document, I told you earlier about the diamonds and his escape attempt.
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Mel Laytner: And I got Ahold of the document is a two page SS document, full of stamps and initial approvals and everything and he was sentenced to 25 lashes.
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Mel Laytner: And that's enough to stop you in your tracks when you read that because they had never spoke to me about that.
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Mel Laytner: And then I flipped it over and i'm reading more and i'm trying to figure out how am I ever going to describe this how am I going to convey my feelings about seeing this.
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Mel Laytner: And right at the bottom of page two it's a flip over document I noticed that the sentence was carried out and it gave a prisoners name and his number.
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Mel Laytner: And I flipped off emotionally like that.
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Mel Laytner: And I said okay.
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Mel Laytner: Who was the sky.
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Mel Laytner: huh what makes a guy like this tick.
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Mel Laytner: And you know doing what we do, I tracked him down I tracked down.
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Mel Laytner: Documents from Holland, he was he was from Holland from Germany, I spoke to survivors who remembered him, and that was that's how I cope with a lot of stuff I I went back to reportorial one on one.
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Mel Laytner: and try to get on with the story.
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Jane Eisner: So, you mentioned the diamonds tell us a story about the diamonds.
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Mel Laytner: Well, I first heard about him when I was, maybe, seven, eight years old, my father just was telling me a story that.
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Mel Laytner: He pulled his back he had to go to the infirmary and he bribed the.
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Mel Laytner: Guy who runs the infirmary with a very tiny diamond.
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Mel Laytner: And the point that the story wasn't the diamond the point of the story was that the Gestapo came with the SS came every now and then just would clear out the infirmary and send everybody to the Auschwitz Birkenau gas chambers and I never really thought about asking about that.
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Mel Laytner: And then.
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Mel Laytner: This document comes from Auschwitz, where I have a signed confession that in fact he had he had sold or traded.
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Mel Laytner: diamonds on the black market.
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Mel Laytner: And where does.
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Mel Laytner: A prisoner in a concentration camp get Ahold of 15 diamonds well a cousin three years earlier that sent me an email saying that she remembered dad telling her story how a Belgian Jew.
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Mel Laytner: Who was dying of typhoid, my father is giving them water and food passed away and before he died, he told my father, where he hit a sack the 15 diamonds or excuse me a sack of diamonds.
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Mel Laytner: This was this is how you put a story together.
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Jane Eisner: hmm so your father had.
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Jane Eisner: rescued those diamonds and then use them very cleverly to do what.
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Mel Laytner: Well it's pretty clear that he bribed or that he paid off British pow and.
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Mel Laytner: Paid some Polish that got to the Polish underground so that he could.
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Mel Laytner: Get on with this escape attempt which involves both British do that with us, and the Polish on the ground and the Gestapo.
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Mel Laytner: It was clear that he used the diamonds judiciously at different points to get out of trouble, or to make life, a little bit easier for.
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Mel Laytner: On he didn't use them recklessly it was also clear, he told me a story, at the very end, where he didn't have any more diamonds.
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Mel Laytner: And he couldn't bribe his way out of what he wanted to and, ironically, that also saved his life because he he was put on another death March and if he hadn't then he probably would have been executed, along with several hundred others.
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Jane Eisner: I have to say that as as many descriptions that i've read and seen of life at at Auschwitz, and at the Labor camps and i've had visited and reported on Auschwitz myself.
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Jane Eisner: I I just really found myself haunted by some of what you said, and you have a section in there, talks about bread or your father loved to eat bread.
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Jane Eisner: And, and it harkens back to.
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Jane Eisner: To the meager meager rations that that they were given, can you tell us a little bit more about that I really I was thinking about that again just today how how pointed that is to have gone from one situation to another in one's life.
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Mel Laytner: it's that love making sandwiches the truth.
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Mel Laytner: He would he would really get into it with the ingredients spread out and he cut the bread he preferred pumper nickel dark bread and he would build a sandwich and he'd lecture me on it and Okay, that I got it yeah I remember from last year remember from the year before.
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Mel Laytner: I use that vignette to get into the.
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Mel Laytner: chapter about survival stories.
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Mel Laytner: Because everything when you when you read the testimonials and you speak to survivors everything was in terms of rashes and read.
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Mel Laytner: Everything was calculated rations of bread and a half a ration to rations one ration if you needed this, it would cost that much you split your ration you were paid, you would pay a finder's fee in bread for somebody who did a favor for you, it was all around bread and.
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Jane Eisner: The currency.
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Mel Laytner: that that was the currency that was the currency that can people hoarded bread they had to learn how to hoard bread or they would start.
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Mel Laytner: The other.
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Mel Laytner: The other thing I found kind of interesting when I got into it was that the Germans gave skilled workers 1700 calories a day and unskilled workers 1300 calories a day, mind you, it takes 2500 calories to do a day's physical Labor.
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Mel Laytner: So who got the 13 and who got the 70 well if you were a dressmaker a bookmaker you were taking care of because you could make custom boots and clothes, if you were an electrician a welder a metal worker a machinist you're okay if you're a university professor.
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Mel Laytner: Journalists, a sociologist philologist anything with psychology anything with is the at the end.
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Mel Laytner: You know you're a surf you were a surf so the the.
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Mel Laytner: The skilled laborers who could make things that the Germans value like boots they were the nobility.
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Mel Laytner: or they were the royalty they were the royalty.
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Jane Eisner: and your father was a welder.
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Mel Laytner: And that's what I was a welder electro welder and he was there for nobility.
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Mel Laytner: So the top of the food chain.
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If you will.
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Mel Laytner: With with people like dressmakers taylor's then came the nobility the electricians welders and then came the serfs teachers lawyers, the accounts.
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Mel Laytner: And they were given the worst jobs.
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Jane Eisner: So you account in the book mel's so many times that your father would say to you, well, I survived because I was lucky.
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Jane Eisner: yeah and you know clearly when you read his story, you see that this was not just luck at work, this was a lot of bravery and hutzpah and cleverness and ruthlessness and so tell us a little bit more about that, like how did, how did that revelation affect you.
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Mel Laytner: Oh, it mean for for 20 years after my father died he thought he was this passive guy who was quiet and basically Type B personality and then, I came across.
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Mel Laytner: You know, solid evidence to the fact that he was very proactive and he took a lot of risks and I realized that.
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Mel Laytner: The war really changed and that the father I knew growing up, no doubt, was suffering from depression and no doubt had some form of ptsd.
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Mel Laytner: But who knew back then, no our parents generation didn't go to shrinks they didn't know from shrinks right so.
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Mel Laytner: I had an uncle who I, to this day is is my hero, and he fought in the British Army during the war and he was sort of a role model and because he was proactive he he did things and I never looked at my father that way until I started digging up this this this the stories and confirming.
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Jane Eisner: mm hmm.
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Mel Laytner: and confirming.
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Mel Laytner: And then I I appreciate him now much more as a man and just the loving dad and I think it reflects what a lot of my peers also probably experienced with their parents.
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Mel Laytner: Because they didn't talk as much as we thought they did.
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Mel Laytner: dad.
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Mel Laytner: sanitized two stories for me that's very clear.
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Jane Eisner: So, in your role course of your reporting you spent a lot of time in Poland went there I think three times.
00:24:41.820 --> 00:24:48.690
Jane Eisner: Was yes um so I want to talk a little bit about that because it's you know there's there's a.
00:24:49.500 --> 00:25:08.850
Jane Eisner: Definitely, a trend in among American Jews, to go back to Poland to do some sort of roots trip, but also to see the camps and to see the new museum in Warsaw and the GCC in Krakow I have done that, on a reporting trip as well.
00:25:10.110 --> 00:25:18.960
Jane Eisner: But I had very mixed feelings when I went there and i'm wondering if you can just lead us through some of the experiences that you had as you were reporting in Poland.
00:25:19.980 --> 00:25:26.010
Jane Eisner: impressions that left you feeling good about what you saw or or not so good.
00:25:27.840 --> 00:25:30.780
Mel Laytner: Well, I think it's it's a mixed bag, but I have to say that.
00:25:33.090 --> 00:25:47.280
Mel Laytner: The Polish people that I was in touch with and and the researchers that whom I met and the people i've been in touch with since are wonderful and very helpful and.
00:25:48.900 --> 00:25:50.250
Mel Laytner: Just just warn people.
00:25:52.590 --> 00:26:01.830
Mel Laytner: You go see places and and, of course, the history of Poland is isn't some wonderful when it comes to Jewish history there.
00:26:03.750 --> 00:26:07.440
Mel Laytner: And I always wondered whether my father would have you know.
00:26:08.550 --> 00:26:12.420
Mel Laytner: frowned or been opposed to me taking these trips but.
00:26:13.740 --> 00:26:14.760
Mel Laytner: I found that.
00:26:16.410 --> 00:26:24.000
Mel Laytner: I didn't run into any anti semitism myself but with that on the table and over the years, I found that.
00:26:25.170 --> 00:26:29.370
Mel Laytner: Fears that I had that certain things would be forgotten we're actually memorial.
00:26:30.930 --> 00:26:31.500
Jane Eisner: The.
00:26:31.560 --> 00:26:37.170
Mel Laytner: Black hammer cam from the first time I was there to the last times there are nine years later.
00:26:37.380 --> 00:26:43.800
Jane Eisner: So the summer camp let's just for our viewers on is the slave Labor camp that where your father.
00:26:44.340 --> 00:26:47.610
Mel Laytner: Was score yes, it was a subcamp of Auschwitz yes.
00:26:49.770 --> 00:27:06.930
Mel Laytner: You could go to the blood karmic can there's a phone APP that you can download in five languages and it'll it'll educate you and maybe a minute and a half, about what went on there when I was there, the first time there was nothing there like that.
00:27:07.980 --> 00:27:24.930
Mel Laytner: And so that's an evolution in the possible since there was the ghetto, from where my father was deported and his family, basically torn apart, that was a decrepit falling down building with a plaque on the wall.
00:27:26.220 --> 00:27:39.660
Mel Laytner: That turns out, month after I was there was torn down and they put up a rather proper monument with another plaque, but this is it a place with tourists won't go you really have to seek it out.
00:27:40.110 --> 00:27:46.980
Mel Laytner: You have to go to this village for a specific reason and the plaque is only in Polish.
00:27:48.120 --> 00:28:01.020
Mel Laytner: So who are they aiming it for the not aiming towards the other hand, kazmir issue part of crack definitely holocaust, tourism is alive and well, and thriving.
00:28:02.100 --> 00:28:07.410
Mel Laytner: And that gives you pause and, as I asked in the book what came first.
00:28:08.430 --> 00:28:09.540
Mel Laytner: desire to.
00:28:11.160 --> 00:28:20.820
Mel Laytner: commemorate and memorialize have vanished community and then tourism grew up around it, or with people cashing in on tourist dollars after schindler's list.
00:28:21.120 --> 00:28:24.210
Mel Laytner: made visiting Krakow popular.
00:28:24.510 --> 00:28:27.330
Jane Eisner: mm hmm I don't know I just don't know.
00:28:28.620 --> 00:28:35.610
Jane Eisner: So you really had to immerse yourself in the world of survivors and while I know you grew up as a child of survivors.
00:28:36.210 --> 00:28:48.210
Jane Eisner: As you said, your parents didn't really talk much about their experiences and then in the course of the book you're seeking out all these friends and people who knew your father who were survivors it what.
00:28:49.440 --> 00:28:58.260
Jane Eisner: Did that change your perception of them and what they experienced and how that affected them.
00:29:00.000 --> 00:29:03.570
Mel Laytner: I don't know if I had a perception going into it, I.
00:29:04.170 --> 00:29:07.950
Mel Laytner: I sort of with taking it as it as they came.
00:29:09.660 --> 00:29:19.650
Mel Laytner: And you have to be patient when you speak to them, they have a story and they they fall into two categories one they don't really want to talk about it.
00:29:19.950 --> 00:29:29.640
Mel Laytner: And to they don't want to stop talking about it because they feel that nobody has paid attention to their story, so you know there's a balance there.
00:29:32.460 --> 00:29:53.670
Mel Laytner: I found for the most part, the people who I sought out and people who, who I interviewed to be very cooperative very helpful very rational and very centered centered might be the best word when I.
00:29:54.270 --> 00:29:54.690
Think of it.
00:29:56.400 --> 00:30:00.840
Jane Eisner: Now these are people who are already in their 70s 80s.
00:30:00.900 --> 00:30:08.070
Mel Laytner: Babies by and large i'll have between the time I started interviewing them and now just about all of them have passed.
00:30:09.270 --> 00:30:11.070
Mel Laytner: And when I interviewed them.
00:30:13.020 --> 00:30:19.800
Mel Laytner: I could see at times they were being very patient, because I was asking dumb questions.
00:30:20.880 --> 00:30:35.400
Mel Laytner: But I appreciated that a lot, they were they it was it was an honor to be able to speak to them and learn from them, and it was awesome responsibility.
00:30:35.670 --> 00:30:36.180
00:30:37.230 --> 00:30:45.510
Mel Laytner: All of a sudden, you know it's not just about that there's there's a bigger picture here that you have to be responsible for.
00:30:45.960 --> 00:30:47.250
Mel Laytner: Which again.
00:30:48.450 --> 00:31:02.610
Mel Laytner: I wanted to copper bottom with evidence and facts based proof and evidence so for every story, I tried to get corroboration I tried to get two sources.
00:31:02.850 --> 00:31:07.860
Mel Laytner: from every major assertion in the book and story in the book.
00:31:08.280 --> 00:31:09.270
Mel Laytner: Dialogue.
00:31:09.420 --> 00:31:13.590
Mel Laytner: And documents, a version and to document something.
00:31:14.040 --> 00:31:14.490
Jane Eisner: mm hmm.
00:31:16.260 --> 00:31:17.520
Mel Laytner: That that became.
00:31:19.320 --> 00:31:31.230
Jane Eisner: So in the book you to cry and i'm just going to quote here the way quote we, the children of survivors deserve a merit badge for the suffering of our parents.
00:31:31.650 --> 00:31:43.680
Jane Eisner: And you were kind of pushing back on this notion that somehow as a child of survivors, you were in some sort of special category and had.
00:31:45.210 --> 00:31:47.310
Jane Eisner: inherited a certain kind of trauma.
00:31:48.810 --> 00:31:57.150
Jane Eisner: Now that you've gone through this whole process, do you still feel this way I mean wasn't there the transmission of generational trauma in your family.
00:31:59.220 --> 00:32:01.290
Mel Laytner: Are we talking biological or emotion.
00:32:03.120 --> 00:32:06.180
Jane Eisner: I mean, how could you decide Okay, and you.
00:32:06.480 --> 00:32:07.320
Jane Eisner: separate them.
00:32:07.470 --> 00:32:11.130
Mel Laytner: Well, there there's I have, I have a problem with luck.
00:32:12.240 --> 00:32:30.780
Mel Laytner: it's clear just if I were a tootsie in Rwanda, I would have been affected by that experience and I probably would have passed on certain warnings and cautions to my kids either consciously or unconsciously and i'm sure my parents did the same.
00:32:31.920 --> 00:32:37.170
Mel Laytner: Where I have a problem is the assertions that.
00:32:39.780 --> 00:32:45.210
Mel Laytner: As a group, children of survivors are quote damaged.
00:32:46.410 --> 00:32:46.950
Mel Laytner: and
00:32:48.600 --> 00:33:05.670
Mel Laytner: With that, as you know, a few years ago, there was some learned at articles that postulated that the trauma experienced by our parents affected their genes and that in turn was passed on to us inherited genetically.
00:33:06.210 --> 00:33:14.940
Mel Laytner: And then, of course, a couple years later, there was another study that refuted that 100% So there you go and I have them both footnoted in the book.
00:33:18.660 --> 00:33:25.320
Mel Laytner: yeah it's a balance between remembering and being aware and wallowing in it.
00:33:26.460 --> 00:33:37.620
Mel Laytner: And my parents didn't wallow in it and they certainly didn't let me wallow in it and they didn't let my brother wallow in it, so we have to be.
00:33:39.750 --> 00:33:44.490
Mel Laytner: We can't we can't end up pitting ourselves what our parents went through they went through.
00:33:45.120 --> 00:33:47.190
Mel Laytner: We will just by growing up in the united.
00:33:47.190 --> 00:33:57.030
Jane Eisner: States do you think that the Jewish community at large, has learned that lesson to, or do we still focus too much on it, or perhaps not enough.
00:33:59.940 --> 00:34:05.880
Mel Laytner: You know I always felt that we focus too much on it, and it was terrible and then a good friend of mine.
00:34:06.870 --> 00:34:23.100
Mel Laytner: Looked at me said look, can I, what about the 800 pound gorilla in the room, I said yeah well yeah you're right i've spent a few years, focusing overly focusing on myself so i'm probably carrying around stuff that i'm not fully aware of.
00:34:25.920 --> 00:34:28.560
Mel Laytner: it's a balance it's a balance.
00:34:29.790 --> 00:34:39.810
Mel Laytner: We have to maintain our commitment to remember the past with the balance of living, the present and making a life for our own kids.
00:34:42.060 --> 00:34:46.740
Mel Laytner: it's not for me to say whether we're over overly focused on it or not.
00:34:47.100 --> 00:34:47.430
Jane Eisner: mm hmm I.
00:34:47.460 --> 00:35:01.470
Mel Laytner: wrote this book I did it to honor my father, I did it also so my kids and their kids and their kids will know a piece of history family history that otherwise just be.
00:35:02.370 --> 00:35:14.370
Mel Laytner: would just evaporate who is it that said, you know don't worry about the future, every hundred years, new people new problems, do we really know in remember the 1918 pandemic.
00:35:14.640 --> 00:35:17.460
Mel Laytner: it's real yeah yeah.
00:35:17.550 --> 00:35:34.320
Jane Eisner: Now that's true and I, you know I think there's a specific purpose and what you did to isn't there, I mean you know you're you're showing how extremely planned and thoughtful, if you will, and documented this genocide was.
00:35:35.190 --> 00:35:35.880
00:35:37.320 --> 00:35:40.770
Mel Laytner: that's that's true and part of the.
00:35:41.880 --> 00:35:47.940
Mel Laytner: gee whiz of this was to show other people like myself.
00:35:50.400 --> 00:35:57.660
Mel Laytner: Just how much you can find out and and how much is out there.
00:35:59.580 --> 00:36:07.050
Mel Laytner: Oral history by itself needs to be confirmed and documents by themselves become.
00:36:08.340 --> 00:36:15.870
Mel Laytner: If we only rely on on on these documents were basically telling the perpetrators story, so we have to combine the.
00:36:17.460 --> 00:36:18.750
Mel Laytner: At the mill the truth.
00:36:19.290 --> 00:36:21.720
Mel Laytner: And we can reinforce the story and.
00:36:22.290 --> 00:36:25.620
Mel Laytner: If I could say, so the truth behind them.
00:36:27.120 --> 00:36:31.290
Mel Laytner: And that that all of that came into play when I was writing this.
00:36:32.250 --> 00:36:44.430
Jane Eisner: So we're going to take some audience questions in just a moment, but I did want to ask you about the book's title, I read a wonderful little story about how that came about, can you share that with us.
00:36:44.550 --> 00:36:50.070
Mel Laytner: Sure, I was taking writers workshop and part of the.
00:36:51.300 --> 00:37:02.340
Mel Laytner: lesson of the day was will be exercising day was come up with a title for your book and you know the book is my book is not a quite a memoir it's not an investigative.
00:37:03.600 --> 00:37:17.400
Mel Laytner: Long form journalism exactly it's not history it's sort of a mishmash and I was having trouble coming up with how do I do this and a woman from the Midwest who was her book was going to be on quilting your history.
00:37:17.730 --> 00:37:20.010
Mel Laytner: According pop up book, so I helped me.
00:37:21.570 --> 00:37:37.530
Mel Laytner: And then she spoke with Jimmy Stewart trained and and recalled how she was watching this documentary once on TV and, at the end of the documentary there was images of.
00:37:38.370 --> 00:37:47.370
Mel Laytner: All of these barrels and the Germans shoveling documents down the barrels and burning their evidence and she turned to me and said.
00:37:47.880 --> 00:37:58.200
Mel Laytner: Why don't you just call it what they didn't burn and there was this dead silence around the table, and I said boy that's it you got it and that's how the title came.
00:37:58.740 --> 00:37:59.010
00:38:00.090 --> 00:38:01.380
Mel Laytner: Strange for true.
00:38:03.000 --> 00:38:06.840
Jane Eisner: that's a great story, so I want to get to some questions from our audience.
00:38:08.670 --> 00:38:18.570
Jane Eisner: Gerard coffee asks of all the sources you interviewed, who is the most valuable and who was the least reliable.
00:38:22.440 --> 00:38:23.340
00:38:25.590 --> 00:38:26.340
Mel Laytner: Most.
00:38:29.340 --> 00:38:35.070
Mel Laytner: The most valuable may have been Walter spitzer because he I as I wrote it.
00:38:35.100 --> 00:38:36.360
Jane Eisner: tell us more about who will to.
00:38:36.360 --> 00:38:54.480
Mel Laytner: Spencer Spencer was my father's friend from, who was a 16 year old boy when my father was 30 in the ghettos and then in the Labor camps and then through the death marches and then serendipitously they met in France when my father was.
00:38:56.610 --> 00:39:03.720
Mel Laytner: A refugee there and solace Walter and they remained friends for until my father passed away.
00:39:05.730 --> 00:39:17.490
Mel Laytner: And I didn't realize Walter would be so central to the book until I finished writing it and then I realized he's he's right through it, because he knew my father at different phases.
00:39:18.600 --> 00:39:26.040
Mel Laytner: And he wrote his own autobiography which helped a lot as well, but I hours of interview with a man and he became.
00:39:27.540 --> 00:39:30.060
Mel Laytner: Very good, the least for alive.
00:39:30.240 --> 00:39:36.450
Jane Eisner: I just want to say one more word, though, about spitzer, which is that you, you have copies of some of his drawings in the book.
00:39:36.870 --> 00:39:51.630
Mel Laytner: I, yes, yes, he did a series of drawings and linking 45 right after the war, which are housed at the museum at converts la la may have get thought in Nigeria, Israel and.
00:39:52.710 --> 00:39:58.560
Mel Laytner: I got permission from the museum to reproduce some of the images in the book.
00:39:59.760 --> 00:40:05.250
Mel Laytner: Of of his experiences and and I have to say they pretty much track with.
00:40:07.410 --> 00:40:16.770
Mel Laytner: What so many other testimonies and and evidence, you know they're not just made up images there they're pretty accurate, by the way, Walter.
00:40:18.060 --> 00:40:19.920
Mel Laytner: just passed away this past April.
00:40:21.750 --> 00:40:22.230
Jane Eisner: For.
00:40:23.070 --> 00:40:23.790
00:40:25.170 --> 00:40:25.890
Mel Laytner: Paris.
00:40:27.600 --> 00:40:32.040
Mel Laytner: For one thing, and he can track the coven and basketball at 94.
00:40:32.370 --> 00:40:33.480
Mel Laytner: I have seen him.
00:40:33.870 --> 00:40:39.210
Mel Laytner: In February 2020 right before I was in Paris and I visited him.
00:40:40.320 --> 00:40:43.740
Jane Eisner: And the and the least reliable source.
00:40:45.960 --> 00:40:46.890
Mel Laytner: that's tough.
00:40:50.460 --> 00:40:55.470
Mel Laytner: I don't want to name names, but there actually was a book published.
00:40:58.110 --> 00:41:02.730
Mel Laytner: that's been around, and when I got into it.
00:41:04.440 --> 00:41:09.360
Mel Laytner: It was all his memories and memories are faulty.
00:41:09.750 --> 00:41:11.760
Mel Laytner: huh he got his dates wrong.
00:41:11.790 --> 00:41:13.170
Jane Eisner: He got something wrong.
00:41:14.310 --> 00:41:14.760
Mel Laytner: and
00:41:16.710 --> 00:41:26.730
Mel Laytner: So I have to put that book to the side, I mean it was a go to book, because it was so popular, but so it wasn't a an interviewee or testimonial.
00:41:27.210 --> 00:41:27.750
Jane Eisner: As much as.
00:41:27.840 --> 00:41:31.260
Mel Laytner: published book that I just felt sorry for.
00:41:31.440 --> 00:41:31.830
00:41:33.120 --> 00:41:38.220
Jane Eisner: So i'm viewing Nancy asked what happened to your grandparents.
00:41:39.690 --> 00:41:48.150
Mel Laytner: Okay, all my grandmother on my father side and others my grandmother moved to the United States in 1938.
00:41:49.950 --> 00:41:54.540
Mel Laytner: The handwriting is pretty much on the wall what was going on, and my father got her out of country.
00:41:55.650 --> 00:42:04.830
Mel Laytner: My grandfather on my father's side another it's my father's father died of pneumonia in 1931 so he died before.
00:42:06.060 --> 00:42:21.090
Mel Laytner: On my mother's side my mother had been an orphan her on her mother had passed away and she was, I believe, seven or nine years old, so she basically took care of her father and she and her father.
00:42:22.680 --> 00:42:35.340
Mel Laytner: My mother was Hungarian and she was involved with the Hungarian deportation in the spring of 44 and I tracked her story down to a degree, and.
00:42:36.780 --> 00:42:45.840
Mel Laytner: She was separated from my grandfather at the infamous ramp in Auschwitz park now she was selected for work he wasn't.
00:42:47.910 --> 00:43:00.750
Jane Eisner: You know it's interesting now because you focus so much on your father in this book and your mother is a character for sure she's there, but not the focus i'm just wondering what went into that decision.
00:43:02.790 --> 00:43:07.680
Mel Laytner: Well you're right what you know and mom didn't talk about the war.
00:43:08.790 --> 00:43:09.660
Jane Eisner: She he.
00:43:10.080 --> 00:43:18.000
Mel Laytner: Only told us about the evening that she arrived on era of the Jewish holiday assured.
00:43:19.920 --> 00:43:24.750
Mel Laytner: And in four or five sentences that she how she got separated from her father.
00:43:25.980 --> 00:43:30.870
Mel Laytner: And I didn't have anything to go on until.
00:43:33.360 --> 00:43:38.430
Mel Laytner: I don't know 20 2014 2015.
00:43:40.410 --> 00:43:46.920
Mel Laytner: A friend of hers in Israel of the daughter, who had passed away or daughter said well didn't you know your mother was part of this group.
00:43:47.250 --> 00:43:54.480
Mel Laytner: called the five sisters and they they took care of each other and Auschwitz Birkenau and then they went, and I had no clue.
00:43:54.810 --> 00:44:12.690
Mel Laytner: And she arranged a meeting with the three of the five or we're alive and I turned on my tape recorder for a couple of hours and i'll let him talk, but that's all I ever got she talked about the war, she never wanted to talk about the war, she was you know she she and.
00:44:14.310 --> 00:44:16.230
Mel Laytner: She suffered for, and I think.
00:44:19.230 --> 00:44:25.590
Jane Eisner: A reader Andre wise asked how did your father survivorship form his attitude on Israel.
00:44:29.220 --> 00:44:30.720
Mel Laytner: You know this this.
00:44:32.430 --> 00:44:52.920
Mel Laytner: I don't know if well if he wouldn't have survived the wouldn't have had an opinion about Israel, but I know, Israel and the that's just a given it's not a if you breathe there you know you support Israel, I don't think it was ever it was ever an issue or question or.
00:44:53.880 --> 00:44:58.170
Mel Laytner: A doubt in his mind I think he came to the United States for.
00:44:59.550 --> 00:45:06.390
Mel Laytner: A couple of reasons first his mother was in the United States, and he was tired, you know he'd seen a lot.
00:45:06.630 --> 00:45:18.420
Mel Laytner: of death and he had the opportunity that's and he did not elect to go to Palestine, he went to I guess to be with his family that was left of it in America.
00:45:20.910 --> 00:45:32.550
Jane Eisner: So I wanted to read a question from Joan as a person who lived on the upper West side in the 1970s, I know the name leitner.
00:45:33.810 --> 00:45:47.040
Jane Eisner: The as a brilliant Community based merchant family who knew other story Jewish families that work together to serve their neighbors knowing your father's background I marvel at his resilience do care to comment on that.
00:45:49.770 --> 00:45:51.450
Mel Laytner: I don't know what the question is, but.
00:45:53.010 --> 00:45:55.860
Mel Laytner: Look we're an immigrant story.
00:45:56.460 --> 00:46:04.680
Mel Laytner: it's happening today with South Asians and it's happening today with other minority groups, we came.
00:46:06.510 --> 00:46:15.840
Mel Laytner: And he worked in a factory he worked as a presser in a factory he tried several times and failed to climb out of the piecework.
00:46:16.920 --> 00:46:18.270
Mel Laytner: world and.
00:46:19.560 --> 00:46:27.360
Mel Laytner: My mother was the one who who pushed the family, to get the candy store which meant 6070 hour work weeks.
00:46:27.810 --> 00:46:41.910
Mel Laytner: But that that brought us into the working middle class his teeth fixed you know, but we were still Alan I was still going to ccny or we weren't going to coach That was our option.
00:46:43.710 --> 00:46:49.800
Mel Laytner: And then you know little by little, he he became a more successful businessman and.
00:46:52.050 --> 00:46:59.520
Mel Laytner: it's just the way I think immigrant families in this country, have always pull themselves up or truck.
00:47:00.870 --> 00:47:01.560
Mel Laytner: That he was.
00:47:04.260 --> 00:47:22.650
Mel Laytner: And he understood that he used to tell me that it just takes one employee to ruin your good name, you could spend 20 years building it up and the one employee who insults the customer was rude you know that'll destroy it, and that that's that was important life losses.
00:47:23.490 --> 00:47:27.450
Jane Eisner: But this wasn't a business that you particularly wanted to go into.
00:47:28.320 --> 00:47:31.140
Mel Laytner: Why, I knew I was going to be a reporter from age 14.
00:47:32.940 --> 00:47:33.930
Mel Laytner: My father.
00:47:35.160 --> 00:47:40.710
Mel Laytner: My parents never really tried to dissuade like it would like they could right.
00:47:40.890 --> 00:47:41.340
00:47:43.200 --> 00:47:44.670
Mel Laytner: I think I was already.
00:47:46.230 --> 00:48:04.170
Mel Laytner: headed to graduate school at Columbia and i've been working three years part time at the New York Daily News, and my father sat me down one day and i'm sure my mother put them up to and it looks at me and he goes Okay, do you want a white white.
00:48:04.650 --> 00:48:06.180
Mel Laytner: What are you going to do to earn a living.
00:48:08.280 --> 00:48:08.880
Mel Laytner: didn't see it.
00:48:10.590 --> 00:48:14.490
Jane Eisner: Did did he live long enough to see your success in journalism.
00:48:15.720 --> 00:48:16.770
Mel Laytner: Such as it was.
00:48:18.870 --> 00:48:24.750
Mel Laytner: Yes, yes, I became a staff correspondent overseas.
00:48:26.760 --> 00:48:30.240
Mel Laytner: I got to work for network, which at the time.
00:48:30.540 --> 00:48:30.990
Jane Eisner: yeah.
00:48:31.020 --> 00:48:31.680
Jane Eisner: it's a big deal.
00:48:31.770 --> 00:48:33.270
Jane Eisner: no big deal is a big deal.
00:48:34.800 --> 00:48:37.110
Mel Laytner: No, I I had, I had a good run and.
00:48:38.130 --> 00:48:40.740
Mel Laytner: I think they expected.
00:48:41.790 --> 00:48:42.450
Mel Laytner: that's good.
00:48:42.840 --> 00:49:00.030
Jane Eisner: Well um I think we may only have time for one more question but there's one from Stephen Lewis, that I find really poignant beyond the uniquely fascinating story itself, what do you want your readers to understand, about the larger human truths that came out of the Holocaust.
00:49:02.220 --> 00:49:05.070
Mel Laytner: whoa that's a heavy question.
00:49:05.130 --> 00:49:07.110
Jane Eisner: yeah that's why I figured i'd leave it till the end.
00:49:08.520 --> 00:49:11.580
Mel Laytner: Larger human truths that came on a lark.
00:49:14.460 --> 00:49:16.350
Larger human truths.
00:49:20.400 --> 00:49:22.290
Mel Laytner: That we all go through.
00:49:23.670 --> 00:49:27.600
Mel Laytner: Unbelievable stuff that that we cannot imagine.
00:49:29.130 --> 00:49:33.120
Mel Laytner: What man can do man, and yet we persevere.
00:49:33.870 --> 00:49:39.210
Mel Laytner: We not only persevere we thrive overcome.
00:49:40.380 --> 00:49:41.490
Mel Laytner: fight back.
00:49:43.020 --> 00:49:44.100
Mel Laytner: More than survive.
00:49:45.240 --> 00:49:58.050
Mel Laytner: And all of those survivors who I had the honor of interviewing and all of those testimonials that I viewed, and all of those books that I absorbed.
00:49:59.700 --> 00:50:02.250
Mel Laytner: These people came out the other side.
00:50:04.380 --> 00:50:09.360
Mel Laytner: damaged hurt but determined to build new lives.
00:50:09.570 --> 00:50:10.500
Mel Laytner: and get on with it.
00:50:11.310 --> 00:50:21.570
Mel Laytner: And that's very important, I think that's The lesson we should all we should all keep in mind when I was asked well and friends and my daughters will go.
00:50:22.560 --> 00:50:34.950
Mel Laytner: Oh, this this coven it's terrible and we got to stay at home i'm locked in a room I can't go out this this is awful like oh yeah and frank was in an attic for two years, get over it.
00:50:36.060 --> 00:50:37.890
Mel Laytner: And that's kind of resistance, you need.
00:50:39.240 --> 00:50:43.860
Mel Laytner: We shouldn't have to go through the Holocaust, but you know it's like.
00:50:45.330 --> 00:50:50.700
Jane Eisner: Oh that's lovely I, I just want to say for myself to I think what I found.
00:50:51.900 --> 00:50:55.860
Jane Eisner: So important about your book, too, was that you were unsparing in.
00:50:57.030 --> 00:51:02.640
Jane Eisner: The way you described the lengths to which your father had to survive and go to and we tend to.
00:51:03.690 --> 00:51:13.650
Jane Eisner: sanitize and immortalize survivors, and it was it was hell on earth and sometimes you had to do things.
00:51:14.400 --> 00:51:23.670
Jane Eisner: or accept things you know you had to bribe German officers or accept 25 lashes or whatever it is to survive and we shouldn't.
00:51:24.240 --> 00:51:41.190
Jane Eisner: And and and yet that spirit was maintained but it it, you know, sometimes I think that early on, we used to sort of say why did they choose just submit to this and reading your book you realize they did not just submit to it.
00:51:42.930 --> 00:51:47.190
Mel Laytner: I think that at the end of it at the end of the day, the.
00:51:48.480 --> 00:51:51.720
Mel Laytner: important thing to keep in mind is that.
00:51:53.490 --> 00:51:56.400
Mel Laytner: Those that came out of it at the other end.
00:51:59.040 --> 00:52:10.410
Mel Laytner: came out by enlarge with the idea of building families and starting lives and by and large, many of them did that's an important lesson.
00:52:10.980 --> 00:52:14.190
Mel Laytner: yeah and something that I think is universal.
00:52:17.430 --> 00:52:33.480
Jane Eisner: guys man Thank you so much it's really it was a joy to read your book sometimes difficult but still a real pleasure, and it certainly is wonderful to be able to talk to you, I look forward to the day, we can do this actually in person, but I know that we all feel that way.
00:52:34.740 --> 00:52:38.820
Jane Eisner: So, thank you very, very much Ari back over to you.
00:52:41.640 --> 00:52:56.700
Ari Goldstein: Now I want to go genes thanks for being with us this evening and for writing this book, which is a great contribution to not only your family, but to the world, as we all seek to understand the Holocaust through personal stories, which are as important as they are challenging.
00:52:58.020 --> 00:53:04.770
Ari Goldstein: You can order your copy of what they didn't burn uncovering my father's Holocaust secrets at the link in the zoom chat.
00:53:05.880 --> 00:53:16.680
Ari Goldstein: We recorded this evening's discussion and you'll receive an email tomorrow with a link to the recording and a link to order the book will also be available on the museum's YouTube channel.
00:53:17.520 --> 00:53:27.210
Ari Goldstein: Everything that we do with the museum, including our book talks and our Exhibitions is made possible through donor support, so we offer our thanks to those of you with us this evening, who are supporters to the museum.
00:53:27.510 --> 00:53:31.830
Ari Goldstein: To those of you who aren't you can support also at the link in the chat.
00:53:32.880 --> 00:53:38.040
Ari Goldstein: Now Jane we're so grateful to you both man I would turn it to you if you have any parting thoughts.
00:53:39.210 --> 00:53:48.300
Mel Laytner: Well, I would like to thank you and I appreciate my friends and people i've seen pop up under the chat, thank you for joining me in this and.
00:53:49.710 --> 00:53:53.520
Mel Laytner: If you haven't purchased the book, yet what are you waiting for.
00:53:54.960 --> 00:53:58.470
Mel Laytner: And if you have her book, you know leave a review.
00:54:01.230 --> 00:54:01.470
Mel Laytner: Thanks.
00:54:01.530 --> 00:54:06.780
Ari Goldstein: Absolutely alright have a good evening everyone thanks Mel thanks Jim.
00:54:07.530 --> 00:54:09.240
you're welcome bye.
Learn More About the Blechhammer Forced Labor Camp
Much of What They Didn’t Burn takes place in Blechhammer Forced Labor Camp, a subcamp of Auschwitz-Birkenau. Approximately 4,500 people, including Mel Laytner’s father, were imprisoned in the camp over the nine and a half months of its existence. Read about the history of the camp in this article.
Watch Mel Laytner Interview Mark Sullivan
Last year, the Museum hosted Mel Laytner for a conversation with author Mark Sullivan about his book Beneath the Scarlet Sky, which profiles World War II spy and forgotten hero Pino Lella. Watch the interview here.
Discover Other Stories from Descendants of Holocaust Survivors
In her book We Share the Same Sky: A Memoir of Memory & Migration, Rachael Cerrotti documents her decade-long journey to retrace her grandmother’s Holocaust survival story. Listen to Cerrotti discuss her book in this Museum interview with Ellen Bachner Greenberg.