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The Document Hunter – The Highlands Current


Journalist retraces his father’s life using Nazi archives

As a foreign correspondent and editor working in London and later in Jerusalem, Mel Laytner was well trained in the need for fact-checking.

Reporting for United Press International, a news agency, Laytner was adept at turning complex issues into fact-based stories and presumed he would apply these methods to any future writing.

Mel Laytner (Photo by Anat Laytner)

But when he began to research what he describes as an “investigative memoir” based on his mild-mannered, introspective father’s experiences as a black market leader and survivor of Auschwitz and other Nazi concentration camps, as well as his life as a refugee, the writing was not as easy as expected.

“I fought and opposed the idea of ​​people suggesting that I should examine my relationship with my father in a personal way,” says Laytner, board member of Highlands Current Inc., who publishes this journal. “It took me a while to come to terms with the fact that I was not just bringing back amazing documents,” he had discovered.

These documents proved to be essential to the story, as her father only shared vignettes of his traumatic experiences, and “he cleaned the stories of all blood. Looking back 20/20 – and you have to pay attention to your own memories – there were clearly things he wasn’t talking about. “

It has been left to Laytner to apply his professional skills to a personal story that resonates beyond his family.

His book, What They Didn’t Burn: Uncovering My Father’s Holocaust Secrets, which was released on September 20, uses the Nazi paper trail to shed new light on her father’s life and the collective experiences of prisoners in the camps.

To do this, Laytner, who lives in Nelsonville, had to become a determined detective, often in pursuit of elderly sources with potentially unreliable memories. He also had to question his own memories.

“When I was 10 years old, I asked my father, ‘Why didn’t you escape?’ He remembers. “He told me about an elaborate plan, which made no sense for a child. Then this German document came my way which confirmed the story. I thought, “What about all these amazing survivor stories? If I can show the truth by corroborating a man’s journey during the war, it shows that these things happened, independently.

“Upon discovering an important document, I felt that a curtain, a partition had been lifted,” he said. “For a long time for me, it was a story; I was a journalist and it was a story. As I delved into it, I decided that I would not bring back stories that I could not corroborate without cross-checking with documents or other witnesses. Throughout the book, I have used the journalist’s rule of a minimum of two sources “for each statement. “The only things I don’t have a second source for are my own memories,” he says.

Book cover

Laytner’s book was published on September 20.

Laytner, who studied political science at City College of New York and journalism and international and public affairs at Columbia University, states that “the temptation to switch from history to historical fiction is enormous, and there is There were scenes that I created based on facts but in which I first filled in the blanks. But if you switch to fiction, you lose the authenticity of the memories.

“The hardest part was the personal memories; the easy part was doing the research and writing the research, ”he says. “The hard part went against everything I was trained to do, forever.”

Although a document sparked his investigation, Laytner didn’t think he had a book until three more came his way. Even then, he was unsure of how to put the research in the best perspective.

“It wasn’t until after two or three years of the process that I began to understand that it had to be a memoir,” he says. “I realized you make a better story if it involves people. I wanted to take readers on my journey of discovery, including my frustrations of hitting brick walls. “

The extensive research has paid off. “I would look for evidence of one thing and find something else,” he said. “I would learn something in the first year and the fifth year, that would come back and be the key.”

He decided to use two voices: the third person from the past for historical accounts and the first person for descriptions of his research. “I wanted it to be believable for my former colleagues to look at it and say to themselves, ‘He did a good job of reporting, and he kept his street reputation.’ But I also had the hope that it would appeal to an audience larger than those affected by the Holocaust. “


A drawing of the author’s father, Josef Dolek Lajtner, by Walter Spitzer

He initially organized the book chronologically but eventually followed his path of discovery. Finally, the two paths meet and “the 23 documents that I found [relating to his father’s experiences] show the evolution of the Nazi policy from ethnic cleansing to genocide, as well as my father’s attempts to deal with what was happening.

“When I was young, I kind of didn’t know what it took, in terms of action, to survive in the camps,” he says. “I had an appreciation, but I didn’t understand what it meant to live this day in and day out and constantly make micro-decisions in order to have a better chance of living another day. By the time I was done I realized that this guy – my dad – had done a lot of things to improve his luck. “

On October 5, the Museum of Jewish Heritage will host a virtual chat with Laytner about what they didn’t burn. Register on bit.ly/laytner-talk.


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