Plot: Laytner's compelling, well-plotted memoir is always engaging and conscientiously structured. By interspersing historical content and journalism with personal accounts and reconstructed memories, Laytner keeps the narrative moving and provokes readers’ curiosity.
Prose/Style: Laytner's prose is precisely detailed and candidly confidential—a careful blend of reportage and opinion that strengthens the project. Alternating between the present and the past tense, Laytner expertly grounds the reader in both the historical sections and the contemporary narrative arc of the work.
Originality: Although Laytner's memoir shares similarities with other stories of Holocaust survival, his extraordinary discovery of primary sources and his stark revelations about his father's hidden character set this book apart.
Character Development/Execution: While What They Didn't Burn focuses primarily on the harrowing and inspirational survival story of Josef Lajtner, author Mel Laytner is also a dynamic part of the work—a well-developed and sympathetic character who struggles and changes while uncovering his father's secrets. Additionally, Laytner smartly uses his father's narrative as a jumping off point to discuss relevant secondary characters, including family members, close friends, and historical figures.
Blurb: A thought-provoking, impressive union of historical information and personal narrative that lays bare the Holocaust's continuous impact on the present.
Date Submitted: October 01, 2021
What a thrilling story of wartime survival! Mel Laytner has unraveled the secrets of his father’s past, balancing a son’s love and admiration with a reporter’s commitment to the facts. Chasing after hidden diamonds and digging up damning Nazi documents, Laytner weaves a tale of courage and luck that brings to life an unforgettable cast of characters. A great detective story — and an important work of history.
The facts that emerge as the layers begin to truly peel back are stunning... Tightly written and compelling on every page, the progression of Dolek’s “luck” proves to be a terrifying endurance test. This is most certainly not luck. It is the grit and rapid intelligence of a man who can read a situation quickly to maximize the odds of survival.”
Its eye-opening impact makes What They Didn't Burn unparalleled, powerful, and essential reading that will ideally prompt debates and group studies about Holocaust survivors and Nazi experiences.
This book is meticulously researched and incredibly well-written. It is not easy to read due to the content, but easy to read due to fantastic writing...It reads like a good memoir: enough detail and description where warranted, brief mentions or skipping of irrelevant information...
There is nothing light about this book though. The content is dark, disturbing, frightening, horrific, and 100% true. It's factual, but evokes strong emotions. It's not dry and dusty, instead reads like fiction through good writing. It doesn't dramatize or become hyper emotional for effect. It's just so real. So frighteningly real and true.
...a compelling blend of memoir and historical research, beautifully written. Laytner’s deeply personal story is an important addition to Holocaust literature, but will also resonate with a general audience as an historical detective story... Along the way he ponders how do we know what we know about history, and the lives of those who made it or were brutalized by it? Are documents better evidence than memory? How does one understand the ethical (and unethical) choices made by victims and victimizers alike?
"The author presents his findings with a remarkable blend of meticulousness and unabashed emotion, movingly communicating what he experienced during the process...A scrupulously researched and dramatic remembrance.
…A master writer who paints pictures in your head that make you think you’re in the ghetto, in the camp and on the death march standing next to his father. A writer who paints masterpieces in your mind that cause your lacrimal glands to secret tears and make you realize it’s time to visit the graves of your parents.
A remarkable historiographical achievement that blends the narrative pleasures of a detective story with the intellectual fireworks of a micro-history. In tracing the evidence and reconstructing the facts concerning a single Auschwitz prisoner, Laytner has made a major contribution to the history of that camp and, as such, to our understanding of the Holocaust.
I know of no other work that so eloquently succeeds in combining a dogged search for a Nazi paper trail of evidence and a son’s reconciliation with his family's Holocaust legacy. What They Didn't Burn is not only an engaging piece of rigorous research, but also a harrowing and heartwarming personal saga of discovery as well.
A deep dive into Nazi records reveals one man’s diamond-hard resolve to survive ...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.
Join the Museum for a conversation with Mel Laytner and 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.