Survivor Guilt

C Reg Jones
02/13/16 02:07:54AM
16 posts

Survivor Guilt

The long grey lines of naked men and women shambled terrified towards the gas chambers. Dogs barked and whips cracked as the sneering guards cruelly mocked their unspeakable end…

He woke up with a cry, clutching his chest and sweating.

"A nightmare, another bloody nightmare."

Reaching for the glass of water on his bedside table, Heini Gutenberg shook out one of his heart pills and gulped it down. They were getting worse instead of better, he decided.

"My God, I should be over them by now."

He closed his eyes as the last cobwebs of the nightmare faded, leaving him mercifully with just a vague notion of the horror he’d dreamt. A long tremulous sigh escaped him as he lay back and searched the ceiling for answers. Would it always be like this, would he ever find peace?

If only he hadn’t seen that damned picture; if only he could forget. Three days earlier his life had been a different place.

Formerly a successful antique dealer and now a pensioner for over twenty years, the sedate passage of life had crunched suddenly to a stop as the cruelty of a past life had seized centre stage. This time he knew there was no escaping it, and that confrontation was no longer an option, it was the future.


It had started at the breakfast table. The paperboy had thrown their daily in the mud between the roses and the front page was caked in dirt.

"Damned kids, why can’t they just bring it to the door like they’re supposed to?"

"Perhaps he was late, dear? It is a school day after all."

Netty, his wife of over forty years, was always on the paperboy’s side. Maybe it was because she was eighty percent blind and couldn’t read the ruined text, or maybe she just liked the boy, he couldn’t decide.

"Give it to me and I’ll clean it up. Go eat your egg before it gets cold."

Handing her the muddy newspaper he strode over to the table and started to hammer at his boiled egg, venting his anger on its blameless shell.

He spooned out the first bit of yolk as she laid the paper in front of him, only to let it drop, gasping in shock.

"No, it cannot be!”

"What is it, what’s wrong?”

Eyes wide in alarm, he stared at the headline and then at the black and white picture below it.

In the photo, a good looking young man in his twenties grinned back cheerfully at the camera. With his cap set at a jaunty angle and the top two buttons of his tunic undone, he gave the impression of being a light hearted individual, a good guy. However, his affable film star smile, that outshone even the gleaming Death's Head cap badge, was sorely tested by the icy malice of his cold, staring eyes.

He turned to Netty and pulled her to him, "He’s back."

"Who, who is back, who do you mean?”

"The Beast of Vilnius." He barely whispered.


The next few days were a blur of obsession. He bought newspapers six at a time and scanned through them for any articles on the, "Beast of Vilnius". He gazed for minutes on end at the garish headlines splattered all over the tabloid stands.

"Met. certain the Beast of Vilnius is in London."

"Nazi murderer sought by Scotland Yard.”

After reading every item he could find on the news stand he would shuffle home to his worried wife, shaking his head in distress.

"Heini," Netty said after two days of quiet concern, "Why don’t you tell me about it?”

She reached over and took his hand, "You’ve never told me anything about the camps, and I can’t bear to live with this thing hanging over our heads like this. I need to know, after all these years I need to know.”

Shaking his head, he angrily cuffed at the unbidden tears and looked down in humiliation at his shoes. He hated to cry.

Netty was shocked, and almost relieved at the sight of her husband's tears.

"Perhaps this will do him good; everybody needs to cry sometime in their life, especially a man who's seen so much pain and terror." She mused.

They'd met at a Displaced Persons camp in the British Zone in the fall of '45 and had moved to London together not long after. None of their relations had survived the war and as the Good Lord had never seen fit to grace them with children, all they had in the world was each other. She felt she knew her husband backwards.

Netty reckoned that every survivor of the camps must have cried at sometime in their life; whether from the grief of losing everything and everyone, or the joy of new-found freedom. However, Heini had never faltered in his stoical attitude to life and now she wondered at the depths of the scars this picture had reopened in her husband's soul.

Ignoring his silence she pressed on, "I've never asked you because I thought that if you wanted to talk about it you would. But now it’s different. This is affecting the both of us and I need to understand; can’t you see that? This has gone on for too long and I need to know.”

"You'll never understand, how could you? You don't know what it was like then."

"Heini, please, this has gone on too long" she pleaded. "Please."

Finally, after what seemed like an hour to Netty but had only been a couple of minutes, he nodded, "I don’t know where to begin."

"Why not start at the beginning, who is the man in the photo and what did he do to you?”

"The man in the photo?" he sounded almost surprised. She gripped his hand in encouragement and then quickly released it. Turning to face her, he paused to weigh his words.

Netty felt the power of the moment. That somehow, after this, everything would be different between them; if he could just articulate his pain and make that final leap of trust. After the years of being woken by his nightmares, or scared by the strength of his silent anguish when too far into his cups, now finally she might have some answers.

"Tell me Heini, what did he do to you? It helps to talk about these things."

Heini nodded, resigned and beaten and yet still he said nothing.

Netty sighed deeply.

Then he spoke. "The man in the photo is a monster Netty, a monster in the guise of a man. A monster from a past life; just be thankful that you never met him." And with that he solemnly stood up and left his bewildered wife alone.


Four days after seeing the picture for the first time, a stranger rang the front door bell. Heini stayed in the living room, glued to an article about the Holocaust in Lithuania while Netty answered the door. He made out a muffled question and then distinctly heard her answer,

"Yes, he’s here. Oh certainly, please come in.”

The hairs on his neck spiked in alarm as he heard the clump of heavy shoes on the wooden floor. He lay the paper carefully down as the footsteps increased in volume.

With a familiar creak the door swung slowly open and a tall man in a trench coat walked in, followed by a uniformed policeman.

"Heinrich Gutenberg?" he asked, showing his warrant card.

Heini swallowed heavily, "Yes?”

"Also known as SS Oberscharführer Andreas Krause? Would you please accompany me to the station sir, we need to ask you a couple of questions.”


updated by @c-reg-jones: 02/13/16 02:08:09AM