Nora Krug, Belonging: A German Reckons with History and Home. New York: Scribner, 2018.
“How do you know who you are, if you don’t understand where you come from?” Nora Krug asks in “Belonging: A German Reckons with History and Home.” This question is at the heart of this beautifully illustrated and heart-rending graphic memoir. Wrestling with her place of origin, Krug tries to make sense of where she comes from. In German Heimat, translated loosely as home, represents much more than just a physical place, but conjures up feelings of nostalgia, familiarity, and connection to one’s past — concepts with which Krug has struggled to identify. As a German living in America, her idea of home is laden with complicated feelings, as being “German” has always meant bearing the shame for the crimes of the Second World War and the Holocaust. This uneasiness with her national identity is what pulls Krug into the investigation of her past. Wanting to know more about her family’s personal history with the Nazi period, and the places where they are from, Krug masterfully weaves together drawings, photographs, personal letters, and copies of archival records with her own moving storytelling in the search to find answers to her many questions.
Born in West Germany in 1977, Krug was raised in a generation that was willing to confront the sins of the past. Germany’s criminal history was something that needed to be atoned for and the concept of inherited guilt became part of her identity. As a young adult, she learned about Vergangenheitsbewältigung, which means “coming to terms with the past,” and for Krug, this meant things like visiting concentration camps as an adolescent, deconstructing Hitler’s speeches in high school, learning to deeply distrust the word “race,” and ridding national pride from her vernacular. She writes that “history was in our blood and shame in our genes.” From early on she realized that being German was not something to be proud of.
Even after leaving Germany to study in the United States, this sense of shame stayed with her. When speaking with strangers, she tried to hide her German accent for fear of unknowingly offending someone. Though her connections to Germany lessened, her feelings of guilt never abated, particularly in her relationship to Jews. She writes: “Not even marrying a Jewish man has lessened my German shame.” In the US, her Germanness was reduced to either Nazi stereotypes or rather something to be celebrated with bratwurst and lederhosen by ethnic Germans who had been in America since the nineteenth century.
Although she had been raised to feel collectively responsible for Germany’s actions, Krug understood very little of her own family’s experiences during the war years. Her parents, both born in 1946, grew up in the immediate postwar period where memories of the war were quietly swept under the rug. Reflecting on her own grandparents, Krug explained, “my mother didn’t talk about them much, and when she did, it was the kind of weariness one feels when having to revisit a subject thought or talked about too many times before.” Difficult memories were silenced, and family narratives blended fact with fiction to help cope with the guilt of the past.
Peering into the lives of her family members, Krug begins to dismantle the narratives that had been built around each individual. She writes about her father’s brother, Franz-Karl, who wrote a poem in 1939, when he was in sixth grade. Titled “The Jew, a Poisonous Mushroom,” the young storyteller wrote: “Just like the poisonous mushroom can kill a whole family, the Jew can kill a whole people.” Placing her young uncle’s story in a broader historical context, Krug cleverly includes drawings that depict other events from 1939 on the same day that her uncle penned the poem, such as the mayor of Dachau reporting that his town is “now cleared of all Jews” and that Joseph Goebbels wrote in his diary that Hitler “is so good and humane to me. One has to love him.” Yet this indoctrinated child was the same uncle who died at the age of eighteen fighting as an SS soldier in Italy. His loss of life at such a young age made him a revered figure in his family. Losing him created irreparable hurts and never-mended family fractures. In an attempt to understand who this young man was, Krug addresses the complex issues of guilt, complicity, and asks the difficult question, “are the guilty allowed to grieve?”
On the other side of her family, she digs into the history of her mother’s father, Willi, who worked as a driving instructor during the war. Krug describes how postwar fantasies emerged about her grandfather’s war years — that his mother had been Jewish and that he had hid his Jewish employer in the shed of his mother-in-law’s backyard. Had Willi been a resistor to the Nazi regime? As she begins to unpack the truths, Krug is sure of one thing, he could not have been ignorant to the treatment of the Jews in his own city of Karlsruhe. In her search to find out more details about her grandfather’s life, she discovers that his driving school was located directly across the street from the city’s Jewish synagogue, which had been set on fire and destroyed by local police forces during Kristallnacht. Using a map to show the proximity between the two locations, she writes: “Even without reading the paper, Willi would have known what was going on the night of November 9 and 10, 1938, Reichskristallnacht.” Trying to further ascertain who this man was, she sifts through the US military file on her grandfather’s wartime past, comparing the anticipation of reading the file to the experience of waiting for the results of a rare genetic disease: “I have to wait to find out if it’s malignant or not.” By opening herself up to the painful past, Krug is finally able to form connections with her ancestors. Questions of guilt and complicity remain, but a more truthful, and therefore intimate understanding of her history is allowed to develop.
Throughout the memoir, Krug includes illustrations of material objects that represent “Germanness” to her. One of the objects, Gallseife, a soap made of ox gallbladder combined with Persil, a German laundry detergent, is described as the best method for removing stains. She writes how after the war, letters written in defense of family and friends who were suspected to be Nazi collaborators were called “Persil Certificates,” as they intended to exonerate one’s character making them “white as snow.” Skillfully using symbolism from the German Christian tradition, Krug describes an attack on the Jews of Külsheim, her father’s town, once the Nazis had come to power. Some Jewish men were forcibly held under the water in the town’s fountain as the residents watched on. As she revisits the town and looks at the same fountain eighty years later she notes how “a crucified Jesus is watching, just as he watched that day in 1939. It says in chiseled letters beneath his bleeding feet, Es ist vollbracht (It is done).”
This stunning and suspenseful graphic memoir is an exploration into Krug’s family lore that has been passed down to her, and like most family histories has become a blend of memory and myth. Through the process of sorting through the memories, Krug feels more than ever personally bound to her history, and through her confrontation with the past is able to come to a place of moral accounting for her family’s role in National Socialism. A difficult process, but a necessary one nonetheless. Krug closes with the warning that in 2017 the far-right in Germany gained seats in parliament for the first time in almost six decades. This unsettling thought serves as a reminder that there is a responsibility to not forget the past, but to delve into it, untangle the memories, and come to terms with what that means for us today.
Karen Brglez, University of Winnipeg