A graphic reckoning

Nora Krug’s illustrated memoir grapples with – but never really confronts – her family’s dark Nazi past

NORA KRUG (photo credit: NINA SUBIN)
(photo credit: NINA SUBIN)
Nora Krug, who grew up in Karlsruhe, Germany, is the granddaughter of a family with an entrenched Nazi past which has left her with lingering shame that she wanted to confront publicly.
But Krug seems to also want to have it both ways. Haunted by guilt and family ghosts, she initially set out to write an intimate graphic memoir that exposes her devotion to excavating dark truths, but somewhere along the line other desires seemed to surface that hint at her wish to cleanse herself and her family of the toxic stains of their past. It is this uncomfortable and somewhat repressed duality that shadows her throughout this shatteringly brilliant work that startles us with its creative power.
Belonging: A German Reckons with History and Home, attempts to be Krug’s mea culpa, but becomes something entirely different. It quickly morphs into the author’s own tortured inner dialogue; a conversation filled with guilt and regrets commingling with nostalgic longings for her homeland.
The sentimental yearnings she shares with us are perhaps the most disturbing, and interrupt her storyline every few pages with a full page devoted to recalling the German products of her childhood that still intrigue her. These longings seem misplaced somehow; we feel as if she is not entitled to them. But Krug waxes on and on, in pages labeled “From the notebook of a homesick émigré Things German,” about her love of a certain soap detergent manufactured in Germany that makes whites extra white, rubber water bottles, Hansaplast bandages, Leitz binders, Uhu glue, German bread, and other marvels of German ingenuity as if these meditations could cancel out the only designation that really holds historical weight: Nazis.
The 41-year-old Krug now lives in the United States with her Jewish husband and small child, but seems imaginatively to still have left a large chunk of her heart back in Germany.
Krug is a graphic artist of superb ability and intuitively understands how to combine text and vividly drawn images and photographs and letters into a mesmerizing montage that enhances her thoughts and simultaneously subverts them. We sense her confusion; bewilderment grappling with confrontation; heartache with shame; remorse with defiance; bouts of denial with scraps of resigned acceptance. Her work is a tour de force of the highest order and holds the reader enthralled and nauseated simultaneously.
Krug writes of going to Birkenau on a school trip and offers us photographs of her high-school friends with their heads lowered. She tells us of meeting a concentration-camp survivor upon arriving in Manhattan decades ago who tells her that she was saved from death by a Nazi guard who savagely treated others, but for some reason took pity on her and pulled her from the gas chambers 14 times.
On the next page, Krug shows us 14 black-and-white photographs of Nazi women guards, each face distorted by hate, and seems to be challenging us to decide who among them might be this woman’s savior. She remembers shaking in this woman’s presence and asks us “How do you react, as a German, standing across from a human being who reveals this memory to you?”
BUT KRUG never lingers too long on Jewish suffering, or Jews for that matter. Or the antisemitism that has resurfaced recently in Germany with unexpected force. She admits she learned nothing in school about contemporary Jewish culture. The book is all about Krug; how she feels, what she needs, what she wishes to protect, even from herself. We have trouble liking her.
She does reveal ugly truths. She travels back to Karlsruhe and meets with family members and local historians, and scours archives looking for facts about her grandfather and uncle. Her grandfather was a member of the Nazi Party and her uncle, who died in Italy at 19, was a member of the SS. She uncovers her uncle’s school records and letters and the photos he sent home shortly before his death, and confesses to feeling empathy for him; someone simply caught up perhaps in the fog of war.
Although her family was not religious, she remembers her parents taking her to church on occasional Sundays and learning that the Jews killed Christ. When she questions her mother about this, her mother grows exasperated and nervous and deflects her questioning, telling her with a heightened sense of urgency that frightens her that the Jews were not evil. She senses no further questions are welcome.
When – years later – she tells her mother she is going to marry a Jewish man in New York, her mother accepts this, but adds uncomfortably her fear that if they have a son, and he is circumcised, and it happens again, her son will be targeted. It is not exactly a ringing endorsement.
Her father, born in 1947, years after the death of his older brother who as part of the SS was killed fighting in Italy, was named after him, and seemed to bear the brunt of this loss on his shoulders. His mother rejected him and beat him, and his father and sister scorned him. He was sent away to boarding school early, and when Krug would ask him about his childhood, he had trouble talking about it. In fact, Krug questions her own reluctance to press her parents about the Nazis, or her grandparents when they were still living. Her friends did likewise. She confesses there was an unannounced conspiracy of silence. No one wanted to talk about it.
There are some candid moments. Krug is troubled that the town board in her hometown, Karlsruhe, turned down requests to place a memorial plaque at the site where the synagogue once stood. She occasionally succumbs to despair, writing: “What would we be as a family if the war never happened?” She adds “I feel a sudden pain, shallow but sharp and all-consuming as a paper-cut, because even inherited memory hurts.” And in other moments she concedes to opening a window that has “let the darkness in.” But she grows softer as the book progresses instead of enraged; prone to distortions that seem self-serving.
There is a portrait in the beginning of the book that shows her mother as a young woman from the back standing in her backyard with Krug as a toddler is sitting near her as a US military plane flies by. The photo was taken in 1980.
The caption reads simply: “Part of me understood that something had gone terribly wrong.” But the subtext of the photo and her caption say something else. There are hints of resentment and bitterness. Of desires to erase the past or reinvent it. Of sympathy for her German brethren.
She seems to have completely forgotten about the Jews, who we sense in her mind are nothing more than a nuisance. She never really gives them serious thought. On another even more upsetting page, she draws for us a sinister man holding a balloon at what appears to be a carnival or circus and his face is partially shielded by her text which reads: “I don’t know when I first heard the word KONZENTRATIONSLAGER but I became aware of it long before I learned about the Holocaust. I sensed that concentration camps were sinister places, and I imagined that the people who lived there were forced to concentrate to the point of physical anguish. But I was afraid to ask.”
She still is.