A German-American Artist Searches for a Cultural Identity

December, 03 2018

“How do you know who you are, if you don’t understand where you come from?” Nora Krug asks toward the beginning of her stunning visual memoir, Belonging: A German Reckons With History And Home. Krug, who grew up in Germany in the 1980s, is referring not only to her family’s rarely discussed World War II history, but also her German cultural identity in general.

In Belonging, Krug examines her family’s actions during World War II—particularly those of her paternal uncle, who died fighting for the SS in 1944, and her maternal grandfather, a chauffeur and driving instructor who may or may not have belonged to the Nazi party. She depicts her search through illustrated prose and comics as well as photos, letters and archival documents. The result feels like an overstuffed scrapbook.

Krug wrote Belonging after 12 years of living in America, after feeling more German than ever before but not quite knowing what “being German” meant. Krug found herself consumed by her search for heimat, loosely defined in Belonging as “a landscape or location with which a person…associates an immediate sense of familiarity. This experience is…imparted across generations, through family and other institutions, or through political ideology.” The idea of heimat was adopted as a central part of Nazi ideology, an association that the word has still not managed to shake despite the German government’s best efforts (the latest attempt being the establishment of a “Ministry of Heimat” in October). In Belonging, Krug is seeking a heimat “untainted by the war.” This desire brings her to a German-American pride parade (where she touches the German flag for the first time), an Oktoberfest celebration in Milwaukee and a coffee klatch in New York made up of German and Austrian Jews who have been since 1943 to speak German.

Deputy editor Sarah Breger speaks with Krug about her new book, what it means to be German for her generation and how our identity is shaped by those who came before us.

Why did you decide to write this memoir? 

There was no key moment, more like an accumulation of experiences I had: Growing up in Germany in the second generation since the Holocaust and growing up with this basically paralyzing sense of inherited guilt that we felt because of the atrocities that my country committed. Then moving abroad and realizing that when you live as a German abroad, you don’t only represent yourself or your family, but you are always a representative of your country and your country’s history. I have had many experiences abroad where I was confronted with stereotypical ideals about Germans, asked about the Holocaust, and my own family’s involvement, or lack thereof. And those conversations did not happen between my grandparents and my parents. My parents talked about everything they knew about—it wasn’t a taboo in my family—but their own parents didn’t tell them much.

That was really something that was missing in our educational system in Germany. We learned a lot about the war and the Holocaust but we weren’t encouraged to do the more detailed research into our own family’s histories that would have led to more constructive ways of handling this guilt. So when I was confronted with my Germanness more directly abroad, this urge to find out more grew, and that finely propelled me into researching more. Writing a book about it helped me because it gave me a certain amount of distance and it became like a research project. Of course it is a deeply personal project, but turning it into a book forced me to be even more precise with my research.

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Graphic novels and memoirs have always been a popular way to discuss the Holocaust. Your book is different in that it includes not just illustrations but photos, letters, archival documents. Why did you choose this format?

I really wanted to move away from the more traditional graphic novel format of panels and speech bubbles. For whatever reason I didn’t want to show myself visually as a protagonist in the book. I did not want to be redundant and have the images repeat what the text was saying. For example, I didn’t want to show myself sitting at the archive researching my grandfather and then also write about that. I just thought that was too direct. And I wanted to find a freer form. I also had this wealth of documentary material. I feel like if you see the actual piece of paper that I found in the archive, the actual letter that my grandfather wrote, it would be so much more impactful than to draw the document or to handle it in a different way.

While doing research, I thought a lot about the way in which memory works, the memory of war and how the memory of war is passed on through generations. Memory is such a visual thing and it is also a very disjointed thing. We always pretend that memory and history is something that is purely chronological or that it is easy to put into a school textbook, but in reality it is just an accumulation of individually experienced moments. And moments that shift with time, and our perception of them shifts with time. It felt like this wealth of visual material reflected the fragmentary nature of memory better than a traditional graphic novel.

The book seems to center on the word heimat, which is a very evocative word, but it is also a historically loaded word. Why did you decide to make that a central theme of the book, and were you at all apprehensive about using it? 

You know, the word heimat existed long before the Nazis came along. It is one of those things that the Nazis misappropriated, and therefore took away from contemporary German. Growing up with this inherited sense of guilt also meant growing up with a sense of culture disorientation. We didn’t think that we could take any pride or identify with anything that happened before the Nazis, anything that represented a sense of German cultural identity. Heimat originally was a positive word that carried a lot of warmth and familiarity. And then the Nazis misappropriated it and it was basically taboo. I wanted to explore it for myself. In all of the foreign editions of the book, including the UK edition, the book is actually called Heimat. To me the title really has an invisible question mark behind it. The question is, what does heimat mean to me as a German who feels that we need to continue to talk about the war and the atrocities that our country committed? And yet, we also need to learn to love our culture and our cultural heritage. The challenge is to do both. I think for a lot of liberal Germans this is particularity difficult.

To me the book is a quest for what “heimat” means to me. I also feel like it should not be a term that is used or understood in a static way. I think that “heimat” is something that should always be revisited or rethought, critically looked at and measured. The problem with the right in Germany is that it claims the term as something that seems to express an old notion of a static Germany. It is an illusion. Germany was never the country that they like to see it as. Calling the book Heimat was also a way of claiming the term back from the right, by saying as somebody who’s from the liberal spectrum, I feel like I can use it as well as you can, but I use it with a critical point of view while still trying to love my country. For the U.S. edition we thought about other words that could convey the same feeling. For a time we were thinking of “Homeland.” But “Homeland” has such a military connotation here. Also, it doesn’t really translate what heimat conveys in German. “Belonging” is the closest, and it really addresses what the book is about.

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Throughout the book, you repeatedly describe what it is like to grow up without a sense of cultural identity. What was it like to write about this, and do you think this is something that is still true today?

It felt very natural to write about it because I feel like it was so deeply ingrained in me, this lack of a cultural sense of belonging. I think it is not healthy. I would not have wanted to learn less about the war and the Holocaust and all the other atrocities the Germans committed then we did. And I hope that future generations of Germans and other countries continue to learn as much. We went to concentration camp museums and talked to survivors. All of this was deeply, deeply necessary. It should have been paired with some guidelines as to how we can use this history in a constructive way to promote tolerance or to keep our societies open. It is just not natural or healthy not to have any sense of cultural identity or to grow up without any sense of cultural identity that is deeply embedded in the past, and not just in a new identity that was invented after the end of the war. 

Your book seems to have been directed toward an American audience more than a German one. Was that your intention? How has your book been received in Germany?

Yes, I wrote it with an American audience in mind. That was my main goal because the urge to write this book partly arose from these encounters I had over the years with Americans. There is also a lack of understanding outside Germany of how much we have addressed the subject in schools and how deeply troubled we still are by it. But the book was very positively received in Germany and reviewed by major literary critics. I realized that Germans actually have an emotional need to address the subject anew. They just don’t think they know how, as the grandchildren. I don’t know if it is harder or easier when you are the child of the perpetrator generation, because you can ask more direct and critical questions. But as a grandchild, you feel like all that work has already been done, so what can you do? And especially now that the generation of survivors and perpetrators are dying, this is exactly the time where we need to rethink how we talk as Germans about the subject.

It’s interesting how Germany is so often held up as a prime example of constructive engagement in a troubled past, and the wish is for other countries to engage like Germany.

Yes, and that was another thing that I had thought of in terms of why it’s so important that we continue talking about these things and telling these stories because we have been looked at as the country that has been doing this, and I think we need to continue to take on that role. It’s important we as Germans continue taking on that role as a country that is continuing to dissect its past.

Do you think that’s contributed to the return of the far right or nationalism in Germany?

There are probably many factors that led to that. One is the acceptance of one million immigrants in that one year into the country. The other thing is that I think some people are tired of feeling guilty, and they want to feel pride in their country. But right-wing attitudes are just not the way to do it. There are so many ways to achieve this. I do think that the lack of a constructive engagement with our troubled past is probably feeding into this lack of ability to realize that you can take pride in your country without promoting intolerance.

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