A visual memoir asks what it means for Germany to reckon with its past
By: Parul Sehgal
In German, “original sin” is known as “inherited sin.” As a child, the artist Nora Krug found the concept instantly familiar — it was what being German felt like, “history in our blood, shame in our genes.”
“Belonging,” Krug’s new visual memoir, is a mazy and ingenious reckoning with the past. Born three decades after the Holocaust, she traces the stubborn silences in German life and investigates her own family’s role in the war. The book takes the form of an overstuffed scrapbook, jammed with letters, photographs, official documents and fragments from her uncle’s childhood journals — doodles of flowers, flags and swastikas.
In light of the resurgence of the far right in Germany, her measure of the process known as Vergangenheitsbewältigung — the nation coming to terms with complicity and guilt — has the air of both progress report and challenge. The memoir will be published in Germany as “Heimat” — “Homeland” — in an effort to reclaim the word from extreme right-wing and Nazi groups.
Much of the memoir wrestles with what it means to lay claim to Germany. “You’ll see ruins. You’ll see flowers. You’ll see some mighty pretty scenery. DON’T LET IT FOOL YOU. You are in enemy country,” Krug quotes from a 1945 United States War Department training film titled “Your Job in Germany,” scripted by Theodor Geisel, better known as Dr. Seuss. It warned American soldiers stationed in postwar Germany to maintain vigilance until the nation showed signs of being “cured.”
Some Germans adopted the same habit of vigilance. Hitler’s speeches were analyzed in schools — “alliteration by alliteration, tautology by tautology, neologism by neologism,” Krug writes — to unpack how the German language was “potentially dangerous.” Krug grew up without knowing the words of her home country’s national anthem, and first touched a German flag as an adult living in America. Even then, she could not bear to wave it.
For all her shame and self-scrutiny, Krug becomes aware that Germans confront their history selectively. Her upbringing was full of odd evasions. Growing up, she listened to talks given by American survivors, but would never have thought to discuss the concentration camps with her relatives. She was never taught about the tens of thousands of Germans killed for resisting the Nazis, possibly “because it would have made our grandparents who didn’t resist look guiltier in comparison.” Nor was modern Jewish life or culture mentioned in schools. As a very young child, Krug assumed that Jewish people “didn’t exist outside of the Bible. They seemed distant like a long extinct species.”
Krug slashes through a fog of shame, amnesia, determined oblivion and misdirection to trace the lives of two men: her father’s brother, an SS soldier killed in his teens, and her maternal grandfather, who worked as a chauffeur to a Jewish linen salesman and later joined the Nazi party. What made these men? she asks. What did they believe? What did they do?
She is a tenacious investigator, ferreting out stories from the wispiest hints — a rumor or a mysterious photograph.
In one instance, she learns of a torched synagogue located across the street from her grandfather’s office. She found someone who recalled watching it burn, as an eight-year-old boy: “I will never forget a tall, old and bald man with a long, gray beard who passed by right in front of me. Proud and erect, and with an expression of contempt, he walked toward the police station past the battering mob, his face covered with blood.”
The page is laid out with the boy’s face in the center, breaking up the lines of text. It is impossible to glide through his testimony — Krug won’t permit it. The eye is forced to decelerate and piece together the sentences. Throughout “Belonging,” text and image are interleaved with this kind of deliberation, forcing you to read actively, carefully. Invariably, the more painful the story, the slower she will have you read it.
What did you see? Krug wonders of her grandfather, the night the synagogue burned. Where were you? In one spread, she lays out the possibilities like a multiple-choice quiz: “A. I was in another part of town,” she imagines him responding. “B. I was at home. C. I was in my office” (she depicts him blankly drawing the curtain over a window). “D. I was there when it happened.” In this panel, he looks at us over his shoulder, wearing a slight, secretive smile. He stands amid a jeering crowd encircling an old man with a long beard. Even as she fills in the missing details, the stories are left open-ended; there is no rush to condemn or redeem, merely to get as close to the truth as possible.
The family stories are interrupted by short, passionate paeans to household goods: the Gallseife brand of soap, Hansaplast bandages, a rubber hot water bottle — items of care and comfort, reminders of childhood. (“Next to my mother, Hansaplast was the safest thing in the world,” she writes, recalling her mother pressing a bandage to her knee after a roller-skating accident.) The real salience of these objects becomes clearer later: There is no stain Gallseife soap can’t expunge, she tells us. With just a few drops, Uzu glue binds metal rods together. “Hansaplast is so reliable that it won’t come off until your wound has fully healed. It is the most tenacious bandage on the planet, and it hurts when you tear it off to look at your scar.” The objects speak to those unappeasable desires to wash away stains, mend scars, make whole.
The wisdom of this book is that it does not claim to do any of those things. The notion of “consolation” is one I suspect Krug would regard with suspicion. What she seems in pursuit of is a better quality of guilt. “I hope the younger generation of Germans, including my daughter, don’t grow up with the paralyzing sense of guilt that I did, because that can turn into the opposite sentiment: ‘I’m sick and tired of feeling guilty,’ ” she said in a recent interview. “I want them to find something more productive, so they can think about how to contribute to society today.”
On her website, Krug has posted a video of her at work on “Belonging.” She sketches two figures faintly. She looks again. She recalibrates, erases. The pencil cuts into the paper. She hesitates. That’s where honor seems to lie, this book suggests: in the restless work of remembering, in the looking again, the recalibration and the revision. In getting the whole picture, and getting it right.