A revelatory memoir by award-winning artist Nora Krug, telling the story of her attempt to confront the hidden truths of her family’s wartime past in Nazi Germany and to comprehend the forces that have shaped her life, her generation, and history.
Nora Krug was born decades after the fall of the Nazi regime, but the Second World War cast a long shadow throughout her childhood and youth in the city of Karlsruhe, Germany. For Nora, the simple fact of her German citizenship bound her to the Holocaust and its unspeakable atrocities and left her without a sense of cultural belonging. Yet Nora knew little about her own family’s involvement in the war: though all four grandparents lived through the war, they never spoke of it.
In her late thirties, after twelve years in the US, Krug realizes that living abroad has only intensified her need to ask the questions she didn’t dare to as a child and young adult. Returning to Germany, she visits archives, conducts research, and interviews family members, uncovering in the process the stories of her maternal grandfather, a driving teacher in Karlsruhe during the war, and her father’s brother Franz-Karl, who died as a teenage SS soldier in Italy. Her extraordinary quest, spanning continents and generations, pieces together her family’s troubling story and reflects on what it means to be a German of her generation.
Belonging wrestles with the idea of Heimat, the German word for the place that first forms us, where the sensibilities and identity of one generation pass on to the next. In this memoir, Nora Krug draws on letters, archival material, flea market finds, and photographs to attempt to understand what it means to belong to one’s country and one’s family. A wholly original record of a German woman’s struggle with the weight of catastrophic history, Belonging is also a reflection on the responsibility that we all have as inheritors of our countries’ pasts.
I liked this memoir of exploration written and narrated by German ex-pat, Nora Krug — it’s short, she has a great voice and accent, and she’s telling her own family story — her uncle lost in the war before her father was born and the town where she and her mother grew up — so the emotion is right there in her voice. But the print book is so visually interesting as written and illustrated, I know I would have gotten more from that edition (at AMAZON you can see what I am talking about).
Several of my friends and book club buddies come from Germany — some were born during the war and others in the aftermath. They cringe a bit when a WWII book is chosen to be read. Most US citizens of Caucasian descent feel guilty about the history of Slavery, discrimination and white privilege, and Germans have a similar history with Jews. But while Whites in the US cannot seem to escape or shrug off white privilege, postwar Germans, until recently I think, have had nationalism educated out of them. Recently, in Europe and the US white nationalism is trending in a very scary way.
In no way does Krug deny any of the atrocities of Germany’s past or write an apologist manifesto. She does lay out some if the ways her young education worked to make the horrors of WWII cancel out any feelings of German pride. But, she also looks at how unrooted, shame in one’s origin can make one. While her parents are still alive, their pasts and family histories are hard to unearth and are filled with gaps. Was her maternal grandfather a Nazi? How did her young uncle, a soldier dead before her father was even born, die? How can she understand herself and her family when the past is hidden or demolished?
Of course, the difficulties faced by Krug in unearthing her roots are nothing compared to the millions of people and families obliterated by Germany during the war. And, Krug cannot explain or understand the mindset of the time. She doesn’t intend to in the book. She just wants to understand how her family lost their feeling of comfort and belonging to a place that comes from being brought up somewhere with a history. With my understanding of her experience I might equate it with how it was to go to school in the same place my sisters did and with the same students for the 12 years I was there; it was my place, I was socialized there and we shared our youths there.
I chose this book from the Simon and Schuster offering because I want to better understand my friends — their guilt and their discomfort in the books about WWII; that guilt for something they did not have part in much like I did not take part in slavery (although we still have white privilege.) But, unlike how we are still heir to the privilege of skin color, post-war Germans are brought up as if they are being trained to not be German. The world believed Germans will always be a warlike people with a militaristic cultural identity, and who believe they are superior. Remember, WWII was not the first war instigated by Germany and this idea was part of the indoctrination of American soldiers in WWII. Theodore Geisel, who became Dr. Seuss first worked for the US War Department writing training films fro the US Military in WWII:
“The German lust for conquest is not dead,” the narrator warns, “it’s merely gone undercover.” The German people, he insists, “must prove they have been cured beyond the shadow of a doubt [of the super-race disease, the world-conquest disease] before they ever again are allowed to take their place among respectable nations.” http://www.openculture.com/2015/06/dr-seuss-world-war-ii-propaganda-films.html
Krug quotes this film in her book, and it is the spirit in which she was educated. She talks about having never held a German flag before going to a German Day parade in NYC. People kept handing them to her and she kept putting them away. She talks about her early education about the war and the Holocaust as if it were very regular to feel shame in the culture in which one was raised.
I told my friends about the book; I feel it explains that discomfort I see on their faces and in their body language. One important question, should they feel less than discomfort in the sins of their country’s past? And, for me it asks whether, especially in this period of a seeming resurgence in white supremacist movements, white Americans should should be allowed to forget our own flaws regardless of when our families arrived on these shores? We hear the nationalistic bullcrap and ignore the Native American’s raised eyebrow. And, how do we approach the past of any country where one group perpetrated such horror on another? Is institutionalized, punishing re-education the answer?
For me, this was very worthwhile. Krug gave me a lot to think about.