Nora Krug: 'I would have thought, what's left to say about Germany's Nazi past?'
Autobiography and memoir Interview Nora Krug: âI would have thought, whatâs left to say about Germanyâs Nazi past?' Philip Oltermann
In her extraordinary graphic memoir Heimat, Krug dissects antisemitism in her own familyâs history and Germanyâs national guilt over the Holocaust â" and the countryâs recent far-right backlash
Of the hundreds of documents the German author and illustrator Nora Krug has wrenched from archives and flea markets for her sp rawling, multilayered graphic memoir, two of the most emotionally arresting are about fungi.
The first is a page from her uncle Franz-Karlâs sixth-grade school exercise book, which Krug discovered in a musty drawer in her parentsâ living room. Each line is filled with meticulously crafted SÃ¼tterlin script, a now largely obsolete form of German handwriting. The margins are populated by childish pine trees and toadstools with grinning faces.
âWhen you go to the forest and you see mushrooms that look beautiful, you think that they are good,â the text reads. âBut when you eat them, they are poisonous and can kill a whole family.â Then the gut-wrencher: âThe Jew is just like this mushroom.â
The short essay, called The Jew, a Poisonous Mushroom, got a C for spelling, C for handwriting and B for content. It is dated 20 January 1939, 10 days before Hitler declared that the outcome of another world war would be âthe annihilation of the Jewish race in E uropeâ.
The second document is a letter Krugâs great-uncle Edwin wrote to his wife from the eastern front five years later. âI remembered the time when the two of us went into the woods together, and when we collected things from the forest. Iâve seen some wonderful chanterelles, but what good are they, if you donât get a chance to cook them?â E dwin writes.
âSlowly, berries and mushrooms are coming to an end, because nature is beginning to show its cold face. Everything dies, or better, returns to its inner calm. Even humans long for that, but unfortunately it isnât possible in these eventful times.â The next document is a letter from Edwinâs company leader, informing his wife that he went missing in combat on the SÃµrve peninsula in Estonia on 18 November 1944.
Each of Edwinâs letters is illustrated with a portrait of their auth or, each one sketchier and paler than the last, until Krugâs great-uncle has been literally rubbed out of history.
Of her two German relatives, one sounds as if he had the potential to become culpable in one of the most monstrous crimes in human history. The other ended up as a victim of conflict. Was Edwin a better German than Franz-Karl? Does one uncleâs suffering offset anotherâs hatred? And should their guilt be carried forward to a 41-year-old relative living in Brooklyn today?
Krugâs memoir Heimat: A German Family Album seeks to wade through this mor al quagmire, what she calls the âgrey zone of warâ, full of âpeople you can neither classify as resistance fighters or as victims, nor as war criminalsâ. It is a surprising mission for a writer born in 1977. The task of VergangenheitsbewÃ¤ltigung, of coming to terms with the National Socialist era, is in Germany mainly associated with the literature and films of Krugâs parentsâ generation.
âIf I had stayed in Germany, I would have never thought of writing this book,â she says over a coffee in a beer garden in central Berlin. âThereâs that Hannah Arendt line: âIf all are guilty, no one is.â As a German in Germany you have already learned so much about the second world war, thought so much about it and talked so much about it, that I would have thought: whatâs left to be said?â
Krugâs perspective changed when she left her hometown of Karlsruhe behind aged 19 and headed abroad â" first to Liverpool, where she studied at Paul McCartn eyâs Liverpool Institute for Performing Arts, and then to New York, where she now teaches illustration at the Parsons School of Design and lives in Brooklyn with her husband and daughter.
Being a German living abroad, she says, makes it harder to extricate yourself from your home countryâs history: âAs soon as you answer someone who asks you where you are from, the association with the Nazi period is there. You are constantly being confronted with it.â She adds: âI have been to parties in New York where complete strangers told me that Germany was a country they coul d never visit. I was ashamed, but sometimes it would reach a point where I would feel angry â" always inwardly, of course, not outwardly â" about the lack of admission that Germany has changed.â
After 12 years of living in the US and now married into a Jewish family, she writes: âI feel more German than ever beforeâ â" on a page illustrated with a picture of her re-enacting Caspar David Friedrichâs ur-German painting Wanderer Above the Sea of Fog. However, she finds it harder to grasp what being German really means.
That sense of in-betweenness gave birth to a personal research project that came in three stages: over a period of two years, Krug regularly returned to her fatherâs hometown of KÃ¼lsheim in Swabia, in the south-west, and combed through village archives, markets and junk shops.
Over the next two years, she wrote up the tales she had discovered: the story of her fervently National Socialist uncle Franz-Karl, who died of a bullet to his ch est in Italy aged 18, or that of her grandfather Willi, who worked as a chauffeur for a Jewish salesman and voted for the Social Democrats in 1933, only to then join the Nazi party a few months later.
In hindsight, Krug says, the family history she embarked on was the kind of project she wished she had done when she was much younger: âWhat I found problematic about the way in which we were taught at school about the Holocaust and the war was that it conveyed a very generalising sense of guilt. You learned about the facts, but you werenât encouraged to research what happened in your own city, or your own family.
âIf that had happened, we would have learned to deal with this guilt in a much more constructive way. You would have been able to say: âI am doing something positive now, I am contributing to retelling the story in a new way.â The sense of paralysis would not have been so strong.â
In recent years, Germanyâs new far-right party Alternative fÃ ¼r Deutschland has started to agitate against what it calls the countryâs Schuldkult â" âguilt cultâ. Railing against architect Peter Eisenmanâs Holocaust memorial next to Berlinâs Brandenburg Gate, the AfD delegate BjÃ¶rn HÃ¶cke last year said that âwe Germans are the only people in the world that have planted a monument of shame in the heart of their capitalâ. Has German culture exposed itself to attacks from the far right by putting the countryâs collective guilt at the heart of its modern identity?
Krug pauses to think. âI think there is now a backlash from people who say they are fed up with having to feel guilty. Thereâs a defensive attitude that can lead to the exact opposite. In my view, Germans still feel deeply insecure about all this.â
While travelling frequently between the US and Germany, she says, she started a notebook to document behavioural oddities that she had previously been blind to. âFor example, Germans apologis e a lot less, whether that is for bumping into people in the road, or for graver things. To apologise in German entails an admission that you are guilty. In the English-speaking world, an apology doesnât necessarily imply that: it can just mean âI didnât intend that to happenâ, and not âIt is my faultâ. An apology carries a lot of weight here.â
But Krug rejects the idea that the guilt of Nazi Germany no longer applies to her own generation. âI donât think we should no longer feel guilty. But there are paralysing ways to feel guilt and there are constructive strategies for coping with guilt, and we didnât learn enough of the latter at school.â
Heimat, the title of Krugâs book, is one of those terms whose prestige as an ultra-specific, âuntranslatableâ German word isnât really deserved. The word, which was co-opted by National Socialist propaganda and only partially rehabilitated by Edgar Reitzâs arthouse soap opera, made in the 80s and 90s, of the same name (of which Krug is a fan), oscillates between referring to a specific geographic location, a âhomelandâ, and a vaguer, more spiritual sense of âhome-nessâ.
Germanyâs current government announced in March this year that it would establish the first ever Heimat ministry, though appropriately for such a conceptually overloaded word, there has yet to be any announcement on what such a ministry would do. Krugâs approach, by contrast, is refreshingly materialist.
For the final two-year stage of her proj ect, Krug assembled the material she had amassed into a sprawling family album. The biographies of her relatives are told in a series of cartoon panels in the fairytale style of her first graphic novel, Red Riding Hood Redux, a Rashomon-style retelling of the story from the perspective of its five main characters.
Krugâs biographies are interspersed with entries from what she calls âthe notebook of a homesick Ã©migrÃ©â, listing quintessentially German objects such as Hansaplast bandages, Leitz binders or dark and crusty sourdough bread, and her âscrapbook of a memory archivistâ, in which she presents curios unearthed during her flea market treasure trawls.
Sometimes, Krug uses these objects to undercut sarcastically the emotional pull of the individual biographies. Fly agaric toadstools, she notes, having just discovered her uncleâs grim school essay, are in Germany still seen as signs of good luck.
In another chapter, an account of how all memory of Judaism as a living culture has been erased from her fatherâs hometown is interwoven with evidence of how the country tried to erase memory of the Nazi period after 1945. A stamp bearing Hitlerâs portrait is relabelled âGermanyâs contaminatorâ so as not to diminish its value. On a photograph of three young men in uniforms, the swastikas on their armbands have been scratched out.A graphic history of the rise of the Nazis Read more
The curious appeal of Krugâs graphic memoir is that it never fully loses itself in the act of storytelling but constantly stops to turn over and reassess the means at its disposal. âThe research stage took so long because I was very insecure at first: how do you tell a story like this without being misunderstood?â she says. âI didnât want to make the point that Germans were victims, too. If you made a film about this subject, you would have to be extremely careful what kind of music you used. The same applies to p ictures: it can suddenly seem so very sentimental.â
In the end, even a cosmopolitan young German writer living in New York cannot tell the story of Germany as a simple tale with a hero and a villain, a beginning and an end. âMy Heimat,â Krug writes, âis an echo, a forgotten word once called into the mountains. An unrecognisable reverberation.â
â¢ Heimat: A German Family Album is published by Particular.Topics
- Autobiography and memoir
- Comics and graphic novels
- Second world war
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