The Universal Memoir: An Interview with Nora Krug
The NBCC autobiography award winner on Belonging: A German Reckons with History and Home
In March, The New School hosted this year’s National Book Critics Circle awards, which honor literature published in the United States in the previous year. The awards are presented in six categories — autobiography, biography, criticism, fiction, nonfiction, and poetry — and are the only U.S. literary awards chosen by critics themselves.
MFA in Creative Writing student John Apruzzese interviewed Nora Krug, winner of the National Book Critics Circle Award for Autobiography, about her book Belonging: A German Reckons with History and Home.
On a mild February morning in New York City, I met with German-American illustrator and author Nora Krug to talk about her poignant new graphic memoir about growing up German after the Second World War. In Belonging: A German Reckons with History and Home, Krug marries image and text in exploring the dark legacy of National Socialism and the Holocaust on post-war German life and the long shadow it continues to cast on German society today. She treads the chasm between the war’s perpetrators and its hero-resisters so she can hone in on the Mitläufer or ‘followers’ — the large gray area of individuals who fall into history’s dark crevices and are forgotten — and she hovers there obstinately in order to finally ask the painful questions no one ever has.
Krug begins her quest at home, returning to her native Karlsruhe where she delves into the archives and interviews family members. She uncovers the untold, troubling stories of her family’s past and grapples with the notions of home and identity and how they shape our understanding of ourselves and the world. Throughout her journey, she seeks not only to come to terms with her family’s and community’s role in a tragic history but also to plunge the depths of its meaning for contemporary Germany and for all of us today.
John Apruzzese [JA]: The words “belonging” and “reckoning” stand out in the title of your graphic memoir. They suggest that your belonging to your home, your Heimat, cannot be taken for granted but must pass through a reckoning with history.
Nora Krug [NK]: German society is deeply shaped by our troubled political history. We are the way we are because of the war and atrocities our country committed. It’s a big part of the German psyche and cultural identity. I grew up feeling culturally disoriented because the war had such a major impact on our understanding of who we are. It’s a feeling that hasn’t gone away for Germans of my generation. Even though I was aware of this feeling growing up I didn’t understand what I could do as an individual to address the feeling of paralysis and collective guilt, which I felt stood in the way of my taking responsibility and fully facing my country’s past.
JA: Why did you feel it necessary to tell this story now?
NK: I never would have written this book if I hadn’t left Germany. During my 17 years living abroad, I felt more German than ever before. As a German living among non-Germans, I realized I would always be as much an individual as a representative of my country and therefore my country’s history. I was often confronted with negative stereotypes towards German cultural identity, but I was also asked sincere questions about my family’s past I didn’t know how to answer. Over the years, I felt a growing urge to tackle my country’s history in a new way. I realized that to overcome the collective, abstract shame I had grown into as a German two generations after the war — which I came to recognize in retrospect as a feeling of empty paralysis — I needed to go back and ask questions about my family, my hometown, those questions I was too unreflective as a child and too afraid as a teenager to ask.
JA: How does this book speak to contemporary German society and culture and the wider world community?
NK: During my six years writing the book, a new extreme right-wing movement emerged in Germany, a movement that, I think, had long been underestimated. The extreme right is driven by fears of globalization and waves of migrants. To a certain extent, the German educational system is at fault as well: we learned everything there was to learn about the war and the Holocaust in school, but we weren’t provided the tools to apply what we’d learned from history to the present — to ask ourselves what we’re doing now to contribute to a more tolerant and open society, to defend our democracy, to recognize that democracy is a process and not a state of being — questions which, alongside memorializing the past, provide the most important way in which we can take responsibility for our country’s atrocious actions. Germans like myself who believe we need to continue to talk about our past and confront our country’s atrocities find it difficult to foster a sense of love for our cultural heritage. Contemporary Germans have to learn that critically facing our past doesn’t stand in contrast to whole-heartedly committing to our country, because if we don’t, the extreme right will claim exclusive ownership over that love. A country that is only embraced for the best moments in its history, or for only one particular kind of people, isn’t a country fully loved. Germany needs to go through a cultural transformation that allows the people to look back at a critical angle while also embracing the country and its cultural achievements.
JA: In a speech at the Museum of Jewish Heritage in November 2018, you say, “It is important to shed light on people like my uncle and grandfather and those who fall in between the categories of heroes and culprits — the gray mass — in order to understand how dictatorial regimes come to be.” Can you expound on this?
NK: The names of the perpetrators and those who resisted the Nazi regime are very much in the public eye in Germany. I’d always assumed my grandparents came from the group of ‘followers,’ so I decided it was that particular category I needed to concentrate on. This group of people living in between the category of perpetrators and heroes feels much closer to home and is therefore more painful to look at. It is especially important for families of the ‘followers’ — those who lived in the moral gray zones of the war, whose guilt is more difficult to measure — to look closely at what happened and ask individual questions about decisions their family members made. When your grandparents fall into this category, it’s easy to conclude there’s nothing more to say or ask, because most Germans fell into that same category. But it is exactly this category we need to examine closely because it’s the one that teaches us most about how dictatorial regimes come to be. These are the people who voted for Adolf Hitler. They chose him as their leader out of their own free will. To understand how this could happen, we need to understand their motives, what they thought, what concerned them.
JA: The question of ‘identity” is at the heart of your book. We live in a world where individuals are increasingly identity-focused. How do you see national and cultural histories shaping individual and collective identities?
NK: The collective and the individual cannot be separated, just as the political and personal or the national and private cannot be. We are deeply impacted by the particular country and time we grow up in and the cultural perspective of our families. We need to be aware of where we come from and what our heritage means to us. Recognizing we are deeply informed by the society we grew up in is important because it allows us to distance ourselves from it and recalibrate what we believe to be our place in the world. Culture doesn’t isolate us, but shapes us. But we need to learn how to look at it in perspective and understand it in relationship to other perspectives. It’s part of being a citizen of the world.
JA: You are an illustrator and graphic artist, but also a writer. You say that, “drawing is an act of empathy.” Can you expound on this idea and tell us how you developed your hybrid approach to your work?
NK: I started out as an illustrator and never thought of telling this story without images. There’s no hierarchy for me between images and text. They are two components that work in parallel and provide different kinds of emotional access to a story. The process of illustrating and writing allows me to distance myself from reality by elevating it onto a different plain, then reinterpreting it through a visual and verbal lens. This distancing process also, paradoxically, allows me to get closer to the individuals I portray because I have to picture them in situations I didn’t experience myself. I felt a closeness to my family I’d never felt before because I drew them, because I had to reflect so deeply on the circumstances they found themselves in. At the same time, making their lives visible allowed me to test the limits of my own empathy towards decisions they made. I see illustration as a tool to shed light on something, to make things visible. Drawing is an act of witnessing. As an illustrator, I am committed to looking and seeing and therefore to bearing witness. Through drawing, I witness the effect history has on my personal life and I make it visible to others. I see the book as a commitment to looking and to not looking away. Using visuals also allowed me to think about how memory works, the memory of war in particular. Memory isn’t static. It is fragmentary. That’s why I used the fragmentary collage character in the writing and the images to convey that history is nothing but the accumulation of individually experienced moments in time we piece together to make sense. That’s where the power of visual mediums lies because they can talk about history and memory in a very direct and visceral way.
JA: Who are your influences?
NK: Visually, I’d say that my work is very influenced by German Expressionism, for example the work of Otto Dix and George Grosz, who did a lot of work on war and who were proponents of seeing and looking, shedding light on what happens if we engage in war. I also read a lot of fiction, but also non-fiction, for instance the work of Alexandra Fuller. I love literature that manages to convey emotion from a perspective of restraint. I’m also a fan of essayistic documentary films, such as the ones by Werner Herzog, Joshua Oppenheimer and Hubert Sauper, which provide insight into the complexities and contradictions of human conflict.
JA: This was not an easy book to write. Do you fear angering or offending people further?
NK: My biggest concern was that telling the story of the war from a German perspective could offend victims of the Nazi regime and their descendants. I thought a lot about how to tell the story, about how to combine images and words in a way that would ensure it wasn’t misunderstood as a defense or victimization of Germans, as an attempt to excuse their actions or ask for forgiveness. I’ve received heartfelt messages from Holocaust survivors and from descendants of some of the persecuted Jewish men and women from my hometown whose stories I tell in the book. I have received a lot of mail from German readers telling me the book has inspired them to do more research and confront their own families’ history in a new way. But I have also received isolated messages from extreme right-wing Germans who accuse me of dragging Germany through the dirt and spreading anti-German propaganda.
JA: How you wish to transmit your German heritage and history to your own children?
NK: I have a three-year-old daughter who is both American and German. I don’t want her to grow up with the same guilty paralysis I knew because this feeling doesn’t allow us to face our past in a concrete and active way. I hope to send her to a German school in the United States, in part because it is important to me that she learns about the Nazi period and the Holocaust from a German angle. Learning about it at an American school would mean learning about it from a distance, which would allow her to remove herself, to look at Nazism from the perspective of an outsider, someone who doesn’t necessarily feel propelled to ask the uncomfortable questions I would like to encourage her to continue to ask.
JA: What have you learned from writing the book?
NK: Working on this book has taught me that history isn’t a thing of the past, that we don’t exist in a historic vacuum, that we are who we are because of what came before, that we need to keep on dismantling history and our memory of it, that we need to continue asking detailed and uncomfortable questions so we don’t resort to stereotypical, mythical or finite interpretations of history, and that we need to understand and stand up to the responsibility we have as carriers of our countries’ pasts. This is, I hope, where the universal meaning of my memoir lies.
Nora Krug is a German-American author and illustrator whose drawings and visual narratives have appeared in publications such as The New York Times, The Guardian, and Le Monde diplomatique. She is a recipient of fellowships from Fulbright, Guggenheim Foundation, Pollock-Krasner Foundation, and Maurice Sendak Foundation. Her visual memoir Belonging: A German Reckons with History and Home was chosen as a New York Times Critics’ Top Books of 2018, one of The Guardian’s 50 Biggest Books of Autumn 2018 and Best Books of 2018, an NPR Book of the Year 2018, among Kirkus Reviews’ Best Memoirs of 2018, and one of Time Magazine’s 8 Must-Read Books you May Have Missed in 2018, among others. Krug is an associate professor in the Illustration Program at the Parsons School of Design in New York City.
J.P. Apruzzese is a writer and poet currently pursuing an MFA in creative writing (fiction) at The New School in New York City. He is also the Translation Editor at LIT Magazine. This interview was first published on the Creative Writing at The New School blog.