A graphic reck­on­ing

Nora Krug’s il­lus­trated mem­oir grap­ples with – but never re­ally con­fronts – her fam­ily’s dark Nazi past

The Jerusalem Post Magazine - - BOOKS - • ELAINE MARGOLIN

Nora Krug, who grew up in Karl­sruhe, Ger­many, is the grand­daugh­ter of a fam­ily with an en­trenched Nazi past which has left her with lin­ger­ing shame that she wanted to con­front pub­licly. But Krug seems to also want to have it both ways. Haunted by guilt and fam­ily ghosts, she ini­tially set out to write an in­ti­mate graphic mem­oir that ex­poses her de­vo­tion to ex­ca­vat­ing dark truths, but some­where along the line other de­sires seemed to sur­face that hint at her wish to cleanse her­self and her fam­ily of the toxic stains of their past. It is this un­com­fort­able and some­what re­pressed du­al­ity that shad­ows her through­out this shat­ter­ingly bril­liant work that star­tles us with its creative power.

Be­long­ing: A Ger­man Reck­ons with His­tory and Home, at­tempts to be Krug’s mea culpa, but be­comes some­thing en­tirely dif­fer­ent. It quickly morphs into the au­thor’s own tor­tured in­ner di­a­logue; a con­ver­sa­tion filled with guilt and re­grets com­min­gling with nos­tal­gic long­ings for her home­land.

The sen­ti­men­tal yearn­ings she shares with us are per­haps the most dis­turb­ing, and in­ter­rupt her sto­ry­line every few pages with a full page de­voted to re­call­ing the Ger­man prod­ucts of her child­hood that still in­trigue her. These long­ings seem mis­placed some­how; we feel as if she is not en­ti­tled to them. But Krug waxes on and on, in pages la­beled “From the note­book of

a home­sick émi­gré Things Ger­man,” about her love of a cer­tain soap de­ter­gent man­u­fac­tured in Ger­many that makes whites ex­tra white, rub­ber wa­ter bot­tles, Hansaplast ban­dages, Leitz binders, Uhu glue, Ger­man bread, and other mar­vels of Ger­man in­ge­nu­ity as if these med­i­ta­tions could can­cel out the only des­ig­na­tion that re­ally holds his­tor­i­cal weight: Nazis.

The 41-year-old Krug now lives in the United States with her Jewish hus­band and small child, but seems imag­i­na­tively to still have left a large chunk of her heart back in Ger­many.

Krug is a graphic artist of su­perb abil­ity and in­tu­itively un­der­stands how to com­bine text and vividly drawn im­ages and pho­to­graphs and let­ters into a mes­mer­iz­ing mon­tage that en­hances her thoughts and si­mul­ta­ne­ously sub­verts them. We sense her con­fu­sion; be­wil­der­ment grap­pling with con­fronta­tion; heartache with shame; re­morse with de­fi­ance; bouts of de­nial with scraps of re­signed ac­cep­tance. Her work is a tour de force of the high­est or­der and holds the reader en­thralled and nau­se­ated si­mul­ta­ne­ously.

Krug writes of go­ing to Birke­nau on a school trip and of­fers us pho­to­graphs of her high-school friends with their heads low­ered. She tells us of meet­ing a con­cen­tra­tion-camp sur­vivor upon ar­riv­ing in Man­hat­tan decades ago who tells her that she was saved from death by a Nazi guard who sav­agely treated oth­ers, but for some rea­son took pity on her and pulled her from the gas cham­bers 14 times.

On the next page, Krug shows us 14 black-and-white pho­to­graphs of Nazi women guards, each face dis­torted by hate, and seems to be chal­leng­ing us to de­cide who among them might be this woman’s sav­ior. She re­mem­bers shak­ing in this woman’s pres­ence and asks us “How do you re­act, as a Ger­man, stand­ing across from a hu­man be­ing who re­veals this mem­ory to you?”

BUT KRUG never lingers too long on Jewish suf­fer­ing, or Jews for that mat­ter. Or the an­ti­semitism that has resur­faced re­cently in Ger­many with un­ex­pected force. She ad­mits she learned noth­ing in school about con­tem­po­rary Jewish cul­ture. The book is all about Krug; how she feels, what she needs, what she wishes to pro­tect, even from her­self. We have trou­ble lik­ing her.

She does re­veal ugly truths. She trav­els back to Karl­sruhe and meets with fam­ily mem­bers and lo­cal his­to­ri­ans, and scours ar­chives look­ing for facts about her grand­fa­ther and un­cle. Her grand­fa­ther was a mem­ber of the Nazi Party and her un­cle, who died in Italy at 19, was a mem­ber of the SS. She un­cov­ers her un­cle’s school records and let­ters and the pho­tos he sent home shortly be­fore his death, and con­fesses to feel­ing em­pa­thy for him; some­one sim­ply caught up per­haps in the fog of war.

Although her fam­ily was not re­li­gious, she re­mem­bers her par­ents tak­ing her to church on oc­ca­sional Sun­days and learn­ing that the Jews killed Christ. When she ques­tions her mother about this, her mother grows ex­as­per­ated and ner­vous and de­flects her ques­tion­ing, telling her with a height­ened sense of ur­gency that fright­ens her that the Jews were not evil. She senses no fur­ther ques­tions are wel­come.

When – years later – she tells her mother she is go­ing to marry a Jewish man in New York, her mother ac­cepts this, but adds un­com­fort­ably her fear that if they have a son, and he is cir­cum­cised, and it hap­pens again, her son will be tar­geted. It is not ex­actly a ring­ing en­dorse­ment.

Her fa­ther, born in 1947, years af­ter the death of his older brother who as part of the SS was killed fight­ing in Italy, was named af­ter him, and seemed to bear the brunt of this loss on his shoul­ders. His mother re­jected him and beat him, and his fa­ther and sis­ter scorned him. He was sent away to board­ing school early, and when Krug would ask him about his child­hood, he had trou­ble talk­ing about it. In fact, Krug ques­tions her own re­luc­tance to press her par­ents about the Nazis, or her grand­par­ents when they were still liv­ing. Her friends did like­wise. She con­fesses there was an unan­nounced con­spir­acy of si­lence. No one wanted to talk about it.

There are some can­did mo­ments. Krug is trou­bled that the town board in her home­town, Karl­sruhe, turned down re­quests to place a me­mo­rial plaque at the site where the syn­a­gogue once stood. She oc­ca­sion­ally suc­cumbs to de­spair, writ­ing: “What would we be as a fam­ily if the war never hap­pened?” She adds “I feel a sud­den pain, shal­low but sharp and all-con­sum­ing as a pa­per-cut, be­cause even in­her­ited mem­ory hurts.” And in other mo­ments she con­cedes to open­ing a win­dow that has “let the dark­ness in.” But she grows softer as the book pro­gresses in­stead of en­raged; prone to dis­tor­tions that seem self-serv­ing.

There is a por­trait in the be­gin­ning of the book that shows her mother as a young woman from the back stand­ing in her back­yard with Krug as a tod­dler is sit­ting near her as a US mil­i­tary plane flies by. The photo was taken in 1980.

The cap­tion reads sim­ply: “Part of me un­der­stood that some­thing had gone ter­ri­bly wrong.” But the sub­text of the photo and her cap­tion say some­thing else. There are hints of re­sent­ment and bit­ter­ness. Of de­sires to erase the past or rein­vent it. Of sym­pa­thy for her Ger­man brethren.

She seems to have com­pletely for­got­ten about the Jews, who we sense in her mind are noth­ing more than a nui­sance. She never re­ally gives them se­ri­ous thought. On an­other even more up­set­ting page, she draws for us a sin­is­ter man hold­ing a bal­loon at what ap­pears to be a car­ni­val or cir­cus and his face is par­tially shielded by her text which reads: “I don’t know when I first heard the word KONZENTRATIONSLAGER but I be­came aware of it long be­fore I learned about the Holo­caust. I sensed that con­cen­tra­tion camps were sin­is­ter places, and I imag­ined that the peo­ple who lived there were forced to con­cen­trate to the point of phys­i­cal an­guish. But I was afraid to ask.”

She still is.

‘What would we be as a fam­ily if the war never hap­pened? I feel a sud­den pain, shal­low but sharp and all-con­sum­ing as a pa­per-cut, be­cause even in­her­ited mem­ory hurts.’

(Nina Su­bin)

NORA KRUG.

(Scrib­ner)

AN EX­CERPT from ‘Be­long­ing.’

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