Heimat – A German Family Album by Nora Krug

In the mid-eighties, I was an exchange student in Germany. I was hosted in a small town in the south, and Heidelberg was the closest large town. My days at school were routinely interrupted by US airforce planes flying overhead and breaking the sound barrier – teachers and students were so used to this happening that conversation paused and resumed automatically. Likewise, no one seemed to notice US tanks rolling through the streets. It was 1987 and there were daily reminders of the Holocaust; what this nation had done wrong; and who was ‘in charge’ now. That’s what it felt like to me, anyway, and I was fascinated by how the past was felt in the present.

My trip in 1987 remains one of the most significant experiences I have had. Seeing the imbedded sense of guilt and shame carried by people born long after the war had an enormous impact. At the time, I couldn’t name what I was seeing, but we now know it as intergenerational trauma (and in no way do I mean to minimise, or compare it to, the trauma experienced by those persecuted during the Holocaust).

In her graphic memoir, Heimat, Nora Krug traces her family history, in an effort to uncover their wartime past in Nazi Germany, and to understand how her German history has shaped her life.

Throughout my childhood, the war was present but unacknowledged, like the heirloom lion’s head tureen stored behind our usual dishware.

The memoir is presented in a scrapbook format – photographs, cartoons and watercolours are used to illustrate Nora’s family history. Interspersed are Nora’s reflections on the information she discovers and sketches of ‘Things German from the notebook of a homesick émigré’ (ranging from hot water bottles to mushroom collecting) – these sections give visual meaning to ‘Heimat’.

Heimat – that term which defines the concept of an imaginarily developed, or actual landscape or location, with which a person associates an immediate sense of familiarity. The experience is imparted across generations, through family and other institutions, or political ideologies. In common usage, Heimat refers to the place….that a person is born into, where they experience early socialization that largely shapes identity, character, mentality, and worldviews…

Although the graphics dominate, the book rests on Krug’s words and how she expresses her uncertainty, shame, and sadness.

It’s impossible to know whether Krug would have published this memoir if she had discovered that her grandparents were directly linked to the atrocities of the Holocaust (although wonders, ‘…would it have been easier to navigate my shame if I had been able to prove his guilt, if I had learned that he had been a Nazi through and through…‘). While many German people may have done their ‘reckoning’ on a personal level, not so may broadcast it. Nevertheless, there are important themes in Krug’s memoir that apply to all people. Notably, that every family’s past has both good and evil, and how we acknowledge flawed history is important – Deny? Obscure? Complete transparency? And, where a history contains great crimes, how do we find pride, and a sense of belonging?

We learned that the German word for RACE should only be used to distinguish animal species, and ETHNIC only in the context of genocides; yet we felt that history was in our blood, and shame in our genes. But there were also gaps in our education: we didn’t learn that tens of thousands of Germans had been killed for resisting the Nazi regime (because it would have made our grandparents who didn’t resist look guiltier by comparison?), or that 150,000 men of Jewish descent had fought in the WEHRMACHT (because their participation would have made us feel less guilty?)…

I found this memoir extremely interesting, mainly because Krug articulated many of the things I sensed when I was on exchange. I continue to find German culture interesting for the same reasons I did thirty years ago – how does our past inform our present?

Some will/ have viewed Krug’s memoir as ‘apologist’. I understand why readers may feel that way but I do ask, respectfully, that if commenting on this review, you keep in mind the purpose and scope of memoir.

4/5 Thought-provoking (content and format).

4 responses

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  3. I am very wary of ‘apologist’, but I think people who honestly interrogate their past are anything but, and good on her for doing it. Growing up (in the 50s and 60s) I was very aware of the war, but mostly Britain (from books) and Australia in the Pacific, from my friends’ fathers (and books). When I was 16 or 17 I knew some migrants, very few, and their mothers told me stories of being in displaced persons camps and working on farms in Hitler Youth; and later I had a German anarchist friend, but again I didn’t know enough to understand more than surface stuff. I get the impression the Germans are doing a great job at dealing with their past – and yes I still avoid books about ‘good’ Germans – if only we and white South Africans could do even half as well.

    • I find the ways in which Germany is dealing with its past very interesting, transparent, and open for discussion. When I was there in 1987, we were told by our exchange organisation, ‘Don’t mention the War’. My host family brought it up one evening and my host father said of Hitler, “We are not proud of him but he was an important part of our history.” I have often reflected on that – it is true, he was an important part of shaping German history, and in ways that are still felt today, for better or worse.

      On my recent trips to Berlin, I have thought very hard about white Australia’s efforts to reckon with the past – I agree, we’re a long way off.

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