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How Do You Understand?

Nora Krug searches for her German identity in a country remembered nor for its “deep, fern-filled forests,” but for its cruelty.
Heikki Immonen, CC BY 3.0 , via Wikimedia Commons
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Nora Krug searches for her German identity in a country remembered nor for its “deep, fern-filled forests,” but for its cruelty.

“How do you understand who you are if you don’t understand where you come from?” This is the question asked in Nora Krug’s award-winning memoir Belonging. In this difficult but engaging graphic novel, Krug, a German woman, struggles to define her place in a world that has largely been defined by a war fought in her homeland before she was born.

How Do You Understand? by Chera Hammons

“How do you understand who you are if you don’t understand where you come from?” This is the question asked in Nora Krug’s award-winning memoir Belonging. In this difficult but engaging graphic novel, Krug, a German woman, struggles to define her place in a world that has largely been defined by a war fought in her homeland before she was born.

To find out where she fits in this narrative, she must accommodate both her fractured family and a country that has become known predominantly for committing the atrocities that took place during the Holocaust. A country that is remembered not for its vineyards and rivers and, Krug notes, its “deep, fern-filled forests… to be searched for mushrooms and hunted for the antlers of bellowing stags,” but for its cruelty. Krug herself doesn’t know her family’s level of involvement in the Nazi regime. She has only vague ideas based on conflicting family stories.

As a result of this traumatic history, Krug doesn’t know how to think of herself and the culture she loves. Or how to reconcile what she suspects about her family with the safety she felt in her childhood. Krug’s aunt advises her, when traveling abroad, to tell people she’s from the Netherlands instead of from Germany.

When Krug immigrates to New York City, she tries not to speak with a German accent. She misses home but does not feel justified in missing it. The comfort and goodness of what she longs for are overshadowed by a kind of shame for being German. To try to connect with the home she remembers, she seeks out other Germans and goes to festivals and flea markets to find relics of her native land. But it’s not enough.

She needs real answers: was her family involved in causing harm? If so, to what extent? What parts of herself, good or bad, does she owe to relatives she’s never met? What if Hitler had never risen to power—what would her family look like, if he had never existed?

Krug discovers that her maternal grandfather was a driving instructor during the war, which has concerning connotations. In Italy, she views the grave of her uncle, her father’s older brother, who died as an SS soldier at 18. She visits her estranged aunt in the house her father grew up in, meets cousins she didn’t know existed, and slowly bridges the past and the present. She travels to view archives that might or might not confirm what she has always feared: that her grandparents served Hitler and his agenda. If she finds out they were Nazis, what then?

“Even inherited memory hurts,” Krug writes. She carries the weight of a possibly catastrophic inheritance, of terrible acts she did not commit but might still tied to, shaped by. This kind of weight is perhaps even greater when its edges are unknown. She leaves no stone unturned trying to uncover the true story of her family. The reader can’t help but become invested in this story, too. Besides that, Belonging is engagingly written and beautifully illustrated, part of its appeal lies in the fact that its implications are so wide-reaching.

Belonging does not offer justification or any real redemption of any kind, though it does offer relief as Krug’s questions are answered and she learns who she is and how to hold her past as she moves forward. Finding answers finally allows her to become fully herself.

Identity, like the book, is complex, made up of a little bit of everything that touches it: stories, photographs, and letters. Conversations with people you love. Toys, wallpaper, dishes, bread, and bandages. Glimpses of past, present, and future. And scars that must, by definition, contain, not just the wound, but some form of its healing.

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Spring Read 2022: Graphic Novels—Worth a Thousand Words 2022 Spring ReadHPPR Radio Readers Book Club
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