Writer and illustrator Nora Krug spoke with the Globe and Mail’s Marsha Lederman at a virtual event Oct. 27. (photo by DW Deutsche Welle)
The first time Nora Krug heard the word “Jew” was in elementary school during religion class, which was taught by the local priest. He told students that Jews killed Jesus.
Born in the German city of Karlsruhe, Krug is now associate professor of illustration at the Parsons School of Design in New York City, and author of the book Belonging: A German Reckons with History and Home. She spoke with Marsha Lederman at a virtual event Oct. 27 presented by the German Consulate General in Vancouver, the Vancouver Holocaust Education Centre, the University of British Columbia and the University of Victoria. Lederman is the Western arts correspondent for the Globe and Mail and her own book, Kiss the Red Stairs: Intergenerational Trauma, the Holocaust, and Me, is to be published in 2022.
“I came home from school that day and confronted my mother about it,” Krug recalled. “I said, ‘Are Jews evil?’ She got really angry because [it was] so obvious to her that this was something that nobody in Germany should ever think or say.”
A few years later, in her early teens, when she began learning about the Holocaust, she made a yellow star and intended to wear it as an act of solidarity with the Jewish people. Her mother, again, set her on a more appropriate path.
Krug explores her own struggles with her family’s past, as well as that of her country, in the book, a visual memoir that incorporates prose, graphics and photography. (See jewishindependent.ca/creative-engaging-memoir.)
The book was challenging on many fronts, Krug said, including her intention to tell one family’s story about the war era without downplaying German atrocities or doing anything that would appear to paint Germans as victims. While Germans did suffer during the war, it was ultimately a result of their own government’s actions.
“I’m not saying that Germans did not suffer during the war. I think they did,” she said. “But it was a self-imposed suffering.”
Like many aspects of researching a family’s or a country’s past, some things are unknowable and, at times, evidence can raise more questions than it answers. For instance, Krug had been told that her grandfather was a lifelong social democrat. But, when she dug through archives and found the military questionnaire that Germans in the American sector of occupied Germany were required to fill out to explain their war-era activities, he had acknowledged being a Nazi party member. Holding the document in her hands – not a facsimile, but the very document on which her grandfather had responded to more than 300 questions – was chilling, she said. The knowledge of her grandfather’s relationship with the Nazi party could only lead to speculation when she pieced two other facts together.
Krug had always known the location where her grandfather’s office had been in Karlsruhe. But only when she was researching the book did she discover that the Jewish centre and a synagogue were right across the street. Where was her grandfather when the synagogue was attacked on Kristallnacht and Jews were beaten in the streets? In the book, she posits four possibilities, from watching out his office window to laying home in bed sick to the most alarming possibility: that maybe he was among the mobs perpetrating the attacks.
Having lived for the past two decades in the United States – and being married to a Jewish man and having a 5-year-old daughter who is beginning to ask questions about history – all impacted her decision to write the book.
“I don’t think I would have done that had I not left Germany because I think, when I lived in Germany, I felt like I learned everything there is to learn about the war, what else is there to investigate?” she said. “That was my thinking. But, since I’ve been living in New York, I’m an individual and I am a German representing my country.”
Being away from her homeland also made her consider history more from an individual perspective.
“I think when you live as a German among Germans you accept the collective understanding of how we grew up learning about the war,” she said, crediting Germany with doing a good job addressing the topic as a nation. “But I think where we have to really still catch up is to do it on an individual basis, to really go back into our families, into the archives, into the cities where we grew up, what happened in our streets, in our houses, and investigate more deeply on an individual level.”
These are complex challenges and Krug sees a problem with the way Germans struggle with their national identity because of the terrible history of the 20th century.
“I think Germans really need to learn to love their culture,” she said. “I have a problem with it, too. I’m not saying I know how to do that. But I do think it’s a dangerous thing to only highlight our guilt. I think we need to learn, as Germans, to replace the word guilt or shame with the term responsibility.”
By struggling to express national pride, she said, Germans tend to abandon that to a fringe element.
“The problem is a lot of Germans who are willing and open to looking back at the past from a critical angle cannot express this love for their culture,” she said. “I think Germans should try to learn to do that because, otherwise, we leave it to the extreme right to do it for us and that’s a big problem.”
After Krug’s conversation with Lederman, a high school teacher submitted a question noting that some Canadian students are expressing fatigue at learning about Canada’s history of residential schools and asked whether German kids are getting tired of learning about the Holocaust. Krug acknowledged this might be the case and suggested ways of teaching that make the lessons more directly relevant for the present.
“If we had learned in Germany, for instance, more about the German resistance movement, we could have applied that knowledge to the present as well and asked ourselves, how can I help minorities that are harassed today or how can I make sure that we defend our democracy?” she said. “I think the more important question to ask is not what would I have done back then but what am I doing today on a daily basis to reflect on the issues that we have in our countries, no matter what country that is.”