Heimat: A German Family Album by Nora Krug

The Blurb On The Back:

Nora Krug grew up as a second-generation German after the end of the Second World War, struggling with a profound ambivalence towards her country’s recent past.  Travelling as a teenager, her accent alone evoked raw emotions in the people she met, an anger she understood, and shared.

Seventeen years after leaving Germany for the US, Krug decided she couldn’t know who she was without confronting where she’d come from. In Heimat, she documents her journey investigating the lives of her family members under the Nazi regime, visually charting her way back to a country still tainted by war. Beautifully illustrated and lyrically told, Heimat is a powerful meditation on the search for cultural identity, and the meaning of history and home. 

The Review (Cut For Spoilers):

Nora Krugg is associate professor in illustration at the Parsons School of Design in New York and in this moving and beautifully illustrated graphic memoir (which mixes Krugg’s drawings with photographs), she examines who she is as a German-American and comes to terms with her attitude to Germany’s recent history by seeking to learn more about the lives of her grandparents under Nazi rule and the role they played in the regime.

“Heimat” is a German term for a landscape or location (which may be actual, developed or imaginary) that an individual associates with familiarity or which a person believes shapes their identity and worldview. Having grown up in Germany in the 1980s to parents who were each born after World War II, Krugg is driven to explore her own feelings towards Germany, notably the sense of shame that comes from knowing about Germany’s role in the Holocaust and how people view her because of her German accent and identity and, by extension, her anxiety about the role that her grandparents may have played within the Nazi regime as she decides to explore her family history.

Krugg uses a wide variety of sources for her book, from excerpts from US training films for soldiers stationed in Germany immediately after the war (which I found shocking), to photographs of people at the time that she’s found in flea markets, excerpts from Nazi school books and the memories of her own family as she tries to piece together the story of her grandparents.  I think that the illustrations are brilliant – her drawings are deceptively simple and bald but I found them very moving (especially those where she tries to put together a narrative of what role her maternal grandfather may have played when she realises that the arson of a synagogue in her home town of Karlstruhe took place near where he worked.  I really loved the way she mixed in the drawings with real photographs (the insertion of price paid for them a neat touch that adds to the sadness) and the way she lets excerpts from sources speak for themselves adds to the horror of what happened.

This is very much a personal book though as she works through her relationship with her parents, whose own reluctance to interrogate their parents has helped lead to her own ambiguous feelings.  Particularly sad is the story of her father, Franz-Karl, who was almost literally born as a replacement for his big brother (right down to sharing his name) who died fighting for Germany in an Italian campaign. Franz-Karl’s estrangement from his mother for reasons that are mostly left unsaid, leading to a schism with his sister as well adds to the theme of dislocation and reconciliation that comes through the memoir as Krugg seeks to make contact with her cousins again in an attempt to discover more.

As intriguing is the story of Krugg’s maternal grandfather, Willi, about whom there are a number of family legends concerning his activities before the War (most notably how he worked for a Jewish businessman who helped him set up a driving school business) and a lot of the drama in the book comes from Krugg trying to verify these stories.  For me, the most interesting scenes are where she recovers Willi’s files, including the assessment made by the US forces of his degree of collaboration and the impact that it had on him afterwards.

Ultimately I thought this was a fascinating read that kept me absorbed from beginning to end and if you have any interest in World War II, then it gives you a perspective that we in Britain don’t often get exposed to, which makes it well worth your time.

HEIMAT: A GERMAN FAMILY ALBUM was released in the United Kingdom on 4th October 2018.  Thanks to the Amazon Vine Programme for the review copy of this book.

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