* Winner of the National Book Critics Circle Award * Silver Medal Society of Illustrators *
* Named a Best Book of the Year by The New York Times,The Boston Globe, San Francisco Chronicle, NPR, Comics Beat, The Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel, Kirkus Reviews, andLibrary Journal
This“ingenious reckoning with the past” (TheNew York Times), by award-winning artist Nora Krug investigates the hidden truths of her family’s wartime history in Nazi Germany.
Nora Krug was born decades after the fall of the Nazi regime, but the Second World War cast a long shadow over her childhood and youth in the city of Karlsruhe, Germany. Yet she knew little about her own family’s involvement; though all four grandparents lived through the war, they never spoke of it.
After twelve years in the US, Krug realizes that living abroad has only intensified her need to ask the questions she didn’t dare to as a child. Returning to Germany, she visits archives, conducts research, and interviews family members, uncovering in the process the stories of her maternal grandfather, a driving teacher in Karlsruhe during the war, and her father’s brother Franz-Karl, who died as a teenage SS soldier. In this extraordinary quest, “Krug erases the boundaries between comics, scrapbooking, and collage as she endeavors to make sense of 20th-century history, the Holocaust, her German heritage, and her family's place in it all” (The Boston Globe). A highly inventive, “thoughtful, engrossing” (Minneapolis Star-Tribune) graphic memoir, Belonging “packs the power of Alison Bechdel’s Fun Home and David Small’s Stitches” (NPR.org).
This reading group guide for Belonging includes an introduction, discussion questions, and ideas for enhancing your book club. The suggested questions are intended to help your reading group find new and interesting angles and topics for your discussion. We hope that these ideas will enrich your conversation and increase your enjoyment of the book.
Nora Krug was born decades after the fall of the Nazi regime, but the Second World War cast a long shadow throughout her childhood and youth in the city of Karlsruhe, Germany. For Nora, the simple fact of her German citizenship bound her to the Holocaust and its unspeakable atrocities and left her without a sense of cultural belonging. Yet Nora knew little about her own family’s involvement in World War II: though all four grandparents lived through the war, they never spoke of it.
In her late thirties, after twelve years in the United States, Krug realizes that living abroad has only intensified her need to ask the questions she didn’t dare to as a child and young adult. Returning to Germany, she visits archives, conducts research, and interviews family members, uncovering in the process the stories of her maternal grandfather, a driving teacher in Karlsruhe during the war, and her father’s brother, Franz-Karl, who died as a teenage SS soldier in Italy. Her extraordinary quest, spanning continents and generations, pieces together her family’s troubling story and reflects on what it means to be a German of her generation.
Belonging wrestles with the idea of Heimat, the German word for the place that first forms us, where the sensibilities and identity of one generation pass on to the next. In this highly inventive visual memoir—equal parts graphic novel, family scrapbook, and investigative narrative—Nora Krug draws on letters, archival material, flea market finds, and photographs to attempt to understand what it means to belong to one’s country and one’s family. A wholly original record of a German woman’s struggle with the weight of catastrophic history, Belonging is also a reflection on the responsibility that we all have as inheritors of our countries’ pasts.
Topics and Questions for Discussion
1. What was Krug’s earliest conception of World War II and the Holocaust? What were the limits of her knowledge as a child—and why?
2. Define fehlerfrei. Is it an attainable goal to be fehlerfrei? How did Krug and her childhood classmates try?
3. What is Heimat? Do you have your own sense of Heimat? If so, what is it?
4. Krug’s graphic memoir is interspersed with pages labeled “Things German,” which describe an essentially German product or element of life. What do you make of these pages? Are they an educational tool, a scrap of Krug’s memory, a reminder of another side of the German character?
5. Krug’s paternal uncle, Franz-Karl, decorated the exercise book he had as a child with swastikas and drawings of Mein Kampf, as well as notes about Mother’s Day and classroom exercises. What does this juxtaposition of juvenile writing and horrific imagery evoke?
6. Why didn’t Krug’s maternal grandfather, Willi, become a soldier? Do you believe the family story about the Jewish linen salesman?
7. What events does Krug choose to emphasize in “A fragmentary history of Külsheim”? How and why do you think she made these choices, when looking at more than seven hundred years of history?
8. Was Willi ever a prisoner of war? What might it mean to Krug and her family if he were?
9. Krug’s father never asked his mother about the events surrounding World War II, or the war itself. Why is this, and how does it compare to Krug’s “insatiable curiosity”?
10. Describe how Krug’s illustrations of her great uncle Edwin, accompanying excerpts from his letters home to his wife, represent his “emotional disintegration” at the front. What do you feel for Edwin, a German soldier, as you read these letters?
11. At Külsheim’s archive, Krug finds a 1963 questionnaire filled out by the town’s mayor, stating that the relationship between Jews and Christians in town had always been “normal.” How does this assertion compare to what Krug finds in her other research? What do you think the mayor’s motives were for making such an assertion?
12. Krug doesn’t know where her grandfather was, or what he said or did, on the night of Reichkristallnacht. How does she reconcile her desire to understand the depths of his involvement with the Nazi regime and the persecution of Jewish people with the impossibility of perfect knowledge?
13. When Krug finds Willi’s US military file, she discovers that he classified himself, postwar, as a mitläufer—a “person lacking courage and moral stance”—rather than a major offender, offender, lesser offender, or exonerated person. What does this classification mean to Krug? Does the idea of being a “follower” have any contemporary political resonance?
14. In that same file, Krug finds a letter from a merchant who was married to a Jewish woman, vouching for Willi’s good character. Krug eventually tracks down the child of this merchant and his wife, a retiree named Walter living in Florida, who tells Krug of his parents’ suffering during the war, including the fact that his mother survived internment in a concentration camp. “You shouldn’t feel guilty,” Walter tells her, and yet Krug knows she cannot accept “forgiveness for the unforgivable.” How responsible do you think she is for the sins of her family? Of her country? How responsible are you for the sins of yours?
15. Krug meets with her aunt Annemarie, sister of her father and of the Franz-Karl who died as a German soldier in the war. Krug wonders what Annemarie and her father’s relationship would have been like if their brother survived. What effect do you think that kind of trauma can have on a family?
16. The last “Things German” section in the book describes an incredibly strong resin adhesive called Uhu. Krug writes that she uses it to fix “objects that are brittle and have been glued together many times before.” Nevertheless, she writes, “it cannot cover up the crack.” Taking the story of Krug’s family into account, what do you think she means by this? What kind of responsibility do all of us have, collectively, to bear witness to a painful, even horrific, past? And can the present ever heal wrongs from long ago?
Enhance Your Book Club
1. Read “Kamikaze,” Krug’s ten-page visual biography of a Japanese kamikaze pilot, which provides another perspective on World War II.
2. Consider reading other classic graphic memoirs, like Maus by Art Spiegelman or Persepolis by Marjane Satrapi, both of which deeply engage with history in a unique visual format.
Nora Krug’s drawings and visual narratives have appeared in The New York Times, The Guardian, and Le Monde diplomatique. Her short-form graphic biography, Kamikaze, about a surviving Japanese WWII pilot, was included in the 2012 editions of Best American Comics and Best American Nonrequired Reading. She is the recipient of fellowships from the Maurice Sendak Foundation, Fulbright, the John Simon Guggenheim Memorial Foundation, the Pollock-Krasner Foundation, and of medals from the Society of Illustrators and the New York Art Directors Club. She is an associate professor at Parsons School of Design in New York and lives in Brooklyn with her family. Krug is the author of the graphic memoir, Belonging.
“A mazy and ingenious reckoning with the past … Krug is a tenacious investigator, ferreting out stories from the wispiest hints — a rumor or a mysterious photograph … Even as she fills in the missing details, the stories are left open-ended; there is no rush to condemn or redeem, merely to get as close to the truth as possible … The wisdom of this book is that it does not claim to [wash away stains, mend scars, make whole.] The notion of ‘consolation’ is one I suspect Krug would regard with suspicion. What she seems in pursuit of is a better quality of guilt … That’s where honor seems to lie, this book suggests: in the restless work of remembering, in the looking again, the recalibration and the revision. In getting the whole picture, and getting it right.” —New York Times
“Krug erases the boundaries between comics, scrapbooking, and collage as she endeavors to make sense of 20th-century history, the Holocaust, her German heritage, and her family’s place in it all.” —The Boston Globe, Best Books of 2018
"In this evocative graphic memoir, Krug wrestles with her family's ties to Nazi Germany and the weight of that history." —Time, 10 Best Nonfiction Books, Honorable Mention
"Krug has written a thoughtful, engrossing graphic novel that is part scrapbook, part memoir, delving deep into her family’s history and trying to find blame or exoneration. In the process, she tells the story of an entire generation." —Minneapolis Star-Tribune, Best of 2018
“In her extraordinary graphic memoir [Belonging], Krug dissects antisemitism in her own family’s history and Germany’s national guilt over the Holocaust – and the country’s recent far-right backlash. … The curious appeal of Krug’s graphic memoir is that it never fully loses itself in the act of storytelling but constantly stops to turn over and reassess the means at its disposal." —The Guardian
“Remarkable.” —The Observer
“A highly original and powerful graphic novel that works on many levels. … a book that is as informative as a history and as touching as a novel.” —Financial Times
"Belonging suggests that the only way to authentic reckoning is through our own shame…Krug does not perform condemnation, but she lets story work through juxtaposition…shame and love [are] bound, ever next to each other in Krug’s family inheritances…Reading Belonging was like reading my own history’s shadow. Krug is not looking for heroes or villains. She does not recount the past to ask for pity or pardon, but so she can walk into a new life, as unbroken and unburdened as possible.” —Moment
“Pick up Nora Krug's reverberant graphic memoir, Belonging, and be prepared to lose yourself for hours in this unstinting investigation into her conflicted feelings about being German and her family's role in the Holocaust. In its searching honesty and multi-layered, visual and verbal storytelling, it packs the power of Alison Bechdel's Fun Home and David Small's Stitches… Krug writes about mending and reparations, but she doesn't let herself—or readers—lapse into complacence.” —NPR.org
“In her profound and dense illustrated memoir Belonging: A German Reckons With History And Home, illustrator Nora Krug examines her national identity and her family’s history to try to explain why Germans are the way they are by delving into the Hitler-era questions she has about her own family ... Krug’s book is as valuable as it is personable, a reminder that humans are the ones living through history and that their lives seldom live up to the binary demands of our right or wrong way of thinking." —Comics Beat
"Radical … a dedication, not a reckoning, but one that doesn’t avoid horror in the slightest. … accessible and complex at the same time." —Berliner Zeitung
“[Nora Krug's] graphic memoir is more of a graphic statement, a snapshot not only of her own family history, but also of the reality of possibilities for any type of storytelling about cultural heritage.” —Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung
"One of the most peculiar books I’ve ever held in my hands. … an intelligent, visually wonderfully opulent picture book for adults. … [Belonging] by Nora Krug represents a form of self-ascertainment, of finding one’s position, and a moral compass. Nora Krug’s autobiographical search for traces is differentiated, intelligent and sublime, both in its images and in its words, and she thus creates the possibility of the book itself becoming a Heimat." —ARDDruckfrisch
“A great piece of art with a great narrative power.” —SWR2Lesenswert Quartett
“A masterpiece of a narrative – as touching as a novel, as deep as a non-fiction book.” —Stern
"Deeply personal—and deeply moving ... As multilayered as memory, the book intertwines text, photo, graphic art, and thematic complexity into a revelation almost as powerful for readers as it must have been for the author." —Kirkus Reviews, starred review
"Lush as it is meticulous ... This work of stunning craftmanship stands as a testament to speaking out as a necessary first step to healing." —Publishers Weekly
"A deep and affecting mix of text and illustration." —Booklist
“Nora Krug has created a beautiful visual memoir of a horrific time in history. A time that torments us to this day. Asking questions and searching for the truth, she will not turn away from the legacy of her family and her country. She asks the question of how any of us survive our family history. Ultimately, the only course is not to veil the answers.” —Maira Kalman, author of Beloved Dog and My Favorite Things
“Belonging is an astoundingly honest book that conducts a devastating—and irresistible—investigation into one family’s struggle with the forces of history. I could not stop reading it, and when I was done, I could not stop thinking about it. By going so deeply into her family’s history, Krug has in some ways written about us all.” —Sebastian Junger, author of The Perfect Storm and Tribe
“To belong to a place is not to be able to choose what it takes from you. But we can choose what we take from it. Nora Krug takes from her German homeland, and then gives to us, a sense of what it is like to be German today, and a guide to how a reckoning with the past can begin.” –Tim Snyder, author of On Tyranny and The Road to Unfreedom
“A page-turning scrapbook/collage of memory, meaning and accountability, Ms. Krug draws the reader through her family history with the directness of imagery, handwriting and, ultimately, a disquieting direness that has echoes in our American life, right now. Belonging is valuable, readable and, needless to say, highly recommended.” —Chris Ware, author of Building Stories
“As the Jewish heir of grandparents who themselves had to flee the upsurge of fascism in their German homelands, I found granddaughter Nora Krug’s heartrending investigation of her own family’s painstakingly occluded history through those years especially moving. But as an American living through these, our very own years of a seemingly inexorable drift into one’s still not quite sure what, I found Krug’s achingly realized graphic memoir downright unsettling, for what will our own grandchildren one day make of us and our own everyday compromises and failures to attend?” —Lawrence Weschler, author, among others, of Calamities of Exile and A Miracle, A Universe: Settling Accounts with Torturers
"Belonging is a heart wrenching, suspenseful and fascinating odyssey that straddles, and seeks to uncover, an uncharted, inaccessible, unfathomable past. It is a kaleidoscope of interrupted lives, leading inexorably to its ultimate conclusion. I couldn't stop reading it." —Hava Beller, writer and director of The Restless Conscience