#RivetingReviews: Rosie Goldsmith reviews HEIMAT: A GERMAN FAMILY ALBUM by Nora Krug

Both the UK English and German-language editions of Nora Krug’s remarkable illustrated autobiography bear the title Heimat, translated for the US edition as ‘Belonging’. ‘Heimat’ is one of those perfect, dare I say, almost untranslatable, German words loaded with numerous meanings and intense feelings. It can mean simply ‘belonging’, ‘home’ or ‘identity’, but when the Nazis appropriated it to describe National Socialist pride and patriotism it became problematic. The young German author and illustrator Nora Krug’s personal quest for her own ‘Heimat’ is equally simple and complex. Her ‘German Family Album’ is intensely moving and an outstandingly original and beautiful artwork.

Nora was born in Karlsruhe in 1977, went to the USA to study, today teaches illustration in New York and is married to a Jewish man of German origin, an irony she comments on in her memoir with a refreshing frankness and lack of sentimentality. Living in the US, she writes, ‘I feel more German than ever’, as she is constantly having to explain herself and confront German stereotypes.

‘The longer I’ve lived away from Germany, the more elusive my idea of my identity becomes. My Heimat is an echo … an unrecognisable reverberation.’

The book’s cover illustration sets the tone: we see a modern woman standing on a mountaintop, her back to us, gazing longingly into the distance, in an exquisite watercolour reproduction of the famous Caspar David Friedrich painting. Nora Krug is an ordinary young woman from an ordinary German family, but she believes that all Germans should attempt to understand their role in the unique evil of their inheritance in order to prevent it from recurring – something Nora actively fears. Heimat is a visual investigation of her struggle to understand her own family history and her complex German identity, her longing for home and the innate shame of belonging to a nation responsible for the Holocaust and National Socialism.

She travels back several times over a few years to Karlsruhe and Kühlsheim, her father’s birthplace. She sketches, visits archives and flea markets, and questions family and friends. As secrets and memories emerge across page upon page of beautifully handwritten observations and collages of illustrations, cartoon strips, portraits, photos, postcards, phone book entries, stamps, maps, scraps of wallpaper, letters and found objects, we witness Nora’s exhaustive research, uncompromising analysis and creative journey. The flexibility and freedom of the graphic memoir unleashes her great gifts as an artist and storyteller. She uncovers the secrets of an uncle, an aunt and a grandfather, and the tragic Jewish history hidden away in a small town in Germany. She does not condemn – she also loves her Heimat, a love illustrated by a series of interspersed field notes called ‘From the Notebook of a Homesick Émigré’:

‘Things German: No 6: Das Brot. The first thing I do when I get off the plane … is to look for the nearest bakery.’

But Nora’s notes are not nostalgic. Further down the page we read that ‘Freedom and Bread’ was a popular Nazi Party slogan.

Germans, Nora describes, also love forests, oak trees and mushrooms. In a drawer in her parents’ sitting-room she discovers her uncle Franz-Karl’s essay about mushrooms in his school exercise book. He was twelve and it was 1939. Nora reads:

‘When you go to the forest and you see mushrooms that look beautiful, you think that they are good, but when you eat them, they are poisonous and can kill a whole family … The Jew is just like this mushroom … like the poisonous mushroom can kill a whole family, the Jew can kill a whole people.’

This was her own uncle, her father’s brother, later a soldier, later killed in the war. Nora has uncovered a family story of a brainwashed schoolboy, loss and tragedy, guilt and shame, a story reaching across generations, to Nora Krug, a young German woman living in twenty-first-century Brooklyn and married to a Jew.

Heimat is an invaluable and powerful story about what it means to be German today, without hectoring or finger-wagging or atonement or redemption. Nora Krug has created her own personal understanding of her homeland:

‘Heimat can only be found again in memory, that is something that only begins to exist once you’ve lost it.’

Reviewed by Rosie Goldsmith


Written by Nora Krug

Published by Penguin (2018)

Read The German Riveter in its entirety here.

Find the books from The German Riveter on the Goethe-Institut page.

Rosie Goldsmith is Director of the European Literature Network. She was a BBC senior broadcaster for 20 years and is today an arts journalist, presenter, linguist, and with Max Easterman a media trainer for ‘Sounds Right’.

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