Throughout Nora Krug’s new graphic memoir, Belonging, there’s a recurring section called “From the notebook of a homesick émigré.” Printed on graph paper and subtitled “Things German,” both the first and last page of Belonging are entries in this section – a band-aid (specifically a Hansaplast bandage) and glue (Uhu glue). What happens is that Nora will talk about some of the reasons that she remembers this item, maybe include a few facts about the brand, and then readers are free to look for subtext. Sometimes Nora feeds into that search, with a connection between the product and WWII.
Part of that urge to read into “Things German” has to do with the subject of Nora’s book, but part of that is the weight Germany will always carry, and which Nora discusses from the lens of her personal experience in this book. What Nora is doing, in a small, contained way with “Things German” is showing how simple things, like nostalgia, are complicated by Germany’s past with the Nazi Party and the Holocaust.
Nora wasn’t born yet and wouldn’t be born until decades after WWII. She grew up in Southern Germany, and lives in America today, but that guilt, of knowing what Germans were responsible for, and her self-consciousness about identifying as German and having a German accent, is something she talks about with great frankness.
Belonging is her search to find out more definitively what her family’s involvement was in WWII. To tell that story she focuses on two people – her dad’s older brother, Franz-Karl, an SS soldier killed in the war, and her mom’s father, Willi, who was a driving instructor.
While “graphic novel” isn’t an exact fit for describing Belonging, it is an unquestionably visual book. Every page is full color, if that means only that each page is a different color or has a background, and the words are handwritten, so sometimes you have sentences crawling, freestyle, across the page (the waviness of a conversation Nora has with her dad in the car), and other times it’s the rigid lines of a composition book.
One curious technique Nora uses is to have images fall in the middle of paragraphs, breaking up the text and splitting sentences in half. You can be sure it’s intrusive and awkward to read but at the same time it gets in the way of tunnel vision. You’re supposed to notice everything that’s happening on the page.
Emphasizing the importance of setting to Nora, at one point Nora follows a lead that has her calling someone in Florida. Generic shots of palm trees appear in the background during their conversation and it’s a way of showing other places have associations, too, and also the global reach of WWII and its effects. Documents can be used as backgrounds, too. Nora finds some essays Franz-Karl wrote in grade school. The pictures he drew in the margins are uncomfortably historic.
Certain sections recalling the past are drawn in a comic style, but with few speech bubbles and lots of narration. It’s a dense read, and I don’t recommend finishing Belonging in one sitting like I did. The mysteries are compelling, but that doesn’t change the fact that this is a book where it’s better to take breaks in between.
In the beginning, there’s some preoccupation with words and definitions, and it can take a second to adjust to Nora switching between her efforts to find out about her uncle in Külsheim and her grandfather in Karlsruhe, but after that it’s a matter of grappling with the information that Nora digs up. Some of the more enlightening sources she discovers, like a phone book, are surprising, like a type font being able to tell you about the times, but more than anything it’s the reality of how much Nora can know for sure that’s the most affecting.
Many people aren’t around to share their stories anymore. Those that are alive are older, and not always willing to talk. Stories that reflect well upon family members are clung to, with the hopes that they’re true, but it’s not like people advertised their party affiliations after the war. There are facts and then there are emotional truths which will never be known, like whether someone joined the Nazi party because they believed or because they were too afraid, and then there are the facts that Nora’s paper trail gets wrong. In the phone book, Nora finds the name of a person who was killed in Auschwitz and who continues to appear in the book for years after he was murdered. If the book can get that information wrong, how can it be relied upon for anything else?
It goes back to Nora beginning and ending Belonging with a band-aid and glue. At the end of Belonging there are still a lot of questions, cracks, and scars. Nora leaves no stone unturned.