When you stumble on a great book
Updated: Dec 23, 2021
Welcome to my first blog post.
Sometimes you stumble across a wonderful, important book by accident, but it almost feels like fate. In late September 2018, while I was in the throes of writing my memoir about my German-Canadian family, I discovered such a book while my partner Brian and I were dashing through the teeming Frankfurt airport to make a tight connecting flight to Prague.
We were starting my “ancestry trip”. I was making a pilgrimage to my father’s home village, his Heimat, in the Czech Republic, to try to find answers to a question that still nagged at me long after his death: How had he become so seduced by Nazism? As we hurried past a bookstore, I spotted a large stack of a new book called Heimat: Ein Deutsches Familienalbum, through the window. The German title grabbed my attention because of the word “Heimat.” I had started my memoir two years before, and this current odyssey was driven by my need to visit my father’s “Heimat” or homeland. (In North America, its title is Belonging: A German Reckons with History and Home.)
“Hold on,” I called out to Brian, and veered inside to check out the book. Author Nora Krug had written about her journey to uncover and face up to “the hidden truths about her family’s past in Nazi Germany and to understand the historical and personal forces that have shaped her life.” She is an award-winning graphic designer who looked young in her photo, and she had illustrated and hand-lettered the book, “part graphic novel, family scrapbook, and investigative narrative.”
“Is everybody in bloody Germany looking into their family’s Nazi past and writing books about it?” was my first thought.
That was just what I was trying to do, although my confidence in the project sometimes wavered after I started reading about the tangled pre-war and wartime history of Central Europe and the former so-called Sudetenland, where my father’s family had lived for generations. By going to the town my father called home, then named Friedland (now Břidličná), I was hoping to unearth clues about what had made him such a zealous supporter of the Nazis, ideas he had clung to long after we immigrated to Canada. Would I be able to make sense of it all?
This author was apparently asking similar questions and seemed to have put the pieces together into a beautiful book.
I confess I didn’t actually buy Krug’s intriguing book then. It was written in German, hard-cover, and I didn’t want to lug it around during our trip. But once we returned to Ottawa, I quickly picked up a copy after hearing a CBC radio interview with the author. She proved to be an articulate, thoughtful German now living in Brooklyn, New York. After moving to the U.S., Krug returned to her hometown of Karlsruhe to piece together her family’s war-time story and grapple with her family members’ culpability for the horrific Nazi past. As she unfolds her story, she creatively illustrates her interviews with relatives, meetings with archivists and findings in archives, and even wartime memorabilia she picked up at flea markets.
One thing she said in her interview struck a particular chord: “If all are guilty, no one is,” she quoted political philosopher and Holocaust survivor Hannah Arendt. Writing the book, she’d said, was a way to free herself from a sort of paralyzing “collective guilt.”
What strongly resonated with me was Krug’s honesty about her tremendous feelings of guilt. In the 1950s when my family left for Canada, the country’s citizens were still in the throes of “collective amnesia” about its very recent dark past. Growing up in Canada, I had also grappled with confusion, then guilt and shame about my German heritage. I learned about what it meant to be German mainly from my parents, and my father had spouted what I came to understand were racist, anti-Semitic Nazi views, including denying the Holocaust. Was this what it meant to be German? Could I be proud of my heritage?
Unlike me, Krug grew up in 1980s Germany, which by then was teaching students about its brutal Nazi past. Her generation learned about the Holocaust, went on class trips to concentration camp museums in France, Germany and Poland, and even analysed Hitler’s staccato speeches as classroom exercises. Like my memoir, Krug’s compelling book asks difficult questions as she “follows the breadcrumbs” of her family’s story.
I’m thankful I discovered Krug’s important book because it inspired me to keep going! Although my story is different, like me, she is driven to find answers by a fear that history could repeat itself. That’s what motivated me to tell my family’s story.
I hope you will stay tuned for more musings about my journey to follow my family’s breadcrumbs.