My husband, overwhelmed by the news cycle a few years ago, re-subscribed to Ancestry.com. We call it “social media for dead people.” He will tell anyone who asks how interesting this has been for him. He will also tell you that if you are interested in researching your own family histories, you should beware that you will almost certainly find things that you don’t like. “That’s okay,” he’ll say, “but you need to be prepared for that.”

For my husband’s part, it was finding slave-owning ancestors he didn’t know existed. Then he moved on to my family, where he found a Mayflower ancestor who threatened to turn me into a boring WASP. When we do family tree projects for school, most of us hear stories about our great-grandmother’s cookies, or how our great-uncle earned a medal in the war. We tend not to hear so much about addiction or mental illness, even though I feel like we’re getting better about that. Digging into family histories, though, may have you knee-deep in gambling, crime, and unfulfilled wishes in Last Wills and Testaments. My husband came upon one will that expressed a dying man’s wishes that his daughter be kind to her mother. Keep wishing, bro. In sum, family histories are complicated because people are complicated. If you dig deeply enough, you’re going to find some dirt.

For Nora Krug, the author of the graphic novel Belonging: A German Reckons with History and Home, her family history was rumbling just under the surface. She grew up in Germany in the 1980s and 1990s, at the tail end of the Cold War. Even though her parents were born at the end of the Second World War, they did not speak freely about the horrors of the Third Reich and the Holocaust. Her parents seemed to want to believe that their parents, Nora’s grandparents, were at the very least neutral in the face of oppression, and possibly even defiant of the Nazi regime. Krug had a sense that there had to have been more information than what she was told as a child. After she moved to the United States and was confronted with her “German-ness,” she went digging for more information. True to her title, she reckoned with her history and her home in an extended wrestling match of sorts. Her book describes her reckoning with words and images, in the form of a graphic novel.

What Nora Krug found, of course, was nuanced. Her uncle died in a battlefield in Italy, fighting for Germany. His death transformed her father’s family forever, and created a rift between her father and her older sister that Krug feared might never be mended. Her grandfather was a registered member of the Nazi party, which he explained later was not a political move, but rather a business decision driven by necessity to feed his family. When he tried to “erase” this affiliation from his past after the war ended, he solicited letters of reference from friends and neighbors in an attempt to prove his innocence. One such letter came from a neighbor, a man who was married to a Jewish woman. He wrote a compelling letter in support of Krug’s grandfather so that he could be permitted to do business in a post-war Germany. Krug tracked down his son, hoping to find out more information to absolve her memory of her grandfather.

“‘You shouldn’t feel guilty,’ [the son] says with a soft tone of voice, and by telling me this, he does exactly what his father had once done for my grandfather, he signs a testimonial for me. And even though I know that I can’t accept forgiveness for the unforgivable, that individual atonement can’t erase the suffering of millions, the warmth of his voice and his generosity make me feel intimately bound to him, the way I had always longed to be bound to my own grandfather. ‘Thank you,’ I reply.”

Krug wrestled not only with her family’s past, but the past of the community where her family lived, their homeland. She described how, in 1939, Jewish people were forced to climb into the fountain at the town hall square and submerge themselves. The town’s Jewish population were kept together under house arrest for several weeks. She understands from her community’s history that her family must have been at least aware of what was happening, even if they weren’t active participants. She visits the town, and sees: “Right behind the fountain, a crucified Jesus is watching, just as he watched that day in 1939. It says in chiseled letters beneath his bleeding feet, ES IST VOLLBRACHT (It is done).”

Krug’s Catholic upbringing gave her some understanding of atonement for sin: “Though my parents weren’t religious, they occasionally took my brother and me to church on Sundays when we were children, so that we would grow up believing in something. I remember waiting in line outside the confessional box, desperately trying to recall a guilt-evoking-enough incident to be confessed. Even though I didn’t understand why JESUS DIED FOR OUR SINS, the concept of INHERITED SIN — as the Germans call — ORIGINAL SIN — and of having to bear the consequences of another generation’s actions seemed familiar, and I swore to Jesus that I would accept it.”

After her extensive search through her family’s archives, Nora Krug is left, as many of us are, with a blurry picture of the past. She can’t prove to herself one way or another whether her grandparents were completely innocent or completely guilty in the Germany of the Third Reich. She asks herself if it would have been easier for her to reckon with her past if she could have proven, beyond a reasonable doubt, that they did everything they could to shield their Jewish neighbors from the Nazis? Or would it have been simpler to know that they were simply evil, so that she could “navigate [her] shame” in her family’s past?

In this ambiguity, Krug’s story echoes so many of our own. The more information we have about our family’s past, the more complicated it can be. While we might not have Nazi war criminals on the extended branches of our family tree, if we look closely enough, we all have some kind of dirt. We’re not alone in this, of course. The Bible overflows with stories of the flawed, the tragic, the misguided, and the poor in spirit. The genealogy of Jesus is not exactly brimming with stellar examples of model citizens.

I admire Nora Krug’s unrelenting look into her family’s past with a magnifying glass. She doesn’t shy away from the hard questions of what really happened, and how to seek forgiveness for what happened. Perhaps it’s because she has the privilege of being one generation removed from the horrors of war. Or maybe she didn’t feel the same personal attachment to her grandparents that her parents did, and so she can look at them with a more critical eye.

My own German heritage is spelled out across my fair skin and broad shoulders, my round face and my maiden name, which as hard as I may try to escape it, follows me in the form of my dad’s comments to everything I write. Any reckoning I did with my heritage was in the safety of the southern Wisconsin countryside, surrounded by other descendants of German immigrants. We had remnants of the old country in our sauerkraut and liver dumpling soup, but most of us came from families who had been in Wisconsin since long before any world wars. My Austrian great-grandmother only uttered one German phrase in my dad’s decades-long memories of her — a short expletive when she was in a car accident. “What’s that, Gram?” “You heard nothing.” She distanced herself from the old country by losing her accent post haste, and the rest of us disclaimed any ownership in what our distant cousins may have been doing across an ocean. But our distance from that particular heritage doesn’t excuse us other reckonings, because people did not simply stop being humans when they passed through Ellis Island. Families divided. New wars were waged. Sins were brushed under the rug.

Knowing that we’re forgiven — and enjoying that forgiveness — doesn’t preclude a hard look at the past, in order to reckon with and appreciate the forgiveness that is extended to us. Nora Krug does this with elegance and vulnerability.

Featured image from a page of Belonging, by Nora Krug; NPR.