Candlelight in a Storm by Naveen Sridhar is the historical biography of his wife. Born during World War II and fleeing the violence there, later fleeing communist regimes as a teenager, and traveling the world, meeting her husband in Berlin, her story is at once colorful and harrowing. John F. Kennedy came to Germany and said “Ich bin ein Berliner,” signifying that Germany did not need to be forever tarnished with the legacy of the Nazi party, and there was a generation of Germans looking to establish peace and freedom in the country. Candlelight in a Storm is the ode to this generation.
There are a lot of books written about World War II, and, understandably, most are written from the perspective of the heroes or the victims of Nazi Germany. There are far fewer books written from the German perspective, who were often victims themselves, even if they were on the side of the aggressor. It was not the choice of every German for Hitler’s Germany to unfold as it did; they were at the mercy of their leaders. Candlelight in a Storm aims to fill in the gaps of this time in world history.
This is sensitive territory, because a figure like Hitler is not only portrayed as evil, but as a leader looking to protect his people. That “his people” fell under a very narrow criteria is what makes him a monster, but for those who were not cast out or murdered by the regime, they have a different perspective. In a war film, we cheer when the allies are winning. This is not really the feeling for anyone inside Berlin. In short, both sides of a war suffer deeply, no matter if there are “good guys” and “bad guys.” This is a core premise of Candlelight and it’s an important one.
Because of Sridhar’s respect and affection for his wife, he express her struggles with great empathy and warmth. Self-published historical memoirs can, at times, seem like a vanity project, i.e. something for the family to read, but less interesting for the casual, unaffiliated reader. Sridhar doesn’t fall into this trap due to the strength of his writing and the thoroughness of his research. As he makes clear in his introduction, he interviewed many people to prepare this book, so this is far more than a family history, it’s a history of an entire generation.
At times, the book does veer into minutiae that may be more interesting to the author, as the subject is his wife, than it would be to readers who do not know her, but overall Sridhar is admirably effective in depicting the bigger picture. He is clearly passionate about his subject: not just his wife’s history, but the way Germany has been tarnished as “the enemy,” when its culture is much more forward-thinking and diverse.
For anyone thinking of writing this sort of family biography, this is a textbook in how to do it: combine objective overview with subjective experience. It helps that Sridhar’s writing is so stylistically rich. The narrative manages to be both detailed and breezy, with enough dialog to make it really come to life, rather than being a turgid, fact-driven history. At times, the book reads like fiction, but doesn’t veer into territory where it seems patently made up and loses some of its historical weight.
If you are interested in World War II and haven’t gotten the “other side of the story,” Candlelight in a Storm is a good place to begin, and succeeds in telling an oft-neglected side of the history of these events.
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