This is the troubling story of Toyah Sofaer. She died aged just 22 and lies in the tiny Jewish cemetery in Chennai in south India. Until a few weeks ago her family did not know that she had a marked grave.
Toyah's life story has been pieced together with the help of her niece, Lydia Saleh, who lives in Toronto; and - through Lydia - of her father and Toyah's half-brother, Abraham Sofaer, now aged 94. For Abraham in particular, my discovery of Toyah's grave has allowed him an opportunity to recall a sister for whom he had a special affection. 'It has' - Lydia told me - 'brought Toyah back to life for my father after so many years'.
This story has never before been made public. I am sharing it now with the family's blessing.
There was a hint of mystery in this solitary gravestone - who was Victoria Sofaer, how did she end up in Chennai, how did she meet her death so young?
An internet search took me to a splendidly comprehensive genealogy of the Sephardic Jewish diaspora in what was the Ottoman empire - and this told me that Victoria had been born in Baghdad and was known as Toyah. It also revealed that while her family knew that she had died in India within a year of arriving there, they didn't know exactly where and when. Through Alain Farhi, the impetus behind the family history site, I made contact with Lydia, who has been generous in sharing her knowledge of the Sofaer family history and contacting others in the family to check details.
The story begins in Baghdad - and opens a window on the history of the Jewish community in that city, among them trading families with commercial links spreading across Asia to all the key ports of the British Empire in India and further east.
Toyah's father, Menashi, was the main importer of food and drink in inter-war Baghdad. He ran the British General Supply Store (after 1941 Baghdad supplanted British in the company's name) which shipped in via Basra supplies of French brandy, English biscuits, Dutch beer, American cigarettes, Belgian chocolates, Swiss cheese, Ceylon tea, that sort of thing. Menashi had learnt about the import business in Rangoon, where the Sofaers were one of the principal trading families. He spent twenty years in Burma - but after his father's death in 1916, the family moved back to Baghdad (though an uncle remained in Rangoon).
Toyah was the second child of Menashi's marriage to Dina Shamash - her mother died while giving birth to her. Menashi went on to marry Dina's sister, Naima, and had three more children, of whom Abraham - just two years younger than Toyah - is the oldest and the only one still living.
The Sofaers had several prime properties in Baghdad. One of them was on the main shopping street, Rashid Street. On the other side of the road was an Armenian-run ladies' wear shop.
Somewhere around 1939 or 1940, Toyah fell in love with an Armenian man from that family. The two met in secret. They were from different communities and different religions, and when Toyah's family found out about the relationship they were determined to put a stop to it. They sought to marry her to a suitable Jewish boy - but when Toyah rejected these suitors, they shipped her out to India.
In the early 1940s, Abraham Sofaer was living in Bombay - along with his older step-brother and an uncle. He had gone there to avoid military service in the Iraqi army. While in Bombay, the family traded in textiles which were shipped back to Baghdad.
Towards the close of 1942, Menashi and his wife turned up in Bombay with Toyah in tow. 'I felt there was something in Toyah, in her face and demeanour, that was very perplexing to me', Abraham recalls from the Toronto nursing home where he now lives.
'I was very bewildered to see her so transformed and I wondered what had happened to her. Her silence gave the impression that she was in complete shock. I felt there was something mysterious and unusual that I could not understand. She didn't utter a word to me and this saddened me greatly.'
After a while, Toyah and her parents moved on to another Indian city - Abraham didn't know which one. He never saw Toyah again. He was told she had died. Her parents returned to Baghdad.
Abraham knew nothing about Toyah's romance until - seeing his grief - he was told the full story by 'grand mere', the maternal grandmother he shared with Toyah. 'I happened to be the closest to Toyah among the whole family. I still wondered about the details which led to her demise and I still don't know all the facts.'
'I heard that the doctor who looked after Toyah in India felt the urge to tell the authorities about the serious decline of her health and the role her parents played in this matter. The doctor apparently did not pursue this idea. The Armenian lover also felt the need to alert the authorities in Baghdad about Toyah's deplorable condition and the role that her parents played in her health and incarceration. But for whatever reason, he did not go through with this idea either.'
So there was no public scandal or fall-out - even within the Jewish community in Baghdad, the romance was hushed up - no one talked of how Toyah had died, as her brother sees it, from a broken heart.
And there is another tragic aspect to this tale. I asked if the family had any photographs of Toyah. This is the photo that her niece, Lydia, sent me -
It shows three of the Sofaer boys - Elias, the oldest and tallest, Abraham, standing next to him and Jack, the toddler. It was taken in around 1927. Toyah would then have been 7. Why doesn't she feature in this professionally taken family photo?
Well, she did - she was standing on Elias's left. After her death, the photo was retouched to excise her likeness - you can still make out where her right arm overlapped with Elias's left arm - so that, in Lydia's words, 'there would be no reminder of the scandal and tragedy of her life'.
It was apparently a custom in Baghdad - a superstition - that when people died all the photos of them were disposed of. That may be why - much to Abraham's regret- there is no confirmed likeness of his sister.
But Lydia did come across this wonderful photo taken in Baghdad probably in the early 1930s. The elderly woman with the stick is 'grand mere' Farha Shamash; the man on the extreme right is her husband Saleh Shamash. The woman leaning against a tree is Khatoun Meir, Toyah's aunt ... and the girl with wavy hair peeping out above her aunt's head may, just may, be Toyah Sofaer.
'We have been given the rare chance to honour Toyah's memory by thinking and talking about her now', Lydia told me by email. 'We are truly grateful for that. Bringing back memories of his sister is incredibly important and moving for my father.'
'It is also comforting to know that a gravestone was built for her with such care, love and respect.'
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