I went back to the tiny Jewish cemetery in Chennai the other day to lay flowers on the grave of Victoria 'Toyah' Sofaer. She was from Baghdad, and died here, in what was then Madras, in 1943 a few weeks short of her twenty-third birthday.
I chanced upon her grave exactly a year ago, and so stumbled across a powerful and affecting story which has become something of a preoccupation.
I expect that this will be my last blog about Toyah. It's time to let her rest.
I managed last year to make contact with Toyah's family in Canada, including her half-brother Abraham, just two years younger to her. (I'm happy to say Abraham is still going strong). They didn't know Toyah had a grave. But the story that Abraham related to his family - and through his daughter, Lydia, to me - is deeply tragic.
Toyah was born into a wealthy Jewish trading family in Baghdad, and when aged about twenty fell in love with an Armenian man. To break the romance, her father and step-mother whisked Toyah away to Bombay (where Abraham happened to be living at the time, evading service in the Iraqi army) and then, very suddenly, on to another Indian city - Madras as it turns out - where she died. Under quite what circumstances she lost her life remains unclear.
A piece I broadcast on BBC radio about Toyah's story was posted on the BBC website. It was viewed more than a million times. New information came to light: Toyah's death certificate (though with no cause of death) was located; and so too, for the first time, was a confirmed likeness of her. I blogged as each new detail came to light.
Toyah's family were pleased to know she had a resting place, and to feel that the wrong done to her had been acknowledged. I found this tale of transgressive love across lines of faith and identity deeply moving.
Davvid Levi and his mother Sarah say they heard that Toyah, before being taken away from Baghdad, was able to let her Armenian lover know her destination. He turned up in Bombay. That's when she was moved on, hurriedly and quietly, to Madras. Somehow the Armenian man (no-one knows his name) discovered where Toyah had been moved to and again travelled in her pursuit.
And the story the Levis recount is that, once in Madras, the Armenian disappeared. It seems that not only Toyah, but her lover too, probably died here. Just how, and in what sequence of events, will probably never be known.
I shared this information with Toyah's niece, Lydia Saleh. This is her response: 'The details you are revealing now make the story even more desperate and tragic. I hope the Armenian lover is being thought of with as much compassion as Toyah is right now. May they both rest in peace.'
Davvid Levi has a marvellous family archive of photos and documents - linking Amsterdam, France, Romania, Israel, India, Malaya, Burma and Hong Kong. His ancestors went by the name of Cohen, Halevi, Rosenberg and Henriques de Castro. One commercial document, from 1932, signed in Madras, includes as a witness Menashi Sofaer ... Toyah's father.
Menashi, acting in desperation, brought his daughter to Madras because it was a city with which he was familiar. In 1932, Menashi gave his local address as 18 Coral Merchant Street. The Levi family lived at 15 Coral Merchant Street, above what had been the city's first synagogue. They were neighbours.
In 1943, Menashi chose not to live in this Jewish locale but - perhaps because of the taint of scandal - to let a property, Otti Castle, overlooking the sea on San Thome High Street.
And there's more ... Lisette Shashoua, who is related to the Sofaers and has helped to piece together the history of the extended family, has just come across another photo of Toyah.
It was taken at a family wedding in Iraq in about 1935 - the bride was Mouzli Shashoua (nee Haim), Toyah's first cousin. Toyah would have been about fourteen at the time - (other photos from this wedding were posted some months ago). As we look at this photo, Toyah is immediately to the left of the bride.
Lisette has also tracked down a photo of Toyah's father, Menashi, and step-mother, Naima (who was also Toyah's aunt - Toyah's mother, Dina, died giving birth to her daughter and Menashi later married Dina's younger sister). There is no date on the photograph, but it was probably taken a few years either side of 1940. Menashi was born in 1881 and Naima in 1904.
This must have been much as Menashi and Naima Sofaer looked at the time of Toyah's death.
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