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.
I spent part of the weekend snooping around this colonial-era mansion near the Chennai waterfront. It's clearly seen better days. No one lives there, I was told, and it's in use as a laundry and dry cleaning establishment. Not that the workforce I came across appeared to be at full stretch. But what caught my attention was the inscription at the crest of the building.
It made me wonder - could this be Otti Castle?
I need to explain why I am so keen to trace Otti Castle. It's where a young Jewish woman from Baghdad, Toyah Sofaer, lived for the last few weeks of her life. And where she died, in uncertain but clearly harrowing circumstances, on 6 October 1943. I came across her gravestone last year in Chennai's tiny Jewish cemetery, and so chanced upon a powerful and unsettling story of transgressive love and tragic death.
The story I broadcast about Toyah engendered quite a response. New information emerged: a confirmed likeness of her was found ... and her death certificate was uncovered. The certificate doesn't give a cause of death, but it does give Toyah's address and place of death - both are recorded as 'Ooti Castle Street, Lazarus Street, Madras'.
With a bit of help from one of Chennai's leading historians (thanks Sriram!), I was able to deconstruct this address: Otti (not Ooti) Castle was a building not a street, and it was on Lazarus Church Street. But it had been demolished some time back, I was told. So when I got out of an auto rickshaw at the junction of San Thome High Road and Lazarus Church Street yesterday, I wasn't expecting to find much. Which is why the inscription so amazed me ,,,
Could 'O.T.C.' stand for Otti Castle - or perhaps 'O.T.' became corrupted as 'Otti'? The property is now known as Marine View and the name 'Otti Castle' meant nothing to those working there - but it wasn't unusual for these inter-war mansions to be called 'Castle', and there's still a Leith Castle Street nearby.
And then there's the Star of David which features so prominently. The Sofaer family had once had a trading base in Coral Merchant Street in George Town, one of the oldest parts of the city where the first synagogue was built. Was Toyah staying here because this was the home of a Jewish family which had put this religious emblem on the building when it was built?
The hexagram, of course, is not simply a Jewish motif: it appears in Hindu and Muslim design and architecture (on Humayun's Tomb in Delhi, for example), as well as in Theosophy and the occult. It's still the emblem of the Karnataka Bank. All the same, this is quite a coincidence.
A web search on Otti Castle throws up a couple of interesting snippets - this write-up on Flickr from a few years ago being the most substantial:
Otti Castle on Lazarus Church Road at Santhome, was owned by my uncle Mr O Radhakrishnan. This house was rented to many expatriates who lived in Madras upto early 60s. I made a reference to Otti Castle in a blog in "Chennai Metroblogging" on demolition of Hotel Oceanic which is adjacent to our home at Santhome. I received a mail some time last year from one Mr David Greenwood from England. To my surprise, he informed me that prior to coming on a holiday to India, he searched for Otti Castle in the net and he stumbled upon my blog and sent a mail asking whether I could meet him and take to the place where Otti Castle stood. Mr David Greenwood was a resident of Otti Castle when he was very young and his father used to be the Managing Director of Best & Crompton at Madras. He visited Chennai during November 2009. I met him and told him that Otti Castle is demolished and some residential apartments are there in the place where Otti Castle stood. I met him at Connemara and took him to the place where Otti Castle was once there. He gave a long stare possibly reminiscing about his younger days he spent at the place where Otti Castle once stood. He took some photos of the place and I dropped him back at Connemara. This is a photo of Otti Castle sent by Mr David Greenwood.
That suggests fairly definitvely that Otti Castle is no longer standing. Two old photos of Otti Castle were posted to accompany these comments.
This doesn't seem to be the same house as the one I came across yesterday. I didn't get a rear view, and while there are similarities in the front facade, there are several key differences in design.
So what's the story here? Was there a short row of properties which took the name Otti Castle and of which this is the last survivor? That would make more sense of the 'Ooti Castle Street' on the death certificate. What did O.T.C. stand for, and why the hexagram?
If you have any thoughts, please do share them!
UPDATED: I have had a very helpful message from Balasubramanian G. Velu, whose remarks on Flickr I quoted above. The building I came across is not Otti Castle, though it is nearby and was built by the same man. His maternal grandfather Ottilingam Thankikachalam Chettiar built both Otti Castle and Marine View. So the 'Otti' comes from his name - as do the initials OTC on Marine View. There's an article by Sriram V about the remarkable OTC here. The hexagram accompanying the initials is not, it seems, in any way Jewish.
Balasubramanian G Velu's maternal uncle inherited Otti Castle. It was rented out mainly to Europeans and in the 1950s was a bachelor 'chummery' for young English men working for Best & Co. The building was demolished some time after the 1970s and an apartment block put up on the site. Another member of the family lived in Marine View and indeed still lives on the first floor about the laundry and dry cleaning business. Balasubramanian doesn't believe that the houses built by his grandfather were ever known as Otti Castle Street.
So, where does that leave us with Toyah's story? While Toyah very probably didn't stay in the building which is still standing, it does hark back to her brief period in what was then Madras. How did she end up at Otti Castle? Quite possibly her parents rented the house for their short stay in the city.
By the way, another Chennai enthusiast got in touch to say that at the time Marine View was built there were no buildings on the foreshore, that is the beach side of San Thome High Road. So this building would have had a majestic and uninterrupted view of the Bay of Bengal.
This is the post I never expected to be able to write - the one with a photo of Toyah Sofaer. But for those of you coming new to the story, let me recap:
Earlier this year, I came across the grave of Victoria 'Toyah' Sofaer in the tiny Jewish cemetery in Chennai in south India. She died in October 1943 aged just 22. Through the magic of the internet, and with the generous encouragement and support of Toyah's family, I pieced together a tragic and deeply affecting story which I've blogged about. She was born into a prosperous trading family in Baghdad - embarked on a transgressive romance with an Armenian man from another trading family - was taken to India by her parents to end the relationship - and died in Chennai 'from a broken heart', in the words of her half-brother Abe, though in what circumstances remains unclear.
More than that, the family had a photograph of Toyah's three brothers and half-brothers taken when she would have been seven. She was in the photograph. But after her death, it was retouched to remove her likeness - and so obliterate any visual reminder of a scandal and tragedy. No one talked about Toyah. No other photographs came to light which the family was confident included Toyah. It was as if any testimony to her life, and death, had been carefully excised. An injustice which Abe in particular, now in his mid-nineties and once close to Toyah, was keen to see rectified.
Last month, a short item I recorded about Toyah for the BBC radio programme 'From Our Own Correspondent' was also posted on the BBC website. It's been viewed more than a million times. The response has been remarkable - one reader tracked down Toyah's death certificate in the Chennai municipal records, another wrote a poem about Toyah, and I'm now in contact with the very small Jewish community in Chennai today.
I owe these photographs, and permission to post them here, to the kindness of Lisette Shashoua. They were taken at the wedding of her parents, Mouzli and Menashy. Mouzli, the bride, was Toyah's first cousin. Lisette, who has taken a great interest in the history of her extended family, was fairly sure this was Toyah. Lydia Saleh, my main point of contact with the family, took the photo to show her father, Abe, and - without prompting - he recognised his half-sister, Toyah, who was two years older than him. He's quite certain it's her.
It doesn't bring her back to life - it doesn't right the wrong done to her - but it does help to honour her memory. I'm very pleased to be part of that.
Lisette has identified those in the photographs. In the one above, standing from left to right: Bertha Haim (Bekhor); the groom, Menashy Shashoua; the bride, Mouzli Haim (Sheshoua); Daisy Shamash. The young girl in the middle of the group is believed to be Dorine Shashoua. Sitting from left to right: Toyah Sofaer; Bertine Shashoua (Khazzam); Violette Haim (Barzel); Marcelle Bekhor (Shamash). Lisette believes the photo was taken in about 1935. There are more details about the family in the wonderful Sephardic diaspora genealogy site run by Alain Farhi, Les Fleurs de L'Orient.
The photo below features the same people but in different positions. Toyah is standing and, as we look, is to the right of the bride.
There may be more to say about Toyah, who knows. But it's so good to look into her eyes.
Last month, I came across (and blogged about) the last remnant of the Baghdadi Jewish community in Chennai - a small cemetery fronting onto a crowded market street a few minutes walk from Marina beach. Among the handful of gravestones is that of Victoria M. Sofaer, who died on 6 October 1943.
There's nothing like a challenge - so the other day, I ventured along Lloyds Road on the look out for a Star of David. And I found it! (Directions below if you are on the same trail). The woman selling fish and vegetables just by the locked blue gate gave the caretaker, Kumari, a quick call. Within half-an-hour, she was there ... tackling the double set of padlocks ... and welcoming me in to a fairly barren but well tended burial ground recently painted in a fetching sky blue.
Victoria 'Toyah' Sofaer was born in Baghdad. The surname Sofaer is conspicuous in Baghdadi Jewish communities - indeed a Sofaer in Calcutta became a leading actress (the Jewish community being a little less conservative).
According to this genealogical site, the family aren't aware of where Toyah is buried. I do hope they get to see this photo.
This isn't the last word as maps go - but I hope it will suffice. Lloyds Road is now known as Avvai Shanmugam Salai. If you start from the beach heading west, you walk past the Marina fish market, cross over the open drain that's marked, and the cemetery is another fifty yards on along this increasingly congested market street and on your right.
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