Finding Toyah Sofaer (UPDATED)
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.
Andrew Whitehead's blog
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