Wednesday, 19 July 2017

Yes: Far Too Soon to Say Goodbye!

As we mark the bi-centenary of the death of novelist, Jane Austen scholars still debate its cause.

Was it tuberculosis, cancer, Addison’s disease or – as most recently suggested – arsenic poisoning that killed her aged    only 41?

We’ll never know the full truth. But I reflect on this as I consider the coincidental passing of Ukrainian dissident poet, Irina Ratushinskaya as the modern writer also died far too young, aged only 63.

While the immediate cause was cancer, Ratushinskaya’s constitution had been irreversibly damaged by her incarceration in the ‘small zone’ of a labour camp in the republic of Mordovia, a ‘prison within the prison’ reserved for women deemed as particularly dangerous political criminals.

Initially deprived of paper, she wrote by scratching her work on bars of soap; memorised and erased the verses then rewrote them when paper became available before somehow smuggling them to her husband, Igor Gerashchenko who arranged their publication.

Ratushinskaya had been found guilty in April 1983 of “agitation carried on for the purpose of subverting or weakening the Soviet regime” and so given a maximum sentence of seven years in the camp followed by five years internal exile.

She was released suddenly on the orders of Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev who wanted to prove he was genuine about improved domestic human rights as part of his policy of glasnost (openness) and perestroika (reconstruction).

Ratushinskaya then emigrated to the U.K., moved on  to the United States and then returned to Russia in 1998, settling in Moscow with her family, but in relative obscurity.

IRINA RATUSHINSKAYAWhile many of the best known dissidents of the period were Jewish, Ratushinskaya was a devout Christian. It seems the cruellest irony that she is now dead while contemporary Jewish heroes of the Soviet human rights movement like Jewish Agency chief Natan Sharansky who was released only a few months before her and Knesset Speaker, Yuli Edelstein survived to live at the acme of Israeli society.  

I conclude this short tribute with her appropriately titled piece, Too Soon to Say Goodbye.

I must point out that the date at the end of the poem implies it was written after her release:

Too soon to say goodbye,

Too soon to say forgive me,

Too soon to send us your instructions:

You know what our luck is like.

Not a door but it will be locked!

Not a net but it will be cast!

Others took to the bottle,

And others just vanished.

Only a few of us left now,

So they're firing at us point blank.

What now? We can read Dostoevsky;

Chip in roubles - for vodka,

Only a few of us left anyhow.

And we know we must fight to the death.

And we know that cruel blacksmith

Forged as out of some unknown metal,

Perhaps doubting our endurance,

Perhaps expecting us to recant.

No! Give us your instructions!

We swear to fulfil them precisely.

Too Soon to despair yet.

You ought to know our luck.

Irina Ratushinskaya

Kiev, 9 December 1986

© Natalie Wood (20 July 2017)

Monday, 3 July 2017

Restoring Miss Toyah

‘Erasure poetry’ is defined as a form of ‘found poetry’ or ‘found art’ created by erasing words from an existing text in prose or verse and framing the result on the page as a poem.

This piece is based largely on a feature and blog post by former BBC correspondent Andrew Whitehead, whose sympathetic research has helped to rescue the short existence  of Victoria M Sofaer, a young Baghdadi Jewish woman, from total oblivion.


I have attempted to use an ‘erasure’ style format to echo  - metaphorize – what happened to Victoria.

Most of the words in this piece are Whitehead’s, along with some of my own.

Restoring Miss Toyah

In Chennai, once Madras,

lies a half-forgotten resting

place for the twice re-settled

residue of the town’s long-time

Jewish dead.

Here, half-faded, and one

further step removed, stands

a solitary gravestone illumined

briefly by a shaft of sunlight

sifting through the trees.

So mystery’s spotlight

shines for the moment

on ‘Miss Victoria M Sofaer’,

lying for eternity aged only


Who was she?

How did she end

in Chennai? Why

did she meet her

death so young?

Baghdad beginnings had

also ended in an untimely

end when Victoria’s (‘Toyah’)

birth led to her mother,

Dina’s death.

Then in 1939, perhaps 1940,

as a second universal war

began, Toyah romanced an

Armenian man.

From different worlds,

different religions, they

met in secret and when

Toyah's family found out,

they sought to marry her to a

Jewish boy.

But she rejected all suitable

suitors and was shipped out

to India in disgrace.

Towards the close of 1942,

Toyah’s father, Menashi and

Naima, his second wife, who

was Dina’s sister and so Toyah’s

aunt, arrived in Bombay with his

daughter in tow.

There onlookers saw something

in Toyah - her face and demeanour –

that deeply perplexed them.

Her silence left an impression

of a person in shock. There

was something mysterious;

most difficult to understand.

She would not utter a word.

After some time, the three

moved on. In another

Indian city, Toyah died.

So her parents returned

to Baghdad.

Abraham, Toyah’s only surviving

half-brother, now aged 94 and

once the closest to her in the

entire family, still wonders what

caused her untimely demise.

The doctor who had looked after

her in India felt the urge to

tell the authorities about her

serious decline and the role

her parents played.

But he did not pursue this.

The Armenian lover also felt

the need to alert the authorities

about Toyah's deplorable condition

and the role that her parents

played in her incarceration.

But he did not go through with

this idea, either.

So there was no public scandal.

Even within the Jewish

community in Baghdad,

the romance was hushed up.

No-one talked of how Toyah

had died from a broken heart.

And there is yet one more

tragic aspect to this tale:

One rare photo shows Toyah’s

three half-brothers : Elias, the oldest

and tallest; Abraham, standing beside

him and Jack, the toddler.

It was taken in 1927 when Toyah

was aged seven.

Why isn’t she there?

But she once was!

On Elias's left!

After her death, the

image was retouched

to excise her likeness.

This was to ensure there

would be no reminder of the

scandal and tragedy of her life.

Then there are unfounded rumours

of a Baghdadi Jewish custom;

that when people died all pictures

of them were destroyed.

Still, one further photo,

shot in Baghdad, probably

in the early thirties, shows

Grand mère Farha Shamash;

her husband, Saleh and Toyah’s aunt,

Khatoun Meir.

Then – finally – stands

a girl with wavy hair, peeping

out above Khatoun’s head.

This may, just may, be

Toyah Sofaer.

© Natalie Wood (04 July 2017)