Tribute to my aunt, Mrs Piroska Rajaratnam

As young women, Piroska and Maria were not only cousins, but in a female way the "best friends" to each other. They lived in Eastern Hungary, and their maternal grandmother belonged to the famous Csaky family, or better to say, the noble Csaky clan.

However, their ancestors lost their wealth and the once huge Austria-Hungarian Empire was dissolved after World War I.

Piroska and Maria were raised in the 1920s and 1930s when Hungary was a poor country seriously hit by economic crisis and a right-wing dictatorship. As sensitive young ladies, they loved literature, felt deep affection for Britain and hated the rising German Nazism.

Perhaps that's why Maria (despite her interest in social issues) chose mathematics and studied it at the University of Szeged. In the 1930s, it was a far from obvious choice for a woman and especially for a daughter of a simple railroad man.

Piroska made an even braver choice. She left for Britain where she started to work as a babysitter or, as it was called in those days, au-pair girl.

Singapore's first Minister of Foreign Affairs S. Rajaratnam and his wife Piroska. Mrs Rajaratnam, who moved to Singapore with her husband in 1948, loved her new homeland but never forgot Hungary and her Hungarian family.
Singapore's first Minister of Foreign Affairs S. Rajaratnam and his wife Piroska. Mrs Rajaratnam, who moved to Singapore with her husband in 1948, loved her new homeland but never forgot Hungary and her Hungarian family. PHOTO: UPI

Maria met a young Hungarian student at the University of Szeged, whom she married later. Because of World War II and the turmoil after it, their engagement lasted 15 years. But everything is good if the end is good - at least for me - as I was born in 1951 as their child.

Piroska met a kind and clever Asian man in London, Sinnathamby Rajaratnam. Despite their rather different cultural backgrounds, they loved and respected each other. As Piroska remained the pen friend of Maria, my later mother was informed on the "Scylla and Charybdis" of their love.

While the Hungarian family of Piroska didn't intervene in their daughter's choice, the Rajaratnam family wasn't too happy to welcome a white and Eastern European daughter-in-law. Or at least those rumours were heard in Piroska's Hungarian family.

But Piroska and Sinnathamby stood up for themselves. They married and lived in London during the harsh war years. Piroska sent a postcard with a view of the Westminster Parliament to my mother, who kept it on the wall during the Nazi occupation of Hungary as the silent symbol of her sympathy for the Western democracy. In 1948, the young Rajaratnams moved to Singapore. While many European emigrants lived in London like Piroska, to move to Singapore as a wife of a young Asian man wasn't an easy task for her. However, she started to love her new homeland and its people.

As for the friendship of Maria and Piroska, during the 1950s and the Cold War years, they lost contact with each other for long years. But then a near miracle happened.

Singapore became an independent country in 1965 and Sinnathamby Rajaratnam was appointed its first Minister for Foreign Affairs. And a year later, in May 1966 in this capacity, he visited Hungary. Singapore and Hungary didn't have diplomatic ties in those years; Hungary was a relatively small communist country and Singapore a newly independent state. Perhaps a historian can answer the question of whether the rather early official visit to Hungary had or hadn't any connection to the family background of Minister Rajaratnam.

Anyhow, Piroska travelled with her husband to Hungary and, in the famous Hotel Gellert of Budapest, she invited all of her Hungarian relatives for a dinner. Later, she visited us in our home in Pasareti Street. That was her first visit to her motherland after WWII.

A year later, in June 1967, she returned to Hungary, this time alone and by ship. Because of the Arab-Israeli war and the closure of the Suez Canal, their ship had to travel round Africa. The trip from Singapore to Italy, as she wrote in her letter to us, took 42 days instead of the planned 21 days.

My mother died during that exact period when Piroska reached Brindisi to take a train to Budapest. But at least she could put white gladioli on my mother's grave in the cemetery.

As an intelligent and good-humoured woman, Piroska told us many interesting stories about her "exotic" life. Once, when Queen Elizabeth II visited Singapore, the local officials and their wives had to stand for a long time in the hot sunshine waiting for the monarch. Piroska heaved a deep sigh as the heat was almost unbearable in the long dress required for the royal protocol.

"O Istenem", said she in Hungarian. ("Oh my God.")

At the end of the reception, another European lady came to her. "So, you are also a Hungarian?" Previously, they had met each other many times as the European wives of well-known Singapore men, not knowing that both of them were Hungarian.

As they say, a good spouse is the best supporter of every successful politician. Piroska Feher-Rajaratnam loved her husband and her new homeland, but never forgot Hungary and her Hungarian relatives.

As her nephew, I am proud of her, and even without meeting him, I respect her husband, Mr Rajaratnam, as well. It would be an interesting research project in Hungary, to find people who may be connected to Piroska Feher, as she was called before she became Mrs Rajaratnam, to learn more about her unique and courageous life.

  • Gyula Hegyi is a Hungarian writer, journalist and former Member of the European Parliament.
  • Those with information on Piroska Feher, who became Mrs Rajaratnam, can contact him at gyulahegyi4@gmail.com
A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on December 07, 2015, with the headline 'Tribute to my aunt, Mrs Piroska Rajaratnam'. Print Edition | Subscribe