MARIA HERTOGH'S NIECE Rokayah Yusof, 68, still gets emotional when she recalls how her "Auntie Nadra's" life was turned upside down when she was separated from her family in Malaya and returned to The Netherlands.
Maria was five years old when she was adopted by a Malay woman, Che Aminah, during World War II. She was brought up as a Muslim in Terengganu and had a Malay name: Nadra Ma'arof.
Trouble began when her biological parents tried to claim her back after the Japanese surrendered. The resulting legal battle lasted for more than half a year, and when Maria was returned to her Dutch parents at age 13, riots broke out in Singapore. The three days of violence left 18 people dead.
"I always cry when I think of her," Madam Yusof, a retired English teacher who lives in Kemaman kampung in Terengganu, told The Straits Times in a telephone interview.
"My mother had a good life, she was very lucky. Eight children who were close to her and my father to take care of her. But not Auntie Nadra."
After so many decades away, Maria still spoke Malay well, her niece Rokayah Yusof recalled. "I spoke to her in English, but she kept answering in Malay, so we ended up conversing in Malay and even used Indonesian slang."
Her late mother Kamariah was 10 years older than Maria. A Japanese, she had been adopted in Tokyo by Che Aminah when she lived there with her lecturer husband.
Madam Yusof said her last meeting with Maria was on the eve of Hari Raya in 1998, when Maria made a surprise visit from Holland, accompanied by Dutch journalists.
"There were so many of us at my mother's house, we had all come back home for Hari Raya. My mother finally met her after 48 years of separation," she said.
"We all hugged and cried. We had so much to catch up on that night.
"My mother gave Nadra a baju kurung (traditional Malay outfit) to wear for Hari Raya and, because it was the festive season, we had prepared a lot of traditional Malay snacks that Nadra said she had missed."
Madam Yusof recalled that after so many decades away, Maria still spoke Malay well.
"I spoke to her in English, but she kept answering in Malay, so we ended up conversing in Malay and even used Indonesian slang."
The unexpected visit lasted two nights and Maria took time to visit the grave of Che Aminah, who died in 1976.
Madam Yusof said her conversation with Maria revealed that Maria was unhappy for most of her life in Holland.
It was a far cry from the kampung life she had enjoyed, with Che Aminah doting on her. She had received several death and abduction threats and was under police protection.
"She told me the police would follow her to school and she couldn't speak freely," said Madam Yusof.
After her visit, Maria kept in close contact with the family of Madam Yusof, who wrote letters to her regularly and called her every month.
Maria died in 2009, but her children still keep in touch with Madam Yusof and her children.
Madam Yusof said she continues to collect information about Maria, carefully filing away all news stories that mention her.
"The story is not complete yet," she said. "There are still a lot of details that are missing." • ST