HUBERDINA Maria Hertogh, or better remembered as Nadrah, died early this month. She was 72.
For those who have never heard of her, she was embroiled as a 14-year-old girl in one of the most contentious court cases the country had ever known.
After the court decided, there were demonstrations that culminated in the first race riots in Singapore that killed 18 people and injured 173 Nadrah would have been largely forgotten on both sides of the Johor Straits had Dewan Masyarakat, a magazine published by Dewan Bahasa dan Pustaka (DBP), not revisited the case.
I was the head of the Magazine Division at DBP and its chief editor at the time.
It all started in July 1988 when the editorial team discussed the possibility of “looking at the Nadrah issue from a new perspective”.
A young assistant editor of the magazine, Fatini Yaacob, was assigned to the task.
They were voluminous reports on the court case, the landmark decision and the aftermath, but little was told about Nadrah the girl, her adopted mother, her family and what happened to her after 1950.
More than 37 years had passed since Maria was “returned” to her biological parents and her marriage to one Mansor Adabi was annulled by the court. It was a story that needed to be told.
Nadrah was born to Dutch parents in Java, adopted by Aminah Mohamad and brought up in Kemaman, Terengganu.
Aminah was a businesswoman who frequented Bandung where Nadrah’s father and mother, Adrianus Petrus Hertogh and Adelina, resided.
It was a difficult time for a Dutch family in Japanese-occupied Java in 1942. The family insisted Aminah took Nadrah but Hertogh changed his mind later when he was freed from the Japanese prison.
He went looking for Nadrah. She was discovered in Kemaman and Hertogh initiated the custody battle. Aminah was defended by Ahmad Ibrahim and Sardon Zubir.
Malays of all walks of life came out with a fund to help the case. They won the first round.
On Aug 1, 1950 Nadrah was married to Mansor Adabi. But the Appeal Court overturned the ruling. The rest as we know is history.
A publication by a statutory body like DBP is not required to be interesting or break any record in terms of newsstand sales. However, the four-part series on Nadrah beginning in February 1989 sold 100,000 copies.
It created quite a commotion among the reading public. A star in the form of Fatini was born. She did another investigative report on Shamsiah Fakeh, the former Malay communist, but nothing surpassed the following for the Nadrah series.
It was a pleasant surprise for us at the management of DBP.
My boss at the time, Shaari Abdullah, who was the director of publishing had this to say to me: “Go, whatever it takes.”
The director-general, Datuk Jumaat Mohd Nor, was extremely supportive, in fact breaking some rules to allow us to pursue the matter.
But it was Fatini’s tireless enthusiasm that made the difference. She took many months going through more than 100,000 documents, and travelled more than 150,000km to five nations for the story.
I traced her movements in my notes to readers every month. Luck, too, was on her side. The man behind the controversy, Mansor, was sidelined as the Nadrah issue boiled.
But 38 years later, he spoke to Fatini about Nadrah and how the short-lived marriage had changed him. Mansor was no ordinary person. He was the son of writer and nationalist A. Kadir Adabi. He was the editor of the Malayan Law Journal in the 1950s.
When Fatini met him, he poured his heart out.
He revealed that he wrote to Nadrah long after she had been mercilessly taken away from him. But apparently none of the letters reached her.
Much to our surprise, he gave everything to Fatini, including three personal files. (The letters were published in the April issue).
The last meeting with Fatini took place on March 13, 1988. He died the next day. The interview with Mansor was published in the March 1989 issue of the magazine.
Fatini was able to trace many of the books written about the case, one of them the largely forgotten Tangled World: The Story of Maria Hertogh by Dr Tom Eames Huges.
She went through reports in the Straits Times, Singapore Standard and Utusan Melayu. She went to the Dutch archives in Bergen op Zoom.
She met Nadrah’s adopted sister and friends in Kemaman, Terengganu. Fatini was able to meet Johannes Gerrit Vermuellen, the man who befriended Mansor and Nadrah and who tried hard to “connect” both of them via letters.
A Dutch private TV station gave her a copy of a special documentary it produced in 1975 entitled The Time Just Stood Still. The final touch to the story was, of course, meeting and interviewing Nadrah herself. It was almost an impossible task.
Nadrah disappeared into oblivion. There were unconfirmed reports that she visited her adopted family in Terengganu a few times. There were stories in 1976 about her allegedly trying to kill her second husband, Johan Gerardus Wolkenfelt.
Fatini met him, too, in Bergen op Zoom. But it was Vermuellen who helped Fatini trace Nadrah and her children. Vermuellen had precious material about Nadrah, but he lost it in a fire in 1987.
Nadrah was in the United States trying to earn a living with her partner Ben Pichel, leaving her children in Holland.
It was a tough life for her. Fatini flew to the US with two of Nadrah’s daughters, Carolien and Marlies.
She worked odd jobs as janitor, cook, domestic helper, whatever, sending her money home for her children. She was living with Pichel in a small town which Nadrah requested not to be revealed.
By then the Nadrah story had reached fever pitch in Malaysia and Singapore, and the Dutch media was presenting largely negative reports about her and our interest in Nadrah.
She remembered her days in Kemaman fondly, going to school like the other girls, reading the Quran and playing traditional games. And she remembered the lady who went through hell when she was brought back to Holland, Aminah.
Nadrah is part of the Malay/Muslim psyche in this part of the world. The issue redefined their perception about religious conversions and race relations in more ways than one.
As for me, Fatini (now Datin) and the Dewan Masyarakat editorial team, Nadrah impacted our professional ly lives.
(Written by Dato’ Johan Jaafar – taken from NST)