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Hetty Van Kesteren: Indonesia native loving life in Carbondale

Locations: News Published

By Adele Craft and Denise Barkhurst

(Editor’s note: This is the first of a series of articles about folks who live at Crystal Meadows senior housing).

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Considering her diminutive stature, Hetty Van Kesteren’s joyful and easy laugh can seem out of context until you grasp the emphasis in her statement “I have found my place in life.”

Born in Jakarta on the Indonesian island of Java, Hetty is the epitome of a person who has lived a multi-cultural life. When she was a child, Indonesia was a Dutch colony, used for its oil, spices and sugar plantations. Both of her grandfathers came to Indonesia from The Netherlands and married Indonesian women. She grew up with 11 brothers and sisters, and her father managed a medical opium company. Indonesian labor was cheap, and Hetty grew up with servants who lived on the outskirts of town in “gedecks” — poorly constructed housing with dirt floors. “We spoke Dutch at home, Indonesian to the servants, and learned Oxford English in school. The natives were Hindu, but my family was Catholic so I went to Catholic school,” Hetty told The Sopris Sun.

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Hetty’s middle class upbringing did not spare her from the horrors of World War II, however, and when the Japanese overtook Indonesia, her family was split apart. “My brothers were sent to prisoner labor camps in Japan, while my mother and sisters and I we transported by train to a Japanese prison camp on Java; we lived there from 1942 to 1945. The trains were hot, and we had no food or water. Many people died on the train. At the labor camp, my mother was quite weak, so my older sister made sure the work my mother was required to do was finished — mostly carrying rice from the paddies. When my sister was moved to work at the hospital, she was able to get more food for us so we could survive. My brothers refused to ever speak of their time at the camps in Japan. They would get teary-eyed.”

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War’s end

When the war ended, Hetty and her family were forced to stay in the camp another year; the Dutch and Indonesians were clashing over Indonesian independence, and the ensuing violence made life outside of the camp walls too dangerous. The English and Australians attempted to get relief packages to them. “I had an apple for the first time in my life. I have never had an apple as good as that one,” she said. But the ensuing attempts at food aid were intercepted by the black market. “We survived. That’s all anyone can say, isn’t it? We survived.”

As a term of independence, the Indonesian residents were all required to declare a nationality; racially, she and her family members were equally mixed. “We had to choose whether we were Dutch or Indonesian. To stay, we had to claim to be Indonesian. We chose to be Dutch and moved to The Netherlands because the opportunities were better.” When asked about the radical cultural change and how she adapted, Hetty exclaimed, “I loved it! For the first time I had potatoes! And carrots! And salad and meat! In Jakarta, we had mostly lived on fish and rice.”

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Hetty married and had a son before immigrating to Cincinnati, Ohio, in 1962. She laughs as she says, “It was July Fourth isn’t that something? It was hard to immigrate into the U.S. then, and we had to have a sponsor. One of my sisters was in Cincinnati, so that’s where we went.” Hetty became a huge Reds (baseball) and Bengals (football) fan. Any sports star raised in Cincinnati became “one of her boys.” As proof, her dog, Dallas, is named after Roger Staubach, a Cincinnati native who became a Dallas Cowboys quarterback.

Hetty said she feels the changes she has had to go through in life have made her a better person. The ability to adapt meant, “I was worth something.” Now she lives an independent life near her younger son, his wife, and their newborn boy, Hendrix. Babysitting is a joy, as are her close friends at the Crystal Meadows senior housing complex.  She says that having a dog has opened many social doors for her as she rides her trike through the neighborhood with Dallas in the front basket. “I love Carbondale. I love everything about Carbondale and living here.”

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Adele Craft is a Sopris Sun intern and sophomore at Bridges High School.

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