April 14, 2023

Who Was The Real Hetty?

People who have read The Lioness of Leiden ask about the inspiration for the main
character, Hetty Kraus (1920-1994).

Birth In A Dutch Colony

Hetty was born on April 20, 1920 in Sulawesi, which was then a colony of the
Netherlands in an island chain known as the Dutch East Indies. Formerly called
Celebes, Sulawesi is now part of Indonesia.

April 20 was also Adolph Hitler’s birthday, April 20, 1889. Because of the German
invasion of the Netherlands on May 10, 1940, Hetty never celebrated her own
birthday again.

Hetty’s Family

Hetty’s grandfather, Henry Mathis, once was governor of Sulawesi and owned a
rubber plantation there. Her mother, Henriette also was born in Sulawesi. The oil
painting below shows Henriette, age 18 in 1912 on the occasion of her debutante
ball in The Hague.

Hetty had two siblings, Corry and Jan. Corry, the eldest, was born in Sulawesi, but
Jan was born in The Hague, where the family had moved in 1924.

As readers of Lioness know, Jan figured prominently in Hetty’s life and was active
in the resistance. In an early draft of Lioness, I created a Corry-inspired character,
but she wound up on the cutting room floor.

The War Years

The Germans invaded The Netherlands on May 10, 1940. Hetty, who had just
turned twenty years old, was a student at Leiden University, which was founded
in 1575. In 1940, Leiden was a picturesque medeival town about ten miles from
The Hague, where Hetty’s family had moved when she was three. Here is a photo
of Hetty taken in the 1940s.

Hetty joined the Dutch resistance shortly after the German invasion. Readers
know that she survived the war but suffered enormous losses.

After The War

Hetty was devastated by the war and wanted more than anything to leave Europe
and its painful memories. She started that journey by taking a job at Chatelard, a
British boarding school magnificently situated in the Swiss Alps. There, she taught
French to fourth graders.
In 1947, she met Walter Kraus on a train. Born in neutral Switzerland, Walter was
spared the ravages of war. He was working for a Swiss department store chain in
Colombia, South America when the war broke out and did not return to
Switzerland until 1947, when he fell in love with Hetty. They were married four
weeks after they met and honeymooned on Lake Lugano.
My wife, Jacinta, was born in 1948. About that time, Hetty and Walter started a
farm in the remote Sibundoy Valley, high in the Andes in the southern part of
Colombia. Here is a photo of Hetty, Walter and Jacinta on the farm.

A second daughter, Rebecca, was born in 1950, and the family lived a prosperous
life until 1964, when the Colombian government appropriated most of their land.
Walter and Hetty were divorced that year. Hetty and her two daughters moved to
California, while Walter turned the farm house into a Bed and Breakfast for
In 1978, Hetty moved to a retirement community called Leisure World, now the
city of Laguna Woods, California. Hetty was active in her community, especially in
the gardening and camera clubs. No one suspected that this friendly old lady had
been a war hero in the Dutch resistance.
Here is a photo I took of her during those years.