Indonesia Expat
Featured History/Culture

Adolf Heuken: Never Forget the Past

Adolf Heuken’s publishing experiences offer a droll comment on the interests of Indonesian and expat readers.

The prolific writer produced scores of books during his 55-year career, which ended eight days after his 90th birthday, late last month.

He spent most of his time in Jakarta where he built a reputation as the foremost historian of the nation’s capital and its cityscape. In his book-filled Menteng study late last year I asked about his most popular title.

Was it Historical Sites of Jakarta, or Deutsch-Indonesisches Worterbuch – Kamus Jerman-Indonesia the German-Indonesia dictionary, first published in the 1980s and still in print? Or perhaps even Mesjid-mesjid tua di Jakarta, a catalogue of old mosques in the capital compiled by a Catholic, primarily for Muslims?

“None of these,” he replied, slowly shuffling his walking frame from a high desk; he worked in a semi-upright position after suffering with back problems, though his mind stayed sharp, “it’s this – Ensiklopedi Orang Kudus (Encyclopedia of Saints) and its spin-offs,” gesturing to a row of small booklets, each one featuring a name.

For a serious scholar working in his adopted land these books were a sideshow. Yet they are still popular and sought after by expectant Catholic and Protestant parents seeking ideas for their offspring’s name, its origins, and associations. They’re also purchased as presents by well-wishers for religious junctures in a child’s life, like christenings and first communion.

But the German-born Jesuit who arrived in this country in 1963, and later became an Indonesian citizen, is most likely to be remembered by Indonphiles for his well-illustrated coffee-table books on the old buildings of the city, once known as Batavia.

In many cases his records are the only ones easily accessible; rock drills and backhoes have smashed to rubble so many old and gracious buildings, as developers with more money than taste compete to build higher and more garish apartment blocks and shopping malls. When lost for ideas they have a line of galloping horses at the entrance to disguise the rows of stables at the rear masquerading as houses.

However, a new generation of architects and landscape artists, aware that the public hankers for buildings with character and sober standout qualities, have Heuken’s work for inspiration. This is his legacy and the future Jakarta will be richer as a result.

Heuken was born in Coesfeld in North Rhine-Westphalia, near the university city of Münster, where he planned to become a monk. Instead, he studied to enter the Society of Jesus, the Catholic congregation mainly favoured by intellectuals. His interest was always history and this began to flower as Jakarta developed.

A skilled linguist, he wrote in German, Indonesian, and English. He could also read and write in Dutch, which he said was essential for anyone trying to understand the history of the archipelago.


Following the 1965 coup, Heuken became concerned with the activities of a fellow Jesuit, Joop Beek (1917-1983). Heuken alleged the Amsterdam-born priest who came to Indonesia before the war, and was imprisoned first by the Japanese and then by Javanese militia who thought him a colonialist, was straying far from his ministry.

Beek had moved from Yogyakarta, where he was teaching, to Jakarta; in the capital he became a militant Red-hater and advisor to second President Soeharto. Beek trained student activists backing the Indonesian Army and doubled as a spy, telling Western intelligence operatives of events in Jakarta during the months after the September 30, 1965 coup, when an estimated 500,000 real or imagined Communists were killed.

Heuken was so worried by his colleague’s partisanship that he wrote to the Vatican and for a while Beek was withdrawn from Indonesia.

Dr Grace Pamungkas, who co-wrote two books with Heuken before moving to New Zealand for her doctorate, said she was blessed that she’d met Heuken at a seminar in 1998 when studying architecture. He offered her work as a researcher and she later became an author.

“I have learned to be super critical about the originality of references when they’ve been acknowledged and formally recognised in public, or even in scientific forums,” she said. “In so many ways we have to check to make sure we are using the most original information about any historical event, or someone’s life, or a building before we publish.

“A favourite phrase which he used in English was “a city without old buildings is like a man without a memory.” He also quoted first President Soekarno: ‘Jangan sekali-kali meninggalkan sejarah” – never forget the past.

“I hope I’m not biased when I say he’s the only Indonesian historian readers can trust in presenting historical works based on the best available original sources.”

“Sometimes he seemed like a senior doctor who’d know of something wrong in another doctor’s report or a medical journal. He got angry when he found misinformed writing on Indonesian history – which was almost every day. But through this frustration he maintained his principle of always producing high-quality work.”

Heuken was disciplined; a habit enforced by his parents when he was a child. He started each day with Mass in a Menteng chapel at Jalan Prof Muh Yamin before opening his books at 8 am and working through till 1.30 in the afternoon. He’d return to reading and writing later in the day and often stayed studying into the night.

His research included visiting sites, questioning occupiers and trying to find previous owners.

In 2008 Heuken received the Das Bundesverdienstkreuz am Bande award (Star of the German Federal Republic) for his work in developing German-Indonesian relations. It’s the highest German Government recognition for a layperson’s service to the State.

See: The Outdoor Museum of Taman Prasasti – a Window to the Past

Related posts

Puzzled by Google Maps, Foreign Tourist Climbs Ngurah Rai Airport Fence to Exit

Indonesia Expat

Finding Accommodation in Jakarta

Indonesia Expat

Ivermectin not Licensed to Treat COVID-19 in Indonesia

Indonesia Expat

Authorities Capture Local Terrorist Leader in Sulawesi

Maximilian Surjadi

Sitting Down With Football Superstar Stefano Lilipaly

Roga Schultz

Live like an Emperor at the Merlynn Park Hotel

Indonesia Expat