I first heard of him in 1980. When word got out in my family that I was marrying a Dutchman and moving to the Netherlands, my aunt by marriage, Vivienne Maduro Seeley, called my mom in New York and said: ‘Kathleen has to go to Madurodam, because that’s my cousin!’ I had no idea what Madurodam was or what she was talking about. (And it was 1980 – you couldn’t just google things.) Madurodam turned out to be a miniature city and one of the Netherlands’ best-known attractions, the profits from which go entirely to children’s charities. And sure enough, there was a plaque on the wall commemorating George Maduro – my aunt’s cousin – in honor of whom Madurodam was built.
Fast-forward to 2014 and another phone call from the same aunt. She asked if I would go to Madurodam for her and buy four souvenir booklets, one for her and one each for my three cousins. I went, but discovered that the booklets she wanted had been out of print since the modernization of the park a few years earlier. I decided to go online, find a few Dutch-language articles about George Maduro, translate them into English and send them to her as a consolation prize. I quickly noticed that the stories about George Maduro online contradicted one another on several important points. I also noticed that in any case – even if only half of it was true – he had led a fascinating life. To my surprise it appeared that nothing more serious than a magazine article had ever been written about him. So I decided to write about him myself.
I’m not related to him, at least not by blood. But my mother’s brother married his first cousin, so there is a link between us. Three of my cousins are also George Maduro’s cousins.
I have spent most of my career writing English for the Dutch educational market: textbooks, workbooks and scripts for recordings – the kind that pupils listen to and answer questions about to test their listening comprehension. (I must have written a hundred of those).
At the moment I’m working on a historical novel about my great-great- great-grandmother, Hélène Bauduy, who moved to Cuba from Delaware with her parents in 1822, when she was 16. I used Hélène’s voyage to a new land as a catalyst for a voyage of discovery about her family’s past as planters in Haiti, from which they fled after the notorious ‘Night of Fire’ and ensuing slave rebellion. The novel follows her eventful first year in Cuba, during which she faced an epidemic, a slave uprising and a bittersweet first love.
About Knight Without Fear and Beyond Reproach
Amazon.co.uk is probably your best bet. I have also listed a few other options on the book page.
My emphasis was on primary sources. These are original documents from the time in question, such as letters, population registries, and school, military and prison records. I found them in archives in the Netherlands, Belgium, Germany, Curaçao, the US and the UK, and also in private possession of a number of Dutch families. The Maduro family has a huge trove of material, including letters to and by George and his parents, which I spent weeks reading. I also went to all of the houses where George Maduro had lived and the schools he attended – those that still exist, at any rate. I spoke to family members who remembered George and his parents and sister, and others who had known him or had known people who were close to him.
So much has been written about the Second World War in Europe that I was spoiled for choice as to secondary sources. My favorite author for overall background material was Ian Kershaw, whose To Hell and Back is masterful account of the rise of Nazism and the course of the war in Europe. There has also been quite a bit written about the Netherlands during the war, both autobiographical works and scholarly historical accounts, and these were helpful as well.
Definitely! I wish I could have had another year, but we wanted to present the book on the 100th anniversary of George Maduro’s birth, which was 15 July 2016.
About George Maduro and his world
George Maduro was born in Curaçao, Dutch Antilles, in 1916. The only son of a wealthy and prominent Sephardic Jewish family, he was destined to take over the family business, the shipping, banking and infrastructure conglomerate S.E.L. Maduro & Sons (which still exists). George was educated in the Netherlands and was a law student at Leiden University when the country was invaded by Nazi Germany in May 1940. He was also a reserve officer in the Dutch cavalry, and as such led a daring and successful counter-attack that helped to delay the enemy advance. After the Netherlands’ capitulation he joined the resistance, went underground and was arrested twice by the Gestapo. He refused to wear the Star of David when it was made mandatory for Dutch Jews and, though living in hiding, showed himself daily on the streets without one. In June 1943 he left the Netherlands in an attempt to reach England to join the Allied forces. He was betrayed to the Gestapo in Brussels, and this third arrest would prove fatal. After a grueling 14 months’ imprisonment in Saarbrucken George Maduro arrived in the fall of 1944 at Dachau Concentration Camp. He died there, of typhoid fever, in February 1945, eleven weeks before the camp was liberated. After the war his parents donated the starting capital for Madurodam, the miniature city in The Hague that supports children’s charities, as a memorial to him.
There were a number of things about George Maduro that I hadn’t known – for instance that he was famous in the Netherlands even before he blazed his way into legend with his courageous counter-attack during the Nazi invasion. And that he died a day earlier than was officially reported. This may seem like a minor point, but there’s an intriguing story behind it. And although I had seen from photographs how good-looking he was, I also hadn’t realized just how devastatingly attractive he was to women. Put it this way: old, young and in between, they fell for him like piles of bricks.
But I think what surprised me most was that George Maduro – the scion of a proud, centuries-old Sephardic Jewish family – became a Christian while in prison. I didn’t see that one coming. In fact, when I first came across a piece of evidence indicating that he was a Christian I was sure I must have read it wrong. But as more evidence piled up, and I came to understand the circumstances, which in themselves were remarkable, I realized not only that it was true but also that it was a fascinating story within the story.
The letters themselves aren’t new, of course. ‘Newly-discovered’ would be a better description.
George Maduro came to the Netherlands from Curaçao in 1926, aged 10, to be educated. His parents came with him, but left again after a stay of a few months. From that point on, outside of visits and summer holidays, George never lived with his parents again. He wrote to them, and they to him, at least once a week between 1926 and about 1941, when the Nazi Occupation had forced him underground and letters had become a security risk.
I knew all along that these letters existed and must be somewhere – unless they had been destroyed, which seemed unlikely. However, I couldn’t find them. I found hundreds of other Maduro-related letters in various archives, but not the ones between George and his parents. No one seemed to know where they were or be able to tell me anything about them.
In early 2016 the mystery was solved when the letters were discovered in a trunk in a warehouse in Curaçao, where they had apparently been for decades. Unfortunately, by this point I had completed my research and was more than half-way through writing the book – against a fast-approaching and unbudgeable deadline. I went back anyway and re-wrote Chapter Five, about George’s romance with Hedda, using these newly-discovered letters, and I also incorporated them into Chapters Six through Nine. But to my regret I was unable to go back and re-write Chapters Two through Four, about George’s years at secondary-school in The Hague, at university in Leiden and in officer’s training in the Cavalry. There simply wasn’t time.
Over the course of 2017 I will be writing a series of articles about the new light the letters shed on this earlier period of George’s life, before the outbreak of the war. In most places (I was happy to note) they corroborated what I had written in my biography. But not everywhere. In a few places they contradict my findings, and in any case they give the reader George’s own perspective on what was going on. The articles will be appearing in a few Dutch magazines, and I will be posting them on the articles page of this website as they appear.
My aim as biographer was to present as well-rounded, accurate and complete a picture of George Maduro as I possibly could. I used all the facts I could find that were relevant to that goal, including, of course, things that were negative, or that we today might view in a negative light. Two examples of the latter category are George’s belief in the inherent superiority of Sephardic Jews over Ashkenazi Jews, and his view of black females on Curaçao as easy and legitimate sexual conquests for white males. Both attitudes were ones he had grown up with and considered normal. They would most likely be condemned today, the first as anti-Semitic and racist and the second as misogynistic and racist.
But aside from his having shared opinions that were prevalent among men of his time and class I was hard-put to find anything really negative about George. Everyone seemed to love him. Not just his family, who adored him, or women, who were infallibly drawn to him, but also his childhood friends and schoolmates, his fellow students, his comrades in arms, his fellow-prisoners. One letter-writer after another spoke of how he had changed their lives and how they would never forget him. He must have had an uncanny ability to inspire friendship, and also, simply, to inspire. I wish I could have heard the speech he gave that little band of inexperienced soldiers, who barely knew either him or each other, before they ran across that open bridge under direct enemy fire that first day of the invasion, when all seemed lost and risking one’s neck must have seemed senseless. Not only was he decorated for bravery, four of them were as well.
But, perfect? No, and to me the fact of his having been so universally beloved is one proof of it. We may admire, but It’s not in human nature to like perfection – if such a thing even exists. And I’m sure there were people who didn’t like George, but no evidence remains, as they didn’t write letters to his parents. (This category may have contained a few jealous boyfriends and husbands.)
I’m sure George Maduro had his faults and failings, as we all do, even though we may not know what they were. I certainly know he had his inner conflicts and frustrations. He stood out among his peers not for his perfection, but for his moral courage under the most intimidating of circumstances: that was what those who knew him remembered most.
I have been asked this often and it’s a good question. This I know for certain: the war had profoundly changed George. Like all survivors of the camps, he would have struggled to adjust to postwar life.
Would he, as his parents so fervently hoped, have returned to Curaçao to run the family business? I tend to think not, mostly because of something that Jan Cost-Budde, who was with him in Dachau, later wrote to his parents. This was that George had realized he could no longer ‘do that which you wanted him to, because he had to be himself’. George was an only son who had spent his life trying to measure up to the demands of an ambitious and domineering father, so this was a major development for him. Bear in mind as well that while nowadays society accepts and even praises the young person who goes his or her own way, saying to Mum and Dad ‘I have to be myself’, this was hardly the case in the 1940s. This hard-fought self-determination of George’s was a big deal. But how it would have played out after the war – if he had survived – is an open question.