The younger years of George Maduro
It was not a bad life that the young George Maduro led in The Hague. He lived in a comfortable house with a couple who cared for him almost as their own son. He went to an excellent school and had many friends. He took piano lessons and dancing lessons; went to parties, movies and children’s balls; he skated, rode horseback, and played tennis, hockey, soccer, bridge and chess. While the Great Depression held the economy in its icy grip, George always had plenty of money in his pocket. Later he would go on to Leiden University, where he lived in princely digs and enjoyed student life to the fullest. He would also spend a year at the elite School for Reserve Officers of the Cavalry in Amersfoort. It was not a bad life at all, but it was a life lived in between two worlds.
Born in Curaçao in 1916, George was the only son of Jossy Maduro (1891–1964) and his wife Beca (1895-1992), both members of the wealthy and prominent Sephardic Jewish Maduro clan. George’s three uncles on his mother’s side were the directors of S.E.L. Maduro & Sons, a powerful international conglomerate with branches in shipping, banking and infrastructure. Two were unmarried and the other divorced; none of the three had a son, at least not a legitimate one. Almost from birth George was viewed as their successor and heir. The agreement was that George, as the first in his family, would earn a university degree, and with that goal in mind Jossy and Beca brought their ten-year-old son to The Hague in 1926. They and Sybil, George’s younger sister, remained for a while, but then departed, leaving George behind. He attended the Netherlands Lyceum, a progressive secondary school, and lived with friends of his parents, retired Rear-Admiral Carl Aronstein and his wife Jeanne, whom he called ‘uncle’ and ‘aunt’ and with whom, the admiral especially, he formed a close bond.
It was meant to be an interval in the young man’s life: an investment in a very promising future. George would stay six years in The Hague to complete his lyceum course, then four more in Leiden to earn his Master of Law degree. Perhaps, if his number came up, he might serve a year in the Dutch army. But then he would go back to Curaçao, to his parents and sister, to a family business sorely in need of young blood, and three uncles who looked to him to provide it. Fate and war would decree otherwise, but neither George, nor his parents or uncles, could know that then.
From the moment Jossy and Beca left their son behind in The Hague in 1926 the family would never again, except for visits and family vacations, live together under one roof. They maintained contact through weekly letters, which were carefully kept. When I was researching George’s life for his biography, Knight Without Fear and Beyond Reproach, I was aware of the existence of these letters, but was unable to find them. They were not in any archive and no-one seemed to know where they were. In the spring of 2016 the mystery was solved when the letters were discovered in a steamer trunk in a warehouse in Curaçao.
We will probably never know how the letters ended up there, says Ilse Palm-Chumaceiro, archivist of the vast Maduro Family Archive at the Dutch Centre for Family History (CBG) in The Hague. Jossy and Beca Maduro left behind an immense amount of historically important material, including Jossy’s genealogical work, stacks of letters (I estimate close to 10,000) and the possessions of George, who was posthumously knighted in the Military Order of William, the Netherlands’ oldest and highest decoration, for his actions during the invasion of the Netherlands in May 1940. The collection was spread over different places – storage facilities, homes of friends and family – in four countries. Over the years much of it found good homes. A large portion was brought to the CBG, where it was painstakingly cataloged by Ilse Palm-Chumaceiro; other portions remained in family hands or found their ways to various Dutch and Curaçaoan archives. But George Maduro’s possessions remained, long practically forgotten, in a few trunks in a warehouse in Curaçao: probably since the aftermath of Jossy’s death in 1964, says Palm-Chumaceiro. When George Alvarez-Correa, Sybil Maduro’s eldest son, went to take a look at the trunks in the spring of 2016, he found the correspondence I had been searching for, between George Maduro and his parents from 1928 to 1941, which had been in there all those years. Palm-Chumaceiro suspects it was a simple case of misplacement. ‘It may be that they were in a hurry back then,’ she says. ‘Some things just happen.’
On 7 February 2017 George Alvarez-Correa handed the letters over to the CBG, where they now provide the long-missing personal element, the beating heart, of the Maduro Collection. I was able to use the later letters – from late 1937 through early 1941 – in Chapters Five through Nine of Knight Without Fear and Beyond Reproach. But due to lack of time – the discovery was made shortly before my deadline – the earlier letters, from George’s years in secondary school, at Leiden University, and in the Cavalry – were not incorporated in the book. These letters from George’s younger years are extremely interesting.
Signs of the times
The earliest letters provide a view, through George’s observant young eyes, of the Dutch capital in the 1920s and 1930s. The outlook is one from the posh side of town. Most of George’s classmates at the Netherlands Lyceum were wealthy, like he was; some were titled aristocrats. He was measured for his first dinner jacket when he was fourteen; he needed it for the frequent ‘children’s balls’ he was invited to. These gatherings, incidentally, were rather different than young people’s parties today, and not only because the main activity was ballroom dancing. In February 1931 George described a ball for fourteen and fifteen-year-olds at the house of a friend in the posh suburb of Wassenaar. There was a buffet ‘where you could get lemonade, cigarettes and whiskey’, he wrote. His friend’s father handed the cigarettes to the boys – not the girls – himself and ‘the smallest boy, who happened to win at musical chairs, received as prize a pack of 25 Caravellis,’ George noted. He danced ‘the latest step’ with ‘a sweet girl named Thera Broese van Groenau’ and wrote enthusiastically: ‘now that was dancing, the rest just moved out of the way to watch us; first a fox-strot [sic], then a tango… Then she stood talking to me for a long time and then I danced an English waltz with her, delightful!’ In later life George would be known as a lady’s man; this and other passages indicate that he started young. Part of his success was due to his prowess as a dancer, which had the girls lining up for the chance to take the floor with him, but the rest was just boldness. (His good looks didn’t hurt either.) When, for instance, he had to kiss a classmate – Els Dresselhuys, whom he liked – in a school play, and the two fourteen-year-olds were going together to have their make-up done, he sized up the situation and made his move. ‘Come, I don’t think we’ve practiced that kissing enough. Let’s rehearse,’ he said. Els ‘didn’t mind’, so he gave her ‘a big kiss’. ‘I’m sure she thought me very fresh but she looked at me quite lovingly and didn’t say a word,’ he added. After the performance the young people danced to the music of gramophone records and Els would only dance with George, much to the jealousy of the other boys, he reported with satisfaction.
Yet through the years George developed a fairly critical attitude towards the fair sex. The handsome ‘lady-killer’ (his word) was choosy and not apt to fall in love. ‘She has lost her heart completely, I haven’t,’ was his cool comment regarding the very pretty and nice Lucy Bischoff van Heemskerck, a senior officer’s daughter with whom George was ‘keeping company’ in 1937. And a portrait of his sister Sybil on the beach in Curaçao, which was sent to him in Leiden and which he showed off proudly to his fraternity brothers, elicited praise but also the comment: ‘But Sybil does need to lose a little weight.’ It was not his fraternity brothers’ opinion, he clarified helpfully, but it was his own.
Throughout the letters we see the signs of the times. The shadow of the Great Depression lurks just behind the prosperous façade of George’s secondary-school years. A classmate, having just failed an important exam, tells George over a hand of bridge that her father has told her she’ll have to leave school if she fails her finals: he can no longer afford her tuition, he says. She wonders if it’s a ruse to get her to work harder, but isn’t quite sure. George spends the 1931 Christmas holidays in Karlsruhe and casually mentions that various friends of his hosts are without work, or have been forced to exchange their fine houses for smaller lodgings. The major happenings of the era in The Hague are described as well: the arrival of movie star Dolores del Rio in Hotel Central; an earthquake; a sensational murder case in which the victim, Mr. Eschauzier, happens to be the father of a former schoolmate. George is an avid cinema-goer and provides his parents and sister with reviews, some full of praise (‘excellent’, ‘absolutely the best’) and some the opposite (‘horribly boring’, ‘nothing to write home about’) of the films, with stars such as Clark Gable, Greta Garbo, Maurice Chevalier, Laurel and Hardy and Marlene Dietrich.
Through it all George remains a boy, later a young man, with one foot in each of two worlds. In the early years it is evident that he misses Curaçao, and especially his parents and sister, terribly. He keeps careful track of the time remaining until the family will be united: ‘Ma, we’ll be together again in 187 days,’ he writes in January 1931. His language skills are another clue that he was raised not in the Netherlands but in multi-lingual Curaçao, where along with Dutch he was exposed to English, Spanish and Papiamento. His Dutch spelling and grammar lag behind that of his Netherlands-raised classmates, he emphasizes the wrong syllables when he speaks and many Dutch sayings are a mystery to him. He finds the northern European winters terribly cold, and more than once tells his parents that even indoors his hands are so stiff he can hardly hold a pen.
He manages to adjust, in some aspects faster than in others. With the help of his Dutch teacher he quickly catches up linguistically, although he retains a slight accent: years later, in the Cavalry, he will be teased for his Curaçaoan way of pronouncing the name ‘Curaçao’ (Kursáu). He will never completely get used to the winter cold, although the reason has nothing to do with his Caribbean birth. In particular the letters from the winter of 1936-1937, when he was in officer’s training, support the analysis of his dear friend Dutch Parliamentarian C.W.I. Wttewaall van Stoetwegen [1901 – 1986], who wrote in 1945: ‘His hands were always so blue and cold and if you ask me there was something wrong with his circulation.’ George himself wrote: ‘My already blue hands were frozen all winter’. These and other passages lead to the conclusion that Maduro was among the approximately 5% of the population that suffers from Raynaud’s Disease, a circulation disorder which causes the fingers to become stiff and blue when exposed to freezing temperatures.
But after the first few years the letters show no further signs of homesickness. George missed his parents and sister, and eagerly looked forward to their visits, but he loved his life in the Netherlands and grew more settled there with each year that passed. He had the time of his life at Leiden University, writing in autumn 1934 that he was ‘imperturbably happy in the wonderful life I’m leading at the moment as a free man with great friends’. His training at the School for Reserve Officers of the Cavalry was the greatest challenge he had ever faced. The hazing during his college fraternity initiation, during which he knocked down and pummeled an upperclassman who kept on hitting him after the permitted time (‘the other upperclassmen pulled me off him and told me in a friendly manner not to do that again’, wrote George, not without a touch of pride) paled in comparison. The elite military training course was rough going for him, especially during the frigid winter months when his hands bothered him almost constantly. For months it was unsure if he would be able to graduate. ‘If I don’t succeed, I’ll just hate it… if I do succeed I’ll be proud of myself for the first time,’ he wrote. He did pass, and the experience left him hardened both physically and mentally. If heroes are not only born but also made, this particular one was made during his months at the School for Reserve Officers of the Cavalry.
Despite the physical distance the Maduros were a close family and George derived strength from his bond with them. After a terrible disappointment – a failed oral exam in Leiden that cost him months of lost time, and during which he had been, in his eyes, unjustly treated by a notoriously bad-tempered professor – he signed his bitter letter to his parents and Sybil ‘your son and brother George, who being in possession of such dear parents and sister is always worthy of envy, and who at all times, realizing that, must count himself a lucky man.’ But his family was a source of pressure as well. All hopes and expectations, all eyes, were concentrated upon George. From a young age he worried terribly about his grades. A less-than-excellent report card would elicit frustration, grief and fear of being accused of laziness (‘You can’t say I’m to blame for not having worked hard enough’). At times it is almost painful to read. But perseverance proves to be his greatest asset. ‘I must, I will, I can, I shall. Persistence!’ he wrote at fifteen after a botched Latin test. This same attitude would see him through his difficult year in officer’s training, and later on through his far more difficult incarcerations in two Nazi prisons and, finally, Dachau Concentration Camp.
George would never return to Curaçao to take over the reins of the family business. By the time the Netherlands was invaded by Nazi Germany in May 1940 the boy with a foot in each of two worlds had become an officer of the Dutch Cavalry, called up into active duty and steadfastly determined to defend his country. During the course of the war his influential father would try all means in his power to get his son to the safety of Curaçao, but George did not cooperate: he stayed in the Occupied Netherlands and joined the resistance. In 1943 he was arrested by the Gestapo while on his way to England to join the Allied forces. His long journey ended in Dachau, where he died of typhus, aged 28, only weeks before the liberation of the camp. Due to the war there are no letters from his last years, but the letters he wrote his parents and sister between the ages of 12 and 25 afford the reader a rich view of an era, and a peek into the soul of a Dutch – and Curaçaoan – hero.