Curious George, the eponymous monkey of the beloved children’s books, often finds himself narrowly averting crises in his fictional world. However, George’s greatest escape was a very real one: The very first Curious George manuscript barely made it out of Paris — along with its German-Jewish creators, Hans Augusto (“H.A.”) and Margret Rey — just hours before Nazis invaded the city.
The Reys’ path to Paris was an unexpected one. Though both Hamburg-born, Hans and Margret met in Rio de Janeiro — Hans had moved in 1924 to join a family business selling bathtubs, while Margret arrived in the ‘30s to escape Germany’s increasing persecution of Jews. On their honeymoon, the Reys checked into a small Paris hotel, a stay they wound up extending for four years. Working there as a newspaper cartoonist, Hans’ charming illustrations of a giraffe quickly earned him his first book deal, but upon the release of Cecily G. and the Nine Monkeys it was a playful monkey, then named “Fifi,” who stole readers’ hearts.
Teaming up for a new book starring Fifi, Hans started illustrating as Margret wrote the story. At the same time, the Nazis invaded Poland and set their sights on France. The Reys prepared to leave Paris — but with so many Parisians fleeing in June 1940, the only means of escape Hans could secure was a tandem bicycle. The couple struggled riding the bicycle built for two, however, so Hans traded it for some bike parts and worked through the night jerry-rigging them into two bicycles. Meanwhile Margret gathered their most precious possessions, including their children’s book manuscript. Only a few hours after the Reys biked away at dawn the Nazis invaded Paris, housing soldiers in the very same hotel where the couple had been living.
Hans and Margret saved Curious George, but he also saved them. After four days of biking they were flagged as potential spies at the Spanish border because of their German accents. But when officials searched their luggage the illustrations of a monkey helped to verify the couple’s innocence, granting them safe passage into Spain. From there they took a train to Portugal and then set sail back to Rio de Janeiro. In order to obtain U.S. visas they again used their illustrations to prove their occupations. In the United States, “Fifi” found a publisher and a new name, while the Reys settled in Cambridge, Massachusetts where together they would make George the loveable star of six more books throughout their lifetimes.
For more, click here to register for the Kehillah of Chester County Summer Shorts Film Festival, which on August 29, 2018 will show a short documentary about the Reys’ amazing lives.