When Curious George’s Creators Saved Him from the Nazis

Curious George

H. A. and Margret Rey escaped with their lives and their early draft of ‘Curious George.’

Fans of Curious George know: George is a master of escape. His inquisitive nature and mischievous antics require it. Adventuring with George is a must for young children. With 75 million copies of Curious George books sold in 25 languages, the world knows him well. He’s a treasured character from children’s literature.

How George became the world’s most famous trouble-finding monkey, though, is astonishing. His creators — Hans Augusto Rey and Margret Rey — made a daring escape from the Nazis with George’s manuscript in tow. This is their unforgettable story.

When in Paris…

Hans Augusto (H.A.) Rey and Margarete Elisabeth Waldstein (later Margret Rey) were both born in Hamburg, Germany. Hans grew up near the Hagenbeck Zoo, cultivating his love of animals (he learned to imitate their sounds, Louise Borden notes in The Journey That Saved Curious George, an illustrated book about the Reys), and with a passion for drawing and painting. That came in handy when, in 1935, he married Margret in Brazil and they started an advertising agency.

Curious George

Margret and Hans Augusto Rey in December 1935. de Grummond Collection, University of Southern Mississippi

The couple honeymooned in Europe and decided the Montmartre neighborhood of Paris, France, should be home. While there, they completed a children’s book: Cecily G. and the 9 Monkeys. It features a monkey named Fifi, who’s always getting into trouble and finding his way out. (Sound familiar?) Fifi deserved his own book, and French publisher Gallimard gave Hans and Margret a cash advance to write The Adventures of Fifi.

That money became a lifesaver for them as World War II took over Europe.

Only Take What You Can Carry

Nazi troops were moving quickly toward Paris in late May 1940. Given their German-born Jewish heritage, the Reys knew the fate that would befall them under Adolf Hitler and secured the necessary documents to leave. They were Brazilian citizens, which made it easier. Needing money for the move, Hans withdrew all he could.

After hearing a belated radio broadcast on June 10 that, in order to save Paris from destruction, the city would not be defended, the Reys took action. Since they didn’t have a car and trains were no longer operating, they ventured to a bicycle shop. The couple found only a tandem, which wouldn’t work.

Bargaining with the shop owner, Hans paid 1,600 francs (nearly a month’s rent) for spare parts to build two bicycles plus four baskets. Margret went home to collect belongings while Hans built the bicycles in the store’s backroom.

At 5:00 a.m. on June 12, hours before the Nazi army marched into Paris, Hans and Margret rode their makeshift bicycles out of the city. According to the documentary Monkey Business: The Adventures of Curious George’s Creators, “You could hear the tanks rolling in as they were bicycling out. It was how close they came.” They had some clothes and warm coats, food and water, an umbrella, Hans’ pipe, artwork and The Adventures of Fifi manuscript.

Curious George

Original artwork by H.A. Rey of the balloon seller scene in ‘Curious George.’ de Grummond Collection, University of Southern Mississippi

That day they rode for nearly 30 miles. For three days they biked almost 75 miles, sleeping in shared rooms, in a stable and on the floor of a restaurant, always relying on the kindness of strangers. In Orléans they were lucky to board a train to Bayonne. From there they bicycled to the French-Spanish border town Hendaye, where, after a five-hour wait at the Spanish consulate, their papers were stamped. Hans sold the bikes to a customs official on the train platform for 650 francs, a much-needed influx of money, and the couple began their journey to Lisbon, Portugal. It wasn’t without a hiccup. An official was suspicious of them, and only after seeing The Adventures of Fifi did he return the couple’s passports and visas. Their monkey saved the day…again.

The Reys later referred to their daring escape as an adventure, Monkey Business director Ema Ryan Yamazaki tells me in an interview. The couple “can show us how life is really just how we choose to tell it,” she says.

Upon arriving in Lisbon, Hans sent a telegram to their bank in Rio: “Have had a very narrow escape. Baggage all lost. Have not sufficient money in hand.” The bank wired them money, and a month later on July 21 the Reys set off for Rio. Two months after arrival, another ship took them to New York. The entire way, Fifi’s manuscript accompanied them.

By the time they boarded the boat to Rio, the Holocaust had begun.

The Reys’ lives were forever changed when they fled home. Soon their imaginative stories would alter them even more.

The World Welcomes Curious George

When children’s book editor Grace Hogarth at Houghton Mifflin met Fifi, she liked him but not his name. Fifi became George, and in 1941 — a year after the Reys’ U.S. arrival — Curious George was published. “It took courage to print and publish colorful books in a gray, wartime world,” Hogarth later said.

Curious George

A newspaper clipping from 1941 detailing the Reys’ story and ‘Curious George.’ de Grummond Collection, University of Southern Mississippi

Seven George-starring books by the Reys were published: Curious George (1941); Curious George Takes a Job (1947); Curious George Rides a Bike (1952); Curious George Gets a Medal (1957); Curious George Flies a Kite (1958); Curious George Learns the Alphabet (1963); and Curious George Goes to the Hospital (1966). Margret wrote the stories, and Hans illustrated.

Curious George

Houghton Mifflin

For more than 75 years, George has been a worldwide treasure. To this day, the original story has never been out of print.

A Fascinating Story Comes to Vivid Life

When Yamazaki heard about the Reys’ story through a friend close to Lay Lee Ong, literary executor of the Rey Estate, she found it incredible and assumed there was already a film. “I Googled multiple times and confirmed it didn’t exist,” she says, “which is when I decided, well, I should make one.”

During the research phase of Monkey Business, Yamazaki became obsessed with the Reys, combing through 300 boxes of their personal archive at de Grummond Children’s Literary Collection at the University of Southern Mississippi. She found that because of their personalities and life experiences, the Reys were able to create George. Hans, according to Margret’s cousin Hans Strauch, was curious; Margret, mischievous. Monkey Business reveals their differing personalities — Margret’s “public nuisance” temperament may shock you. The directness of the film, which foregoes sugarcoating, makes developing a connection to the couple possible — they feel real.

Curious George

Curious George rides out of Paris. ‘Monkey Business’ / The Orchard

It took three years to complete Monkey Business — two of which Yamazaki self-financed before turning to Kickstarter. She says crowdfunding was the most challenging experience of her life, and when things were difficult, the Reys were always a source of inspiration: “I strived to find the resilience and curiosity the Reys had to keep us all going.”

Monkey Business shares the Reys’ entire story. It’s entertaining, fascinating and full of surprises. Yamasaki’s dedication is evident. And the connection to George’s adventures are undeniable. You also find out whether Hans really sailed the Amazon, selling bathtubs (and what a story it is!).

Curious George

A scene from ‘Monkey Business’ with Hans and George / The Orchard

The Reys can inspire us all to overcome obstacles and find success. It if weren’t for their courage, we wouldn’t have George-inspired laughter to light up our world. end


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