I don’t remember reading the Curious George books when I was a kid, although they had been published by then. But I did enjoy reading them to my kids, and now I read them to my granddaughter. As much as I like the books, I never knew anything about the author/illustrator team who created them until this summer when an exhibit opened at our history museum. “The True Story of Curious George – The Wartime Escape: Margret and H.A. Rey’s Journey from France” tells about their harrowing flight from Paris during World War II.
Both Margret and Hans (H.A.) Rey were Jewish Germans who grew up in Hamburg. During World War I, Hans served as a soldier in Kaiser Wilhelm’s German army. After Germany lost the war, twenty-year-old Hans returned to Hamburg and studied at a university for a few years. But times were hard in Germany and Hans was restless. He set off for Brazil in search of new opportunities.
Margret, who was eight years younger than Hans, stayed in Germany until Adolf Hitler came to power in 1933. Life began to change then, especially for Jewish people. Margret decided it was time to leave. She went to London first and then in 1935 traveled to Rio de Janeiro where she met up with Hans an old family friend. They began working together as graphic artists. They also fell in love and were married in August of that year.
A few months later, they headed off to Europe for a two week honeymoon trip. They found a welcoming community of writers and artists in Paris. Even though they had become citizens of Brazil, they decided to stay in France. That was when they began writing and illustrating books for children.
By 1939, they were having some success with their stories. Several publishers in Paris and one in London were interested in their work, including a story called The Adventures of Fifi. It was about a very curious monkey. Unfortunately, when war broke out in Europe on September 1, all publishing plans were put on hold.
People began leaving Paris, but the Reys stayed. The fighting was in Poland and that seemed far away. The war got much closer on May 10, 1940 when the Nazis crossed into the neutral countries of Holland and Belgium. Life soon became more complicated for Margret and Hans. They spoke French, but with a German accent. Were they German spies? One day, a policeman came to their house to question them. When Hans showed him their manuscripts, the policeman was satisfied that they posed no danger.
With the Nazis advancing, Paris was no longer a safe place for the Reys. They made plans to travel to Portugal where they hoped to get passage to Brazil. From there, they would travel to New York City where Margret’s sister lived. But getting out of France would not be easy.
They needed travel documents including identity cards and visas. Everywhere they went the lines were long. So they waited in one line and then another. Trains were no longer running and they did not have a car. Hans tried to buy bicycles, but there were no more available. So he bought enough spare parts to build two bicycles. Each had two baskets, which they filled with a few clothes, bread and cheese, water, and their manuscripts including The Adventures of Fifi.
It was raining as they peddled out of Paris on June 10. The streets were crowded with bicycles, cars, horses with carts, and people on foot. More than five million people were trying to get out of the city, and they were all were headed in the same direction. It was a noisy exodus with drivers honking their horns trying to speed up traffic. There was also the drone of German scout planes flying overhead.
For three days Margret and Hans peddled taking refuge in the barns of kind farmers for a few hours of sleep. On June 14, 1940, German troops marched into Paris. That same day, Margret and Hans boarded a train in Orléans.
They spent two days and nights on the train arriving in Bayonne on June 16. Because they were citizens of Brazil, they were able to get visas that allowed them to get on another train and cross the border into Spain. Once again, their German accents made them look suspicious. There was a tense moment on the train when an official saw that Hans had a bag stuffed with papers. But when Hans showed the official his manuscript about a curious monkey named Fifi, the official smiled.
They arrived in Lisbon, Portugal on June 23, but once again they had to wait. On July 21, they boarded a steamship for their 13-day voyage across the Atlantic Ocean. In Rio de Janeiro, they had to wait another two months for passage to America. They finally arrived in New York Harbor on October 14, 1940, four months after their journey began.
The exhibit I visited at our history museum is partly based on The Journey That Saved Curious George, a children’s book written by Louise Borden and illustrated by Allan Drummond. The exhibit includes 27 framed art prints by Drummond with explanations of what he was trying to accomplish with each illustration. It’s a fascinating look into the artist’s mind, but for more details about the lives of Margret and H.A. Rey and their escape from Paris, I recommend the book.
Only a year after the Reys arrived in America, their story about Fifi was published. The name of the curious monkey had been changed to George.