Just about everyone is familiar with literature’s favorite little brown monkey, Curious George, and his friend, the Man in the Yellow Hat. What most people don’t know is that George rescued his creators during the Nazi advance in World War II.
Hans Reyersbach and his wife, Margarete Waldstein, were German artists, both from Hamburg. They met just before Margarete left for art school and reconnected in Rio de Janeiro in 1935.
A few months later they married in Brazil, changed their surname to Rey, and left for a honeymoon in Paris. The couple were so infatuated with the City of Light, they decided to stay.
Hans had grown up near Hagenbeck Zoo where he spent time sketching the animals and dabbling in illustrations, which were seen by a French publisher who contracted with Hans to write a children’s book.
Raffy and the Nine Monkeys was published, and Curious George was born. Margarete, who was now known as Margret, did most of the writing while her husband did most of the illustrations.
The public was so responsive that the Reys were hired to write a book featuring just Curious George who, according to the New York Times had originally been named FiFi.
They were given an advance from the expected profits and settled in to write more books. Unfortunately, it wasn’t long before the Nazis began their terrifying march to occupy Paris.
The Reys waited so long to escape, most of the transportation had already left. Hans put together two bicycles from parts he was able to find; Margret packed their papers and manuscripts, warm coats and some food, and, before dawn on June 14, 1940, the two took off riding south. It was imperative that they flee the Nazis as they were German Jews and would most certainly have been sent to death camps.
They rode for four days, sleeping in barns until they reached Orléans where they picked up a train packed with refugees to Lisbon, Portugal.
The conductors, hearing the German couple’s accents, believed them to be German spies, but after an examination of their belongings produced the manuscript for Curious George, they let them go on their way.
After waiting a few months for passage to Brazil, they were able to move on to New York City in October of 1940 and, finally, in 1963, made their home in Cambridge, Massachusetts.
Had they not received an advance on their book, and had they not carried the manuscript with them, the escape would have been impossible.
While in New York, the couple befriended Grace Hogarth, a book editor from Houghton Mifflin out of Boston, long known as publishers of textbooks, educational materials, and books for children. According to nytimes.com, she encouraged Rey to change the monkey’s name from FiFi to Curious George.
In 1941, Curious George was published and the series has become a worldwide phenomenon. Although it has been 78 years since the first book was published, Curious George has never gone out of print. It has been translated into 21 languages, and the Reys published six more Curious George books.
They also published several children’s books about the constellations in space, French children’s songs, a story of a traveling penguin named White Black, and other children’s topics.
Hans died in August of 1977. After his death, Margaret became a Professor of Creative Writing at Brandeis University in Waltham, Massachusetts and continued work on projects featuring Curious George.
In 1989, she created the Curious George Foundation to prevent cruelty to animals and to aid children in need. She donated generously to the Boston Public Library and the Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center.
Margret died in December 1996, and her will designated the de Grummond Children’s Literature Collection in Hattiesburg, Mississippi as the owners of the Reys’ literary collections. Their personal papers are held by the University of Oregon.