Curious George's Incredible Escape From The Nazis

By Karen Harris

(Spencer Platt/Getty Images)

Curious George, the spunky monkey of the eponymous series of children's books, is a beloved character with a knack for wiggling his way out of sticky situations. It only makes sense, then, that his "parents," husband and wife authors H.A. and Margret Rey (real names Hans Reyersbach and Margarete Waldstein), know a little something about wiggling out of sticky situations themselves. Like, Nazi sticky.

Becoming H.A. And Margret

Born in Hamburg, Germany in 1898, Hans Reyersbach grew up in a well-to-do, educated Jewish family who lived near the Hagenbeck Zoo. Reyersbach loved to visit the zoo to watch the animals, mimic their sounds, and eventually draw them. The family was also friendly with the Waldsteins, another clan of Jewish Hamburgers with a daughter named Margarete eight years younger than their Hans.

Reyersbach joined the German army during World War I, after which he made his living drawing and painting circus posters while attending college classes before moving to Rio de Janeiro in the '20s. Meanwhile, Margarete worked as a photographer, moving to London when Hitler started rising to power and then Brazil, where she met back up with her childhood friend. They got married and started an advertising agency, but they found that their Brazilian customers had trouble pronouncing their German names, so they changed them to the names that would be known around the world. They even owned two of their own marmoset monkeys.

German soldiers parade on the Champs Élysées on June 14, 1940. (Bundesarchiv, Bild 146-1994-036-09A/CC-BY-SA/Wikimedia Commons)

A Hasty Retreat

The newly christened Reys moved to Paris in the '30s, where they began writing and illustrating children's books. Hot on the heels of their 1939 breakout success, Cecily G. And The Nine Monkeys, they began developing a spin-off featuring a certain inquisitive primate when war broke out in Europe. They had just signed a publishing contract for what would become Curious George and received a cash advance, which proved to be a godsend when the Nazis marched into Paris in May 1940.

Knowing they would be targeted by Hitler's army, the Reys decided to flee to Brazil. Hans used spare parts to build two makeshift bicycles, Margret Rey carefully packed their manuscript and sketches, and they escaped on four wheels mere hours before the city fell. Those homemade bikes got them as far as Bayonne, France, where they secured passage to Spain, then Portugal, and eventually Brazil.

H.A. Rey reading to children in the early 1970s. (Unknown author/Wikimedia Commons)

Curious George

They didn't stay in that land of coffee and Carnival for long. Within the year, they sailed to New York City, where they showed a publisher their precious manuscript and illustrations. After some editorial fine tuning (George's name was originally Fifi), the story became an instant hit with children. Hans and Margret Rey wrote seven more books in the Curious George series, each following the clever chimp as he escapes his predicament just as his creators had escaped the Nazis to bring him to life.

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Karen Harris

Writer

Karen left the world of academic, quitting her job as a college professor to write full-time. She spends her days with her firefighter husband and four daughters on a hobby farm with an assortment of animals, including a goat named Atticus, a turkey named Gravy, and a chicken named Chickaletta.