When you think of Curious George, Nazis are probably not the first association that springs to mind. But they were certainly on the mind of H.A. Rey when he and his wife Margret began crafting stories about the adventures of a mischievous little monkey.
Born as Hans Augusto Reyersbach on this day in 1898, Rey grew up close to the Hagenbeck Zoo in Hamburg, Germany. He fought for the Germans in WWI and then eked out a living painting circus posters after the war. He later moved to Brazil and got a job selling bathtubs.
It was in Brazil he met his wife and collaborator, a fellow Jew from Hamburg named Margarete Waldstein. She had studied art and photography at the Bauhaus before leaving Germany to escape the rising tide of anti-Semitism.
After getting married in Rio, they made some changes that, unbeknownst at the time, would later help save them when WWII broke out in Europe. Margarete shortened her name to ‘Margret.’ Reyersbach changed his to Rey, as he’d found the Brazilians had difficulty pronouncing his surname. The two also became Brazilian citizens.
The couple moved to Paris and began working on children’s books together. They published their first, “Raffy and the 9 Monkeys” in 1939. One of the characters in the book, an impish little monkey named Fifi, proved especially popular with readers, and so they began working on a book centered on his adventures. They had just begun when the Nazis invaded France.
The Reys escaped Paris on bicycle just two days before German tanks advanced into Paris. Forced to leave almost all their possessions behind, they nonetheless took the Fifi manuscript with them as they pedaled south. They sought shelter in farmhouses and barns, working their way on foot, by bicycle and rail to Normandy, then Spain, then Portugal before securing passage back to Brazil. Their Brazilian passports were crucial to their escape – and so was the little monkey who would one day become Curious George. One official, suspicious that they might be spies because of their German accents, insisted on searching Margret’s bag. Finding only drawings intended for children, he decided the couple were harmless.
In 1940, the Reys finally ended their four month flight, arriving in New York. They shopped their manuscript – the only asset they owned – to American publishers. Houghton Mifflin bought it, with the stipulation that they change the monkey’s name from ‘Fifi’ to ‘George.’ Curious George was an instant success, and the Reys would go on to write six more stories about the rascally little monkey.
H.A. Rey died on August 26, 1977. Margret passed away in 1996. But 70 years after his creation, Curious George remains very much alive, an icon for generations of children, with more than 30 million copies of the books sold throughout the world.