Curious George is beloved by millions of readers around the world. His adventures with the Man With the Yellow Hat impart important life lessons amidst silliness and mayhem.
But many people probably don’t know that the children’s book character was actually born during very dark times. His two Jewish creators, Margret and H.A. Rey, fled the Nazis in 1940.
The story of the couple’s daring escape is told in the documentary “Monkey Business: The Story of Curious George’s Creators,” which premiered online on Aug. 15, and will screen Dec. 1 at Chautauqua in Boulder.
Hans Augusto Rey and Margret Waldstein met in Hamburg in the 1920s. Margret, who had studied art at the influential Bauhaus school, left Germany for Brazil in 1935 to escape rising anti-Semitism.
Hans had been working in Rio de Janeiro as a bathtub salesman. The pair married that year and moved to Paris.
Hans worked as a cartoon illustrator for a newspaper, and Margret wrote copy. A French publisher was impressed with some of Hans’ animal drawings and suggested they work on a children’s book. Their first work was Raphael and the Nine Monkeys, and one of those monkeys would later become George.
By June, 1940, the situation in Paris looked grim as Hitler’s troops began to close in. The Reys didn’t own a car, so they decided to flee by bike. The only problem: They couldn’t find a bike anywhere, either.
Somehow, Hans did something that sounds like a plot point in a children’s fantasy book: He made two bikes that night using spare parts.
Before their escape, Margret rounded up all of their unpublished children’s book manuscripts, including one titled Fifi: The Adventures of a Monkey. The couple biked out of the city 48 hours before the Germans occupied Paris.
As if in return for being saved, the curious little monkey character helped save the Reys. When stopped at checkpoints, the couple brandished the manuscripts and illustrations to prove that they were not dangerous.
They eventually made their way to Lisbon, then back to Brazil, then to New York. Fifi became George, and in 1941, Houghton Mifflin published the first “Curious George” book. Since then over 75 million “Curious George” books have been sold and the series has been translated into 19 languages.