Thursday, September 15, 2005

How Curious George Escaped the Nazis

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(Okay, so I'm not supposed to be online, but it's my lunch hour -- does that count? And I wanted to share this very interesting article with you. All those times that you read a Curious George book for yourself or to your children, did you ever think of the story that came before the ones you're familiar with? Here's that story...)

From the New York Times

Published: September 13, 2005

Curious George is every 2-year-old sticking his finger into the light socket, pouring milk onto the floor to watch it pool, creating chaos everywhere. One reason the mischievous monkey is such a popular children's book character is that he makes 4- to 6-year-olds feel superior: fond memories, but we've given all that up now.

In the years since the first book was published in the United States in 1941, "George" has become an industry. The books have sold more than 27 million copies. There have been several "Curious George" films, including an animated one featuring the voice of Will Ferrell that is scheduled for release this February, and theater productions, not to mention the ubiquitous toy figure. Next year, PBS will begin a Curious George series for pre-schoolers.

But in truth, "Curious George" almost didn't make it onto the page. A new book, "The Journey That Saved Curious George: The True Wartime Escape of Margret and H. A. Rey" (Houghton Mifflin), tells of how George's creators, both German-born Jews, fled from Paris by bicycle in June 1940, carrying the manuscript of what would become "Curious George" as Nazis prepared to invade.

The book's author, Louise Borden, said in a telephone interview from Terrace Park, Ohio, that she first spotted a mention of the Reys' escape in Publishers Weekly. "But no one knew where they had gone from Paris, the roads they took, the dates of where they were, the details," she said.

Her account, intended for older children, is illustrated in whimsical European style by Allan Drummond, and includes photographs of the Reys and wartime Europe, as well as H. A. Rey's pocket diaries and transit documents.

For her research, Ms. Borden combed the Rey archives of the de Grummond Children's Literature Collection at the University of Southern Mississippi, interviewed people who knew them and traced their journey through letters and postmarks.

Hans Reyersbach was born in Hamburg in 1898 into an educated family, and lived near the Hagenbeck Zoo, where he learned to imitate animal sounds, as well as to draw and paint. During World War I, Mr. Reyersbach served in the German Army; afterward, he painted circus posters for a living. After studying at two German universities, he went to Rio de Janeiro in the mid-1920's, looking for a job. He wound up selling bathtubs on the Amazon.

Margarete Waldstein, who was born in 1906, also in Hamburg, had a more fiery personality. After Hitler began his rise, she left Hamburg to become a photographer in London. In 1935, she too went to Rio.

Mr. Reyersbach had first seen her as a little girl sliding down the banister of her family's Hamburg home, and now they met again. They eventually married, and founded an advertising agency. Margarete changed her name to "Margret" and Hans changed his surname to "Rey," reasoning that Reyersbach was difficult for Brazilians to pronounce. Crucially, the two became Brazilian citizens.

For their honeymoon, they sailed to Europe, accompanied by their two pet marmoset monkeys. Margret knitted tiny sweaters for them to keep them warm, but the monkeys died en route.
The Reys ended up in the Parisian neighborhood of Montmartre, where they began writing and illustrating children's books. In 1939, they published "Raffy and the 9 Monkeys." Mr. Rey drew the illustrations, and his wife helped to write the stories. Hans initially had sole credit for the books, but eventually Margret's name was added. "We worked very closely together and it was hard to pull the thing apart," she later said.
Hans was a fanatical record keeper, listing exp
enses and details about their work in tiny pocket calendars. In 1939, he began a story about the youngest monkey in "Raffy," who was forever getting into trouble but finding his way out. It was called "The Adventures of Fifi."

That September, war broke out. The Reys had signed a contract with the French publisher Gallimard for "Fifi" and other stories, and in a stroke of luck received a cash advance that would later finance their escape.

By the time the Germans marched into Holland and Belgium in May 1940, the Reys had begun a book of nursery songs in both French and English. "Songs English very slowly because of the events," Hans wrote in his diary.

With refugees pouring into Paris from the north, Mr. Rey built two bicycles from spare parts, while Margret gathered up their artwork and manuscripts. They then joined the millions of refugees heading south, while German planes flew overhead.

The Reys found shelter in a farmhouse, then a stable, working their way by rail to Bayonne, and then to Biarritz by bicycle again. They were Jews, but because they were Brazilian citizens, it was easier to get visas. One official, perhaps thinking that because of their German accents they were spies, searched Mr. Rey's satchel. Finding "Fifi," and, seeing it was only a children's story, he released them.

They journeyed to Spain, then to Portugal, eventually finding their way back to Rio. "Have had a very narrow escape," Mr. Rey wrote in a telegram to his bank. "Baggage all lost have not sufficient money in hand."

The couple sailed to New York in October 1940, and "Curious George," as Fifi was renamed - the publisher thought "Fifi" was an odd name for a male monkey - made his first appearance the following year.

The Reys wrote a total of eight "Curious George" books; Hans died in 1977, Margret in 1996. The ensuing "George" books were created by writers and illustrators imitating the Reys' style and art.

"Like Hans Reyersback and Margarete Waldstein," Ms. Borden concludes, "the little French monkey Fifi would change his name, and it would become one to remember. "


Addendum: Thursday,10:50 p.m

My apologies to Rabbi Neil and to Jack who, I found out earlier this evening, already posted the Curious George story. I did not steal the story from them; I thought I was giving non-NY Times readers a breaking/interesting story. This is what I get from weaning myself off of blogging. I'm late to get a piece of the pie!!!

See, I said "weaning"; I didn't say "going cold turkey". THAT would be much more difficult, but for the most part I curbed my enthusiasm greatly these past couple of days regarding blogs. As tough as that is for me, I had to -- and still have to -- do it. But then again, if something as interesting as the George story catches my eye before a week from now, I might just have to post it.

In the meantime, Shabbat Shalom to my Jewish readers; happy weekend to all others!

Your friend (who is really only here in spirit; if anyone asks, I wasn't here!),