MONKEY BUSINESS

How Curious George Escaped From Nazis

A new documentary aims to bring the untold story of Curious George's creators—and their daring escape from Nazi-occupied France—to life.

08.07.16 5:00 AM ET

As German Jews spending their four-week turned four-year honeymoon in Paris, Hans and Margret Rey knew they were in trouble. It was June of 1940, and with Hitler’s troops rapidly approaching and cannon fire audible from the outskirts of the city, they were amongst the millions of refugees trying to flee south. There were no more trains; they didn’t own a car. Hans hurried over to a bicycle store, but the only thing left was a tandem bike. This was not going to work for Margaret, whose tolerance for impractical things was minimal, even on a normal day. It took no longer than two minutes on their test ride before she lost her patience: “I am not riding this with you, Hans! Come up with some other way.” That night, Hans became a magical bicycle maker as he cobbled together spare parts to make two separate bicycles. Along with a few articles of clothing, Margret packed up their life’s work – unpublished manuscripts of children’s books, including one particularly special book— Fifi: The Adventures of a Monkey

The next morning, the Reys took off just 48 hours before the Nazi troops marched into Paris, joining the five million other refugees on the streets of France. They slept in barns and on floors of restaurants, just ahead of the German bombings. Finally, they came across running trains. Thanks to the advance check they had received from a French publisher for Fifi, they could afford all the necessary travel documents to escape. When a checkpoint officer became suspicious of their thick German accents, it was the manuscripts that convinced him to let them through. Saved by their own creation—a carefree, irresistibly cute monkey—the Reys passed through Lisbon and made it out of Europe to Brazil, eventually arriving in New York. One year later, in the fall of 1941, Fifi: The Adventures of a Monkey was published under a new name: Curious George.

Over the past 75 years, Curious George has become a cultural icon, deeply impacting the hearts and minds of generations of children. Many of us feel nostalgic recalling the sense of adventure we experienced through George as a child, and we yearn as adults for the patience The Man with the Yellow Hat displays to George over and over again. The book franchise has sold over 75 million copies in 19 languages, and in recent years George has leapt off the book pages to star in movies, TV-shows, and theme park rides. Yet despite our affection for George, few of us know the immense imaginations that produced the widely beloved monkey. 

Hans Rey, known to many as H. A. Rey, was a dreamer and a genius who spoke seven languages. His curiosity expanded into wide areas of knowledge, including philosophy, renewable energy, and astronomy. As a soldier in World War I, he spent nights gazing at the stars, redrawing the constellations to make them easier to identify in the night sky. His book, The Stars: A New Way to See Them, remains popular today, although few make the connection that the same man created Curious George. 

By sharp contrast, Margret was known to be blunt and rude, with no patience for stupidity. Ironically as a children’s book writer, she did not hide her lack of fondness for children. When asked if she talked to children for ideas, she boasted “No! Why should we? We couldn’t learn anything from them.” Perhaps she was too much of a child herself: unstoppable and unafraid.

Together, Hans and Margret made quite a team. Hans illustrated, while Margret wrote the words and took care of the business end. While Hans might have been content spending his entire life drawing for his own pleasure and gazing at the stars, it was Margret who drove Hans to put his creative vision to use. “In this household, I make all the big decisions, and Margret makes the small decisions,” Hans used to say. “There have not been any big decisions since we’ve been married.”

Even before their unexpected exodus from Paris, the Reys’ lives were full of adventure. Originally from Hamburg, Germany, they first met when Hans was dating Margret’s older sister. After returning from World War I, Hans took a job in Rio de Janeiro importing and exporting bathroom fixtures. Years later, having heard that Hans was wasting his artistic talents, Margret decided to travel to Rio, marry him, and start a partnership doing something creative. Their joint venture in advertising accidentally led them to start writing children’s books when a giraffe drawing of Hans’s caught the eye of a publishing company in Paris. Needing the money and with no reason to refuse, Hans and Margret created their first children’s book, Rafi et Les 9 Singes (later published in English as Cecily G and the Nine Monkeys). For a sequel, the Reys featured the youngest of the nine monkeys, Fifi — later renamed George.

 Crazy story of 'Curious George'

Courtesy of David Ninh

My name is Ema Ryan Yamazaki. Having a Japanese mother and English father, I grew up back and forth between my two home countries. As a child reading Curious George books in Japanese, I’d naturally assumed George was a Japanese monkey, and it wasn’t until later that I discovered many other countries claimed him as their own. At 19, I moved to New York City in pursuit of my dream to become a filmmaker. Coincidently, I lived near Washington Square Park—on the same block as the Reys when they settled in New York.

In the spring of 2014, I was introduced to the Reys’ story through meeting Ms. Lay Lee Ong, the literary executor of the Rey Estate. Listening repeatedly to a radio interview from 1966, I immediately noted their foreign accents, choice of words, and how they took cues from each other in conversation, as though they could read each other’s minds. I had no image of the Curious George creators, but what I heard was certainly not what I expected. Whoever could have imagined them to have such a multicultural background as migrants, let alone refugees? I started on my own adventurous journey to make a mixed-media documentary about their life.

With a deepening refugee crisis and inflamed anti-immigrant rhetoric across the globe, the Reys’ story has become unexpectedly more relevant in the two years I have been making the documentary. The Reys saw the United States as a land of freedom and opportunity, and proudly became American citizens in 1945. Like many others in their generation, they left behind wartime experiences, and not only survived but thrived here. The Reys’ refugee story has a happy ending, and represents the American dream at its best.

Perhaps because I juggled different cultural worlds as a child, what has remained with me as an adult is a sense of duty as a global citizen. Both as a person and as a storyteller, I want to be like the Reys, who were always curious and courageous, and whose legacy continues to make a global impact.

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Margret described Curious George as “a monkey who, through his curiosity, gets himself into trouble, and through his own ingenuity gets himself out of trouble.” She could have been describing the Reys' themselves. Time and time again they encountered difficult situations, only to turn moments of despair into hope. The Reys’ outlook on life allowed them to embody the best of humanity, and also see the best in humanity. Even when confronted by some of the darkest forces in modern history, they found a way to call life an adventure. Through their own ingenuity and resilient spirit, they gave the world the gift of a cute little monkey with the same character traits. Who the Reys were is why we have George. And now I'm on a mission to share their story. 

Ema Ryan Yamazaki is in the final stages of completing her mixed-media Curious George Documentary, MONKEY BUSINESS. To get a sneak peek of Ema’s MONKEY BUSINESS and how you can help her team raise $175K to complete the film, visit the film's Kickstarter page.