Tuesday, March 12, 2019

Curious George Flees the Nazis

When I was five years old, I needed a tonsillectomy. In preparation for the procedure, my parents talked to me about what would happen by using H.A & Margret Rey’s Curious George Goes to the Hospital. The seventh and final book of the original series, it was published in 1966. However, it might never have been, but fortunately, for children around the globe, the German-born Jewish authors were able to flee Europe ahead of Hitler’s oppression.

Born in Hamburg in 1898, Hans Reyersbach lived near the Hagenbeck Zoo where he became fascinated with the animals and learned to imitate their sounds and paint their likeness. After serving in the Army during WWI, Hans painted circus posters for a living until going to Rio de Janeiro in the mid-1920s where he met he future wife Margarete who had fled Germany after Hitler’s rise to power.

The couple married in 1936 and founded an advertising agency. Hans decided his last name was too difficult for the Brazilians, so he changed it to “Rey.” Margarete decided to become “Margaret,” and shortly thereafter they obtained Brazilian citizenship. They decided to honeymoon in Europe, and ultimately settled in the Montmartre neighborhood in Paris.

By 1939, they had published Raffy and the 9 Monkeys. Margret helped write the story, and Hans drew the illustrations. Their next idea was about the youngest monkey in Raffy who was constantly getting himself into scrapes. The Adventures of FiFi was contracted with a French publisher, but before it could be released Paris was occupied by German forces, and being a Jew was dangerous.

It was time to leave. Hans built two bicycles from spare parts, and Margret packed their manuscripts and artwork into baskets dangling from the handlebars. On June 12, 1940, the couple set out, working their way south with hundreds of thousands of other refugees, alternately biking, walking, and using trains. Because they were Brazilian citizens they were able to get visas to leave the country. However, one official was suspicious about their German accents and detained them as possible spies. After finding FiFi, he decided the pair was harmless and sent them on their way.

Hans and Margret were able to get to Spain, then Portugal, and eventually back to Rio by which time they had lost all their baggage and spent most of their money. Managing to pull together enough funds, they sailed to New York, where they contacted their friend Grace Hogarth who had just been hired as a children’s book editor at Houghton Mifflin. Signing them to a four-book contract, she later said, “It took courage to print and publish colorful books in a gray wartime world.”

The books were an instant success and have since sold more than 27 million copies worldwide.

Which is your favorite Curious George book?

Linda Shenton Matchett is an author, speaker, and history geek. A native of Baltimore, Maryland, she was born a stone's throw from Fort McHenry and has lived in historic places all her life. Linda is a member of ACFW, RWA, and Sisters in Crime. She is a volunteer docent and archivist at the Wright Museum of WWII and a trustee for her local public library. To find out more about Linda and her books, visit her website. Receive a free short story for signing up for her newsletter. You can find Linda on FacebookTwitter, and Pinterest.


  1. Fascinating! Thanks for the information.

  2. Linda, thank you for sharing the history behind Curious George books. The original Curious George was my favorite and it's the one I see the most with children today.

  3. Love true stories like this with happy endings.

  4. Love true stories like this with happy endings.

  5. I didn't grow up reading Curious George but my daughter loved him and now, my 5 year old granddaughter has discovered him. Thanks for sharing how it began!