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From fleeing Paris to creating an inquisitive monkey

Allan Drummond, Escape from Paris, 2005, modern reproduction of watercolor and ink on paper, 14 3/4 x 10 7/28 inches, courtesy Allan Drummond and Institute for Holocaust Education, Omaha, Neb.

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon: More than three generations have fallen in love with the tales of the inquisitive little monkey “Curious George” and his journey from Africa to the big city, but most have no idea of the journey taken by his creators, Margret and H.A. Rey, as they fled Paris on the eve of Nazi invasion.

That story will be told through The Wartime Escape: Margret and H.A. Rey’s Journey from France, an exhibit featuring 27 framed prints by artist Allan Drummond and archival images from the holdings of the DeGrummond Collection of Children’s Literature.

Hans Augusto Rey was born in 1898, in Hamburg, Germany, and grew up near the Hagenbeck Zoo. There he developed a lifelong interest in both animals and illustrating. Margret Waldstein was also born in Hamburg, but in 1906. She was the daughter of a Reichsminister and studied art at Bauhaus in Dessau, Kunstakademie Düsseldorf, and the University of Munich.

Meeting briefly when Margret was a young girl, the two were reunited in Rio de Janeiro in 1935. Margret had fled Germany’s tense political climate. Both she and Hans were Jewish. The latter had left Germany for economic reasons in 1925 to sell bathtubs in his brother-in-law's import/export business.

Margret persuaded Hans to leave the business and help her start Rio’s first advertising firm; the two married on Aug. 16, 1935.

The Reys travelled to Europe on their honeymoon, falling in love with the French capital, Paris. There Hans illustrated and published several children’s picture books as well as drawing cartoons for a local newspaper. A French publisher, impressed with a particular illustration of a giraffe, asked Hans to expand on the idea. Rafi et les 9 Singes (published in the United States as "Cecily G and the Nine Monkeys") was the result, which also saw the debut of the lovable monkey, originally called Fifi.

Such was the success of the monkey that the Reys decided he’d earned the right to a series for himself, and so began work on a manuscript. But the late ’30s, was an extremely troublesome period in Europe.

Hitler had begun his crusade to expand the Aryan race across Europe, starting  the invasion of Poland in September 1939. Sweeping west, successive nations fell as they struggled to stem the tide of the Blitzkrieg. The Allies, confident in the defences of the Maginot Line, never believed a complete crossing of France possible.

They were wrong.

Bypassing the defenses (literally marching around them), the German forces were knocking on Paris’ doorstep by early June 1940.

The Reys decided to leave. And Hans hastily assembled two makeshift bicycles. Early in the morning of June 14, they set off just hours before the city fell.

Travelling light, they brought very few possessions with them, but they did bring five manuscripts, one of them being Curious George.

They rode their makeshift transportation for four long days all the way to the Spanish border, where they sold them for train fare to Lisbon, Portugal. From Lisbon, they made their way to Brazil, the country they had married in just five years earlier, then to New York.

After settling in New York, the Reys signed a contract with Houghton Mifflin of Boston for four children’s books in February 1941.

And so, on this deal, the world was introduced to the delightfully inquisitive, little brown monkey and the “man in the yellow hat,” amusing generations of young children across the world.

During the opening reception (6-8 p.m. July 12) children will be given an interactive family activity guide as well as the opportunity to pose with lifesize figures of Curious George and The Man in the Yellow Hat.