The true tale of a great escape


January 19, 2011
WATERVILLE VALLEY — Story time is always special at the Margret and H.A. Rey Center in Waterville Valley. But the real life journey of the children's book authors' flight from the Nazis in May of 1940 is as spellbinding as any tale of perseverance and triumph they could have imagined.

Fortunately for generations of fans and admirers of the Reys' Curious George books and other artistic contributions, that story has been captured in "The Journey That Saved Curious George: The True Wartime Escape of Margret and H.A. Rey" by author Louise Borden, with illustrations by Allan Drummond.

Thanks to a generous grant from the NH Humanities Council and other supporters, throughout December and January, the Gallery at the Rey Center in Waterville Valley has featured an art exhibit of the original illustrations by Allan Drummond that tell the story of the Reys' escape from France in the face of the German invasion during World War II.

Author Louise Borden visited Waterville in December, and the exhibit has been the occasion for several other informative lectures about a period in history that is fast fading from the memory of living witness.

But Borden and Drummond manage to convey the true life story of the children's book authors in a vivid, memorable way for children and adults alike, so that future generations can begin to understand the traumas of war, the tribulations of Nazi Germany, the trials of Europe's Jews and the miracle that "saved Curious George."

Both Margret and H.A. Rey were born to German Jewish families in Hamburg at the turn of the last century, but migrated to South America and became Brazilian citizens in the 1930's, around the time they began their career. They lived in Rio De Janeiro with their two pet marmosets, who were always getting into mischief!

But a brief vacation trip to Paris in 1935 turned into a long-term love affair with France, and the Reys took up residence there in Montmarte, with its rich artistic history, while they continued to write and draw their children's books, including one featuring a "curious" character, then called Fifi, that would ultimately become the Curious George that we all know and love.

But trouble was brewing in Europe, and in September of 1939, war broke out in Hitler's Germany. By May of 1940, the "blitzkrieg" was racing across Europe toward Paris, and Margret and Hans were forced to flee to safety with millions of other refugees escaping the Nazi terror.

With Paris and the countryside in complete chaos, the couple scraped together all the money they could and began a harrowing journey on hand-built bicycles –the only form of transportation they could find, with very little of their possessions except the precious manuscript, "The Adventure of Fifi," wrapped in a coat to protect it from the rain.

From Orleans in southern France, they were eventually able to find passage by train across Spain, Portugal, and eventually across the Atlantic to neutral Brazil.

Margret and H.A. Rey Center Executive Director Audrey Eisenhower says that the Reys' escape was a very close call. A different itinerary, different timing, and they could easily have slipped into the hands of the Nazis on their way out of France.

Shortly after their passage through one town, Etampes in southern France, the region was heavily bombed. Many of their compatriots did not make it out in time.

Borden tells the story of how Margret and Hans were stopped by authorities, suspected of being German spies because of their accents, but when the officers were showed the manuscript about Fifi, they apparently concluded that the Reys were no threat and let them continue on their journey! Ultimately, their Brazilian passports proved to be the key to their freedom. After a two-month stay back in Rio, the Reys sailed to America and settled in New York City, surrounded by an enclave of other children's book authors and artists, where they found a new home.

"The Adventures of Curious George" was published soon after, in 1941 by Houghton Mifflin, and the rest is history. Curious George has sold more than 27 million copies, and has been translated into 14 languages. Dozens of books followed over the years, featuring Curious George, Cecily the Giraffe, Spotty, Pretzel, and many other lovable characters.

As is well known, Margret and H.A. Rey eventually built a summer home in beautiful Waterville Valley, where Hans was profoundly and happily content to observe the stars. It is still a wonderful place, remote and surrounded by mountains, to view the constellations, and to this day, people flock to the Margret and H.A. Rey Center and the Curious George Cottage to observe the heavens on astronomy nights.

While Hans and Margret Rey were living, they summered in Waterville Valley, becoming an integral part of the community, teaching, storytelling and enchanting residents and visitors for many years. Now, the Rey Center keeps their legacy alive, providing educational programming, literary and artistic inspiration, and perpetuating fun for all ages, all in loving memory of the courageous couple whose sense of adventure and joie de vivre still inspire us all.

For information on all the exciting programs at the Margret and H.A. Rey Center in Waterville Valley, visit www.reycenter.org or call 236-3308. There is always something fascinating to discover.

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