The Great Escape
The true story of how Curious George survived the Nazis is told through an illustrated exhibit at the HMC.
Curious George loved to go on adventures.
But it was thanks to a real-life “adventure” that readers have been able to enjoy the irrepressible little monkey for more than 75 years. German-born Jews Margret and H.A. Rey, the husband-and-wife creators of Curious George, endured a fascinating, harrowing and largely unknown WWII saga.
“The True Wartime Escape of Margret and H.A. Rey,” the newest exhibit at the Holocaust Memorial Center Zekelman Family Campus in Farmington Hills, tells the true story of the Reys. The exhibit runs through July 5 and is recommended for visitors ages 12 and older.
The Reys were living and working in Paris when the Germans invaded in 1940. The couple knew they were in danger and H.A. (Hans) built two bicycles from one tandem bicycle and prepared for their escape.
Louise Borden, an award-winning children’s book author with a particular interest in World War II, read about the Reys’ escape in an article in Publishers Weekly, and “just like the Reys’ famous little monkey,” she says, Borden was curious. “I was intrigued by the story of Margret and H.A. Rey’s flight from Paris — on bicycle — in June 1940.”
Over the course of several years, Borden spoke, wrote and emailed with people in England, France, Germany and Portugal who had known Margret and H.A. Rey. Borden traveled to many small towns and cities based upon the addresses found in letters and work diaries the Reys’ wrote from 1936 to 1940, when they lived in Paris.
Borden’s research culminated in her book The Journey that Saved Curious George (Houghton Mifflin; illustrated by Allan Drummond), which inspired the exhibit at the Holocaust Memorial Center (HMC).
“Louise’s wonderful book enabled all of us to learn about the Reys’ journey to safety, which not only saved H.A. and Margret’s lives — a tremendous feat during the war — but had a positive impact on millions of children who cherish Curious George and his adventures,” said HMC CEO Rabbi Eli Mayerfeld.
The exhibit features photos of the Reys, illustrations by Allan Drummond, and several keepsakes, including H.A.’s copious notes in his pocket diary detailing their five-month wartime escape from Paris to New York. It also highlights several artifacts from the HMC’s archives and Detroit-area survivors.
Borden was in town earlier this month for an exclusive HMC membership event to kickoff the special exhibit. When speaking to members, she told the story of H.A. and Margret Rey and their five-month odyssey through five countries to escape the Nazis. To stay safe, the couple traveled by bicycle and train through France, Spain and Portugal before taking a 13-day ocean voyage to South America. Among their few personal possessions that they managed to take with them were the manuscript and illustrations of the book that would eventually become Curious George.
H.A. and Margret arrived in New York on Oct. 14, 1940, and one month later received a contract from Houghton Mifflin for The Adventures of Fifi. The following year, the renamed Curious George was published. H.A. and Margret became U.S. citizens in 1946.
“I’m so pleased that Allan Drummond’s wonderful illustrations are on exhibit to be seen by friends of the HMC and the surrounding community,” Borden said. “Allan’s art, which frames the text of my story, is a perfect partner for the iconic art of H. A. Rey,” who did the illustrations for the Curious George books.
“The world needs Holocaust museums to tell the stories of unspeakable evil, and sometimes of bravery and kindness,” said Cheryl Guyer, director of development at the HMC. Supporters of the center help us teach more than 65,000 visitors each year about what happened to the 6 million individuals who were murdered and also what happened to those who survived.”
In addition to the exhibit, the HMC will screen a new film, Monkey Business: The Adventures of Curious George’s Creators, on April 30 and May 31. Using animation, archival materials and interviews, the film explores the extraordinary lives of Margret and H.A. Rey.
“The True Wartime Escape of Margret and H.A. Rey” runs through July 5 at the Holocaust Memorial Center Zekelman Family Campus in Farmington Hills. Free with museum admission. The film Monkey Business will be screened at 6:30 p.m. Monday, April 30, and Thursday, May 31 ($10/free to members/RSVPs are requested to (248) 553-2400 x 112 or email@example.com). Holocaustcenter.org.
Glenn Oswald Special to the Jewish News