Curious George, the beloved star of children’s literature, might not exist if not for an empty bicycle shop and a handy artist.

As a new video from Great Big Story explains, the cartoon monkey was the brainchild of Hans and Margret Rey, a Jewish-German couple who lived in Rio de Janeiro in the 1930s. The two pet monkeys that the writer/illustrator duo kept there soon became the inspiration for a character they called Fifi: an impish, inquisitive monkey.

The Reys later moved to Paris, but when the Nazis invaded France, they were forced to flee, taking their manuscripts with them. When they tried to make their escape, though, they discovered that no more trains were leaving the city.

The desperate couple located a bicycle store, only to find no available bikes. Making do with what was available, Hans Rey used spare parts to jerry-rig two makeshift bikes to carry them—and the story of the monkey who would later become Curious George—to Lisbon, Portugal, where a ship to New York awaited them.

Hear the amazing true story of the Reys' journey (and learn how Fifi evolved into the George we know today) by watching the video below.

[h/t Great Big Story]