German-born Jewish couple Hans and Margret Rey were starting to feel nervous in the fall of 1939. The Nazis were getting uncomfortably close to their adopted hometown of Paris, where they had moved four years earlier to work on children’s books. Rather than tempt fate, the Reys fled their Paris apartment for a chateau in the countryside.
Although friends had lent them the chateau, authorities quickly turned up to investigate the German-accented strangers. Hans assured the policemen that he and Margret were simply writing children’s books. As proof, he showed the officers sketches of one of their creations: The Adventures of Fifi, a story about the travails of an inquisitive monkey. Satisfied that the Reys weren’t sleeper agents, the officers departed.
The Reys’ peace would prove to be short-lived, though. The couple soon realized that it would be best to flee the continent entirely and returned to Paris to begin the mountain of paperwork required to leave wartime France. As fellow refugees flooded into the city, the Reys could only cross their fingers that the necessary documents would arrive before it was too late.
Luckily for the Reys, they had a secret weapon: the same monkey who had already bailed them out once. Despite the political turmoil in Paris, the couple sold the manuscript for Fifi. The publisher’s advance was enough to fund their escape. Hans spent the equivalent of a month’s rent on a jumble of bicycle parts and managed to cobble together two bikes. In their baskets, the Reys carried the absolute essentials: bread, cheese, water, and five of their priceless manuscripts, including Fifi. The Reys left Paris in early morning rain on June 12, 1940. Two days later, the Nazis captured the city.
The couple pedaled 35 miles to the city of Étampes, where they found refuge in a farmhouse. They rode another 17 miles to Acquebouille the following day and slept in a barn. By June 14, they were 75 miles from Paris in the town of Orléans, where they finally found a running train that would get them close to the Spanish border. Again, the Reys had incredibly lucky timing. As they rode the train that night, bombs fell on Étampes and Orléans.
Having already saved the Reys twice, Fifi came through for them one last time. On the train from France to Spain, officials began to suspect them to be spies. One officer theorized that the German couple was smuggling government secrets and asked Hans to reveal the contents of his briefcase. Once again, Hans handed over the manuscripts and said a silent thank-you to the little monkey.
Over the next four months, the Reys’ odyssey took them from Spain to Portugal to Brazil and finally to a new home in New York. After just a few weeks in the city, they were offered a four-book contract. The publisher recommended that Fifi’s name be changed to something more masculine. Today, you know him as Curious George.
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