The late spring air was scorching, sinking into the cobblestones of the crowded, desperate street. Wide-eyed refugees poured into the train station at the avenue's end.
Each person had one overriding purpose--to escape before the Nazi forces invaded Paris. Heavy jackboots marching along the famed Champs Élysées would be a reality in a matter of days, or even hours.
Margret and Hans Rey knew the danger they faced. Both were Germans of Jewish heritage. Artists and writers, with a strong creative force inside them, the Reys had been living their dream in France. Now, for the husband-and-wife team, everything was about to change. It meant certain death if they became trapped in wartime France.
But the trains were packed, overflowing. There would be no room for them. All too soon, the trains out of Paris were no longer even running. The Nazi invasion loomed closer.
They had to get out immediately. With no car, they knew walking would not save them. The Reys turned to a shop they had discovered, a shop that sold bicycles. Others had gotten there before them, and the shop was almost empty. With no other choice, they bought a tandem bicycle along with extra handlebars and gears to turn it into two separate bicycles.
Hans raced to put together the bicycles as Margret sorted through their possessions. Which to keep, and which to leave behind? With large baskets now attached to the bicycles, they loaded their most important belongings inside each woven container.
At dawn on June 12th, as the hot weather broke and rain started to fall, Margret and Hans began their journey to escape death as they rode on two fragile bicycles. Four of their unpublished manuscripts went with them, protected from the damp by Hans' winter coat.
Above them came the bee-like droning of German scout planes. All around them, frantic refugees tried to escape in cars, taxis, buses, trucks, horse-drawn carts, bicycles and on foot. In the midst of the five million people seeking escape that day, Hans and Margret became part of the largest motor-driven evacuation that had ever occurred.
Paris fell to the Nazis two days later. As the Germans raised their military flag with its swastika over the delicate Eiffel Tower, Hans and Margret made their way to the Orléans train station.
This time, they found a place for themselves and their bicycles. The train took them to southern France. They had escaped from the tragedy of Paris, but danger was still a constant companion.
After disembarking from the train, they were soon back on their bicycles. Hans and Margret pedaled down the French coast with their manuscripts and now-dusty belongings. Each rotation of the pedals brought them closer to a breakable hope. If they could make it to the next train and Spain, they might have a chance of survival. But many were being turned away.
They finally found places on the train, but an official noticed their papers and manuscripts. He took possession of their visas and passports, eyeing the papers with suspicion. To Hans and Margret, it was obvious the official thought they were smuggling documents out of France. With their German accents, they could be condemned as spies.
Hans opened up a satchel and dug out one of the manuscripts, The Adventures of Fifi. As the official looked through the pages, he began to nod and smile. People who wrote children's books with whimsical drawings could not be German spies. He returned their passports, visas and the manuscript about a small curious brown monkey. The official went on his way.
The Reys and their manuscripts made it to Lisbon and then by ship to South America. After leaving Brazil, Hans and Margret began the last leg of their journey.
On October 14, 1940, they stood at the railing of their ship as the Statue of Liberty came into view. It was four months after their escape from Paris. They could not take their eyes away from the wonderful offering France had given to a new country. And now, the Reys would have a new beginning.
A year later, one of the manuscripts they had brought with them found fame as a published book. It featured the small brown monkey, but its name was no longer Fifi. In the best name change since Margaret Mitchell switched from Pansy to Scarlett O'Hara at the last minute, George came into the world.
Curious George helped bring innocent joy and the hope of adventures and normalcy to children in a war-torn world. The book went on to sell over 27 million copies and was translated into at least 14 languages.
Hans and Margret Rey became citizens of the United States in 1946. They wrote and illustrated many more books, but the one they are best known for is the story of the little brown monkey. Two cobbled-together bicycles had made all the difference.
Did you know that at least 18 of Shakespeare's plays, including Macbeth and The Tempest, might be unknown today if not for the actions of two actors? Read the intriguing tale of another "Story Rescue" here.
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