Reys in the City of Light

By Brad Dison

Hans Augusto Rey was born in Hamburg, Germany in 1898. Following World War I, in which Hans served, he designed posters for a circus and studied art at Hamburg University.  Hans struggled to make a living with the postwar inflation in Germany.  In 1924, Hans accepted a job in Brazil where he composed commercial lettering for advertisements and offices and sold bathtubs along the Amazon River.

In 1935, Hans met Margret Elisabeth Waldstein, a fellow artist and Jew who was also from Hamburg.  Their similar interests drew them together and they married later the same year.  Together, the Reys began a joint career which consisted of magazine work, advertising, and illustrating books.  The couple was so busy with work that they delayed their honeymoon.  Finally, the Reys planned a honeymoon trip through Europe.  They visited their homeland of Hamburg and eventually made their way to Paris, France.  The Reys loved Paris, so they kept putting off their return to Brazil.  Four years later, still in Paris, they found themselves in a precarious situation.

In 1939, Paris began preparing for what they realized was an inevitable war with Germany.  Paris underwent a drastic transformation.  City workers dug miles of trenches in the city squares and parks that the Reys enjoyed visiting.  Signs throughout the city pointed the way to the nearest trench.  The city distributed gas masks to its civilians.  Children were evacuated from the city into the countryside.  The beautiful Parisian lights—Paris is still known as the City of Light—were turned off at night as a precaution against German air raids.  Workers removed the stained-glass windows from the Sainte-Chapelle and placed them in storage.  Curators at the Louvre, aided by packers, cataloged and transported major works of art in crates which were labelled only with numbers to disguise their contents.  The works of art were transported in trucks at night in slow convoys with their headlights off.  Historically significant buildings and architectural landmarks were surrounded by walls of sandbags.  The city rationed certain foods and gasoline.

After months of waiting, the Germans attacked France on May 10, 1940.  With each passing day, the Nazis drew closer to Paris.  Eighteen days later, the British realized that France would fall to the Germans and withdrew their soldiers to the beaches of Dunkirk.  While retreating British soldiers were being loading onto ships, Germain airplanes attacked relentlessly.  Refugees from the battle zone started pouring into Paris.  On June 3, the Germans began bombing Paris and its suburbs.  A week later, the French government fled Paris.  Fearful Parisians followed their example and fled from the city using any means available including trains, cars, buses, wagons, carts, bicycles, and on foot.    

In June of 1940, the Reys knew their honeymoon in Paris had come to an end.  With no other means of transportation available, they fashioned bicycles out of discarded broken bicycles.  They had no choice but to abandon most of their possessions.  As they prepared to flee, Hans grabbed the manuscripts of a children’s books that he and Margret had written and threw them into a bag.  Hans grabbed the bag and they pedaled their way through the throngs of people leaving Paris.  The Reys eventually made their way to a ship which was heading to America.  The Reys were unable to relax because they were aware the German U-boats and warships were targeting ships in the Atlantic Ocean.  In the Fall of 1940, the Reys arrived safely in New York.

Within a month of their arrival, American book publisher Houghton Mifflin agreed to publish the Reys’ children’s book.  In 1946, after the end of World War II, the Reys became American citizens.  People so loved their children’s book, that they eventually wrote a whole series based on the two main characters.  By 1997, at the time of Margret’s death and twenty years after Hans’s death, the books had sold more than 20 million copies in more than a dozen languages.  The tales have been adapted for television, films, and video games.  For the rest of her life, people asked Margret “were you afraid?”  She always replied, “you don’t have time to be afraid.”  In an interview with The Associated Press, Margret said, “Actually, it was fun.”  The manuscript carried by the Reys as they fled Paris on makeshift bicycles told the tale of the man in the yellow hat and his pet monkey,… “Curious George.”

Source:

  1. The Morning News (Wilmington, Delaware), November 19, 1953, p.13.
  2. The Springfield News-Leader (Springfield, Missouri), January 17, 1997, p.22.

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