Your Favorite Childhood Reads and Their Surprising Holocaust Histories

My favorite childhood books, “Curious George” and “Where the Wild Things Are,” always gave me a smile. They’re both fun light reads with lovable, mischievous main characters.

Their creators, however, share a dark, trying past.

The authors and their ancestors, H.A. and Margaret Rey and Maurice Sendak, respectively, survived the Shoah before creating some of the greatest hits of children’s literature. One can only imagine what our childhoods would have looked like had their work not made it onto the page and later the big screen.

Curious George’s Escape from the Nazis

“George and the Man with the Yellow Hat continue to live on in books, TV shows, and films.” | By Chris Harrison [CC BY 2.0], via Creative Commons

While Curious George’s many daring escapes may make for a cute laugh, his authors’ escape was anything but.

Both Hans Augusto Reyersbach and Margarete Elisabethe Waldstein were born in Hamburg in 1898 and 1906, respectively. Reyersbach lived a few blocks from a zoo, where he fell in love with animals and began writing about and painting them. Soon, he met Waldstein, also an artist, at her sister’s 16th birthday party.

Waldstein moved to Rio de Janeiro to escape Hitler’s rise to power. Coincidentally, Hans also moved to Rio and eventually reunited with Waldstein. The two fell in love and married in 1935 and became Brazilian citizens. Margarete changed her name to “Margaret,” and they changed their last name to “Rey.”

The following year, the two went to Paris for their honeymoon, fell in love with the city, and moved to its Montmartre neighborhood where they launched their publishing career. In 1939, after producing several adult books, H.A. signed a contract with a publisher for his first children’s book, “Rafi et les 9 Singes” or “Raffy and the Nine Monkeys,” as it was published in England.

Only one of the nine monkeys, George (who else!), alongside the Man with the Yellow Hat, eventually took the spotlight as the authors’ signature character.

Paris soon fell under Nazi invasion with limited transportation options for the couple to escape. Hans bought bicycle parts and assembled them overnight into two bikes. They took only a copy of “Raffy and the Nine Monkeys” and a new manuscript about a mischievous monkey named Fifi.

In 1940, the couple rode through Paris and traveled 493 miles toward the Spanish border where, thanks to their Brazilian passports, they sailed from Portugal to Brazil to the United States.

In the U.S., the two signed a contract with American editor Grace Hograth and changed Fifi’s name to George, renaming the book “Curious George.”

They lived in Cambridge, Massachusetts, where H.A. and Margarete died in 1977 and 1996, respectively. But George and the Man with the Yellow Hat continue to live on in books, TV shows, and films.

Childhood Memories and “Where The Wild Things Are”

“Sendak was born in Brooklyn in 1928 to Polish-Jewish immigrant parents.” | By Jill Brown [CC BY 2.0], via Creative Commons

Maurice Sendak, the author of “Where the Wild Things Are,” also had a brush with the loss of World War II.

Sendak was born in Brooklyn in 1928 to Polish-Jewish immigrant parents. Sendak described his childhood as a “terrible situation” due to the deaths in his extended family during the Holocaust.

“I remember being afraid of death as a child. I think a lot of children are afraid of death, but I was afraid because I heard it around me,” he said.

Though Sendak’s most famous work is “Where the Wild Things Are,” published in 1963, his last work, “Bumble-Ardy,” published in 2011, makes a personal, poignant connection to what his extended family suffered.

In the story, an orphaned pig asks his Aunt Adeline for a birthday party, so she plans a quiet birthday dinner for two. But Bumble-Ardy instead decides to throw himself a large costume bash after his aunt leaves for work — and chaos ensues. In the book, she says, “Okay smarty, you’ve had your party but never again.”

Astute readers didn’t miss the Holocaust reference.

“When the aunt says ‘never again,’ which people say about the Holocaust, when she says that in reference to never having a party again, that’s really, really loaded,” National Public Radio’s Terry Gross said in an interview with Sendak, almost five months before the author’s death in 2012.

“I don’t know what to answer to that,” Sendak replied. “You’ve just picked the two lines of the book that are my favorite lines.”

“In fact, that sums up my life,” he added.

Jackson Richman is a recent graduate of George Washington University. He has interned at The Weekly Standard and The Daily Caller. He’s a frequent contributor for Red Alert Politics and American Action News. You can follow him on Twitter: @jacksonrichman.

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