By Ellen Bari
“Chaos in the world brings uneasiness, but it also allows the opportunity for creativity and growth.” Dr. Tom Barrett, motivational speaker and author.
It surprised me to learn that Fifi the monkey, a.k.a. Curious George, the most beloved American mischief-maker, was born in Paris, amidst the chaos of war-torn Europe. His creators, German Jewish immigrants, continued to work on their children’s books with impassioned determination while plotting their courageous escape from the Nazis. I found the story particularly inspiring with a great lesson for us all- creative expression can offer salvation even in dire straits. This is not to suggest that we are able to produce masterpiece works of art whenever life gets tough, but I have no doubt that having a creative outlet, can help us through the roughest of times.
Hans Augusto (H.A.) Rey, the illustrator, and Margaret, author/muse, miraculously fled the Nazis with little more that their drawings in tow. Louise Borden’s fascinating book, The Journey that Saved Curious George: The True Wartime Escape of Margaret and H.A. Rey, 2005, which details the story of their escape, has come to life in a wonderful exhibit at the Jewish Museum in New York, Curious George Saves the Day: The Art of H.A. and Margaret Rey.
Creativity was the Rey’s battle cry. The couple’s 1935 Brazilian wedding invitation, featuring an adorable cartoon of an easel and camera, foretold the fusion of two extremely talented artists. Their Paris honeymoon turned into a four year stint, which ended with a narrow escape a few hours before Nazi occupation. In the years leading up to the German takeover, the Reys created a number of children’s books, but there is one that I found particularly intriguing. Foreshadowing their own precarious predicament, the pop-up book, How Do You Get There From Here? chronicles the various modes of transportation the Reys would be using in their escape. The book portrays open and welcoming ports of entry for the varied vehicles, in complete contrast to the closed doors they were experiencing while trying to obtain the necessary papers to emigrate. The Reys’ whimsical, creative response to an extremely stressful situation provides true inspiration to bear in mind when the going gets rough.
It is believed that early drawings of George, and other children’s book manuscripts literally saved their lives, both physically and emotionally . Twice, when the suspicious authorities’ searches found nothing but cartoons, the Reys were deemed harmless and allowed to carry on. Their experience stands as a testament to the power of creativity. In our busy, over-programmed lives, it’s easy to become overwhelmed and lose site of this simple truth. Using creativity as a solution not only helps us maintain our sense of selves, and hope, but also serves to model great behavior for our kids and those around us.
While hiding, fully aware that the world was exploding around them, the Reys never stopped creating. But even H.A. Rey had a moment of uncertainty. In a letter to a friend, acknowledging the pending doom, he wrote” it feels ridiculous to be thinking about children’s books.” How lucky for us that they did and what a great lesson in the power of creativity.