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A little more Curious George...

You may recall that Hans and Margret Rey, the famous authors of Curious George, escaped Paris just as the Nazi tanks arrived in 1940. As they had no transportation, Hans had assembled bicycles for them from spare parts, and amazingly, they bicycled 800 kilometers through France with the manuscript and illustrations for Curious George tucked inside their coats! They found the means to escape Europe and eventually reached New York. The first in their famous series was published the following year, and a gift to children around the world was born. Theirs is a marvelous story, in and of itself, but there is a little more of the story you may not know.

When Hans and Margaret Rey reached southern France on their bicycles, they had to obtain visas allowing them to travel through Spain to reach Portugal in order to sail from Europe. (The only port still open to passengers was in Lisbon.) They joined thousands of other refugees clustered around the Portuguese consulate in Bordeaux. Inside, the consul, Aristides de Sousa Mendes, was having a crisis of conscience. A career diplomat, he was struggling with his desire to provide visas for all of these desperate people, but had been ordered by the Portuguese dictator Antonio Salazar to issue visas only on a case-by-case basis. And Salazar routinely turned down all visa requests.

Aristides finally decided he was going to issue visas to anyone who wanted them. He, along with one of his adult sons, the consulate staff, and a rabbi he had befriended worked together for days to issue thousands of visas. Estimates of the number of people he helped range from 10,000 to 30,000, including the Reys, Salvador Dali and his wife, some of the Rothchilds family, and members of European nobility.

The Portuguese dictator learned what Aristides was up to, called him back to Lisbon, stripped him of his diplomatic credentials and his law license, and, in effect, black-balled him from future employment in Portugal. Aristides eventually survived on meals from a Jewish soup kitchen, and he died penniless in 1954. For many years after his death, his family told the story of his heroism and worked to restore his reputation. In 1966 he was honored by Yad Vashem as Righteous Among Nations and has since been widely recognized.

And so the next time you happen to see a mischievous, curious monkey named George, say a silent thank you to Aristides de Sousa Mendes, a true hero.


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