Times Past

Dan Krieger: Reliving a narrow escape through books

Poor Curious George had a narrow escape.

We grew up with the Curious George books. The cute little monkey born in the jungle and lured into the strange world of humans got into all sorts of wondrous troubles.

In 1940, his creators, Hans and Margret Rey, were German Jews living in Paris as Hitler’s army approached. They escaped on bicycles that Hans assembled from used parts.

Louise Borden tells the story in “The Journey That Saved Curious George.” Leaving two days before the Nazis entered Paris, the couple pedaled 75 miles in three days. Four months later, via bicycle, train and boat, they arrived in New York. Their sketches of the “curious monkey” served as evidence of their occupations when they applied for American visas.

Few Jewish refugees were able to escape Nazi persecution in occupied Europe.

Jules Isaac was one of them. He was fired from his post as France’s inspector general of education. His seven-volume history text was used in most French high schools and universities. He was a decorated veteran of the Great War, which would later be renamed World War I. Now he must write on a new topic: “How could the Holocaust occur in Christian Europe?”

One day in 1943, while he was getting a haircut in a village, the Gestapo arrested his family.

He tried to join them but was told to return the next day. Madame Isaac sent a message to her husband as she was being deported to the death camps in Poland: “Save yourself for your work; the world is waiting for it.”

Jules Isaac went into hiding.

A week later, Isaac met Germaine Bocquet, a young woman in the French Resistance. She was asked to shelter the man who was in his 60s. She did not know anything about him, but he insisted on telling her.

She told Holocaust historian Eva Fleischner that Isaac “became our old uncle, and a dear friend to my grandmother.”

He told her he had to trace and refute the centuries-old tradition of Christian anti-Semitism.

Germaine recalls that “he made me read the texts he was collecting. Many were terrible in their virulent hatred of Jews. And they were the work of famous Christian theologians — Catholic, Protestant and Orthodox ... Maybe I was fortunate. Had I grown up in a traditional Catholic milieu, I might have encountered anti-Semitism.

“The religious education I had received had instilled in me respect for the Jewish people and gratitude that they have given us the prophets, the virgin Mary, Christ, and the apostles.

Jews were for me people of the Covenant, of God’s promises. Jesus, the Messiah, was a faithful son of the Law, which he had come to bring to perfection, not to abolish. I had never heard the Jews spoken of as Christ-killers; I had been taught that our sins crucified Jesus.”

Through Father Klein, her parish priest, she obtained books that Isaac needed from a convent library. The books provided the documentation for Isaac’s postwar classic, “Jesus and Israel,” a work which demonstrates “the teaching of contempt,” which led to the greatest catastrophe in human history.

Isaac’s book led to an audience with Pope John XXIII in 1960 and to the rethinking of Judeo-Christian relations that continues to this day.

That dialogue continues at 7 p.m. on April 29 at Temple Beth David, 10180 Los Osos Valley Road.

Sara Braitberg Moses will tell the story of her survival at the age of 6 without her parents through Holocaust ghettoes and in the camps of Ravensbruck and Bergen-Belsen, where Anne Frank died.

The public is invited.

Liz Krieger contributed to this week’s column.

Dan Krieger is a professor emeritus of history at Cal Poly and president of the California Mission Studies Association.