|Ralph was born in Hammersmith, London in 1916, not far from the sound of the Bow Bells in Cheapside, which would have made him a Cockney had he heard them. When he was still an infant, his father went off to fight in World War I, and his mother took him with his older brother Charles to live with her parents in Loudwater, Buckinghamshire. Before he was three, Ralph’s mother, grandmother, and the housemaid all died of the Spanish influenza. When his father Rupert Weller returned from the war with his batman and his horse Blackie, Ralph was living with his Aunt Kate, his mother’s sister. Rupert eventually remarried and the family moved to nearby Beaconsfield, where he opened a butcher shop. Two more children were born. Rupert would dearly have wanted one of his sons to join him. But all of them had different ambitions. His oldest son tried dental school for a year, didn’t like studying and head for Kenya to become a tea farmer. His youngest son George emigrated to America to become an oilman. Ralph wanted to write and to travel. He wrote for his school magazine at Queen’s College, Taunton, and for the local newspaper. When Ralph was 16, he was packed off to study hotel management in London. His diploma proved to be his passport to other worlds.
After completing his training, he left England and began the life of a nomad, working in hotels and restaurants around Europe, and traveling to North Africa. He spent a year in Paris, studying at the Sorbonne, acquired a French girlfriend and almost found himself married on the Cote d’Azur. An extended visit by his future mother-in-law changed his mind. Moving to Germany, he enrolled at Munich University while working nights at a hotel.
The storm clouds of war were darkening overhead but Ralph, a pacifist by nature, hoped fervently that war could be avoided. Little did he know that he would be herald to Hitler’s expansionism. One day in March of 1938, Ralph, his American-German friend Conrad and their current girlfriends decided to go skiing in Innsbruck. His friends went ahead by train while Ralph agreed to join them by motorcycle the following morning after finishing his nightshift at the hotel. After speeding happily along Hitler’s new highway for some time, he suddenly rounded a bend in the mountains and saw spread out before him a long convoy of trucks carrying grey-helmeted German soldiers. Interspersed between the trucks were motorcycles with machine guns mounted on the sidecars. For a long time, Ralph kept his distance but the convoy was going very slowly and it was cold. He decided to overtake them. The soldiers in the first few trucks just looked at him uneasily but as he pulled alongside an armoured motorcycle, the soldier in the sidecar yelled at him to slow down.
“Where are you going?” he barked in German. “To Innsbruck,” Ralph replied, “I’m going skiing with some friends.” The soldier’s eyes narrowed and he swiveled the machine gun around to point at Ralph. “Where are you from?” Ralph knew enough about German accents to know that the soldier was from southern Germany, so he named the northernmost city he could think of, praying that his interrogator had never been there. “Hamburg.” The soldier glowered but after a few tense moments, he waved Ralph on. Trying to appear nonchalant, he rode past all the trucks, waving at any friendly face as if it were the most natural thing in the world to be passing an invading army.
At last he was ahead of the trucks and opened the throttle. When he arrived at the border, an old man shuffled out of the guardhouse clutching a fistful of cards. He glanced perfunctorily at Ralph’s passport, raised the barrier with his free hand and was about to lower it again when Ralph called out: “Don’t bother! Half the German Wehrmacht will be here shortly!” The old man considered this for a moment, shrugged and mumbled: “Well, then we’ll just leave it.” Once in Innsbruck, Ralph and his friends stationed themselves at the window of their hotel and watched as the German soldiers were given an enthusiastic welcome by the townspeople.
|Watching the Jewish stores in Innsbruck being shuttered and Swastikas hoisted over the town’s center convinced Ralph it was time to leave Germany and when Conrad offered to have his father sponsor him to come to tjr U.S, he jumped at the chance. The following year, Britain declared war on Hitler and Ralph found himself cut off from home. He might have tried harder to find a way back had he not met someone whose adventurous spirit equaled his. He was working as maitre d’ at a new restaurant in West Palm Beach and was staying at a boarding house run by a Russian emigre. There he was introduced to a beautiful, dark-haired woman. Ralph was instantly smitten. Her name was Olga Handjieva and she was in Florida to model fur coats for a New York department store. Tall and exotic, she was even more adventurous and daring than Ralph. Growing up in Bulgaria, she had dreamed of becoming a pilot, a career choice not open to girls in Bulgaria, particularly not a girl whose father was the Supreme Court Justice. She came to America, land of her idol Amelia Earhart, and obtained her pilot’s license. For a while she flew for the Curtiss Wright Flying Service in Michigan, saving her money to buy her own plane. With another woman pilot, she was able to buy a second-hand Waco, a bi-plane. She became a stunt pilot and sky writer, trailing words of smoke behind her as she looped-the-loop. But the cost of upkeep became too much and she eventually had to sell her share. She moved to New York, began working in a department store and became a model. When Ralph was offered a job as an assistant hotel manager in Bar Harbor, Maine, Olga went with him.
For two years, they moved from place to place. His David Niven looks, British public-school accent and soft-spoken manner gave him easy entrée into the hotel world. But when the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor, he knew it was time to take up arms. Ralph headed north yo Canada and joined the Royal Canadian Air Force. After qualifying as a navigator, he was shipped to England while Olga found a job in Washington, D.C. For almost a year, he flew nighttime bombing missions. Then his plane was shot down over France. He and the rest of the crew bailed out. Two of them were picked up the Maquis—the French resistance—and given fake identity papers, civilian clothes and a gun. Every day they moved to a different safe house but after two months their luck ran out. Betrayed by an informer, they were captured by the Gestapo as they slept in a barn. Even though the airmen tried to convince their captors that they were Canadian servicemen, the Gestapo officer treated them as Allied spies. They were tortured to make them name their Maquis contacts but they only knew their noms de guerre, their code names. Ralph tried to escape and was shot in the leg. Miraculously, the bullet passed through his thigh without breaking any bones. He was imprisoned first in Natzweiler and then in Dachau. Ralph was the only Canadian interned in Dachau. Many years later, when touring the Holocaust Museum in Washington, D.C., he remarked: “The one thing these exhibits cannot convey is the smell—the stench of dead bodies that were piled high because there were too many to burn.” He was liberated by the Americans in 1945 and never forgot the GIs’ kindness.
He returned to Canada and settled in Montreal with Olga. Two daughters were born: Julia and Nina. He joined Trans Canada Airlines and in 1952 was asked to open the first route to Germany. Despite his wartime experiences, Ralph did not hate Germany and he did not want his children to hate Germans. So the girls were told only that he had been a POW, not about the concentration camps. They grew up speaking German with their friends and English at home. After 11 years as Sales and Operations Manager in Dusseldorf, he was transferred to London as Air Canada Operations Manager. He moved his family Beaconsfield, where he had lived as a boy and the butcher shop still had the name “Weller” over the window. The family traveled extensively throughout Europe and to Japan, Hong Kong, Thailand, and Kenya.
Eventually, Ralph returned to Montreal to work in headquarters. He retired at the age of 61 so that he and Olga could do what they loved best—globetrot. But Ralph never forgot what it was like to be a prisoner and made it a point regularly to visit friends confined by illness or disability. In 1977, Olga was diagnosed with lung cancer and died. Ralph moved with his daughter Nina to Victoria, B.C. There he took up tennis again and met Patricia Palmer, a retired teacher. She became his second wife.
Unfailingly courteous, with a typically British sense of humour, he made many friends at the Veterans’ nursing home where he spent his last years. Despite losing his sight, being confined to a wheelchair by Parkinson’s disease, and separated from his wife, he continued to enjoy the small things in life—a beer with his companions, a game of cricket heard but not seen, and classical music on the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation channel. He died December 6, 2002. He is survived by his two daughters, Nina and Julia, and three granddaughters, Olga, Anath and Daisy.