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15 October 2014
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Hugh Rank's Wartime Story

by BBC Southern Counties Radio

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Archive List > Childhood and Evacuation

Contributed by 
BBC Southern Counties Radio
People in story: 
Hugh Rank; Simon Marks; Ralph Rank; Lucy Rank; Gertrude Schneider
Location of story: 
Austria; Switzerland; Australia; Cambridge, UK
Background to story: 
Article ID: 
Contributed on: 
02 August 2005

This story was submitted to the People's War website by Eleanor Fell, on behalf of Ellen Rank, the wife of Hugh Rank. Ellen has given her permission for her husband's story to go onto the website and understands the terms and conditions of the website.

Hugh Rank was born in Vienna in 1913. A year later his father was killed in World War 1 whilst fighting in the Austrian army.

In July 1938, 4 months after Hitler occupied Austria, Hugh fled from his home in Vienna. His mother met him in the street and advised him not to come home. She gave him an address near Basle, Switzerland where he would meet a man who would take him over the border to Switzerland. The man told him to board a train at Lerach station and advised him ‘When I take out my handkerchief you stand by the door — when I drop my handkerchief you jump’. Hugh broke his leg in the jump but he was on Swiss territory. He was taken to hospital and later interned. He was stateless.

In 1939 during this internment Hugh was asked if he would help a young Englishman with his German. He was told that the young man’s father was very wealthy and could arrange a work permit for him. That man was Simon Marks of Marks and Spencer. After 2 months wait Hugh received his work permit, came to England and began work as a trainee sausage skin maker.

A newspaper campaign, ‘Collar The Lot’ in 1940 against refugees (‘Enemy Aliens’) resulted in ‘The Lot’ being sent to the Isle of Man. From there they were taken to Liverpool where they boarded HMS “Dunera”. Hugh thought that he would be following his 16 year-old brother Ralph, who had came to England with Kinder Transport, to Canada where they would meet up again. Instead the “Dunera” landed in Australia and the refugees were transferred to Hay Camp where Hugh spent 3 years. The Australian Government helped the refugees, giving musical instruments and facilities for further education. Hugh learned Russian.

In 1943 a British Official visited the Hay camp to tell the internees (now ‘Friendly Enemy Aliens’) that they could return to England. Hugh did so, married Joan and had 3 children. He gained a place at Cambridge University, Fitzwilliam College, to read German Literature. After graduation, Hugh taught at various schools including Henley Grammar, Haberdasher Aske and Charterhouse. Whilst at Henley, Joan died of cancer aged 42. Hugh later married his present wife Ellen in 1965. On retirement Hugh became a freelance Theatre and Opera critic for ORF Vienna and various English newspapers.

In 1996 Hugh finally discovered what had happened to his 54 year-old mother and 17 year-old sister Lucy who he had left behind in Austria. He contacted Dr Gertrude Schneider of New York who had spent many years researching the Holocaust. She suggested they meet in Vienna where she was furthering her research. When Hugh gave her information about his mother and sister, she remembered meeting them both in a local school where she, her parents and sister had been rounded up along with dozens of other Jews waiting to be ‘relocated for work’. They were taken by train in cattle trucks to Riga in Latvia. At Riga station, their guards told them that they could either walk 3km to the camp or, if too tired or too ill, board the awaiting vans. Hugh’s mother and sister chose the vans. They and many others were never seen again. At last after many years of anxiety Hugh learned what had happened to them. Within a few days of this discovery he suffered a number of strokes, leaving him severely disabled including loss of language.

Hugh is now 92 in a nursing home in Cheltenham with very little quality of life, his Vienna family ‘scattered to the winds’.

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