Ralf Harpuder, the son of Hans and Gerda Lewin Harpuder, was born April 12, 1934, in Berlin. He had one sister, Ursula (b. 1924). Ralf's father earned his living as a salesman; his mother was a shopkeeper. The Harpuders remained in Germany through the first five years of the Third Reich, but by the end of 1938, their situation had become untenable. After Kristallnacht, Hans was forced to live in hiding to evade arrest. Early in 1939, the family (including Ralf's maternal grandmother, Selma Lewin) secured passage aboard the SS Conte Verde, which sailed from Trieste to Shanghai in March.
Upon their arrival, the Harpuders lived briefly in a refugee home (Heim) before finding an apartment in the Hongkew district. Because of their connections to a German shipper, the family was able to arrange for the transport of some of their household possessions to Shanghai. These items were sold, and with the money, Gerda opened a delicatessen. After a year the shop was closed, and the family started a block ice business. In 1943, with the formation of the Hongkew ghetto, the Harpuders relocated to Kwenming Road. After their move, Ralf was transferred from the Kadoorie school to the Freysinger school. Ralf also attended an afternoon Talmud Torah (religious school). Ralf's father took sick and died in Shanghai in 1945, shortly after VJ Day. The rest of the family remained in Shanghai until March 1947, when they immigrated to the U.S. aboard the SS General Gordon. After docking in San Francisco, the family continued on to Los Angeles, where they celebrated Ralf's bar mitzvah two weeks after their arrival.
Ralf's mother later remarried another Shanghai refugee, Viktor Stummer. Originally from Vienna, Viktor had been arrested and imprisoned in Dachau in 1938. He was released after his sister booked passage for him on a ship to Shanghai. Once settled in Shanghai, Viktor worked as a welder in the refugee homes. After the war, he had to wait until 1949 before securing immigration papers to the U.S.