Bert Curnow

Bert & Marianne

The following account comes from 'Lost and Found', a New Zealand TV series written and hosted by David Lomas. The theme of the series is to attempt to reunite families who have lost touch. (Many thanks to Bert's daughter Sue and Katja May, the researcher who uncovered the story.)

When a World War II soldier told his family he'd fathered a love child while a prisoner of war in Austria, his children were desperate to find their sister. Lost and Found's David Lomas reveals what he helped them discover.

Marianne Rauhut looked at the 70-year-old photograph of New Zealand soldier Bert Curnow and cried.

She had not, since 1945, seen a picture of the man she had been stopped from marrying just 30 minutes before their planned wedding. All her pictures of her then fiancée had been taken by her then guardian and destroyed.

Rauhut, 92, who I found in a small town in Austria, was the answer to a war time mystery I had been asked to investigate. When I showed her the photographs of Curnow, she was sitting in the house where she had lived during World War II. We were in the same room in which, all those years ago, she had sat with Curnow, a New Zealand prisoner of war, and talked about a life they hoped to lead in New Zealand after the war.

My journey to find Marianne Rauhut in Austria started when Curnow's surviving children wrote to me seeking help to find a girl Curnow had been quite emphatic he'd fathered while a prisoner of war in Austria during WWII.

Bert Curnow and Marianne Rauhut (nee Leitner).

The mystery child had first been mentioned back in 1954 when Curnow, a Nelson hop and berry farmer, had been in his kitchen with wife Norma, who was pregnant with their fifth child. Also in the room had been Marc Thompson, a teenager from a neighbouring farm, who having his hair cut by Norma.

Thompson told me, when I tracked him down in Invercargill, that Curnow's Austrian love-child had been first mentioned when he'd asked Norma if she had selected a name for her soon to be born baby.

Gordon, Dianne and Sue Curnow react to David Lomas's revelations.

Norma, who had already had four boys with Curnow, had replied she did not know. "'I'm running out of boys' names'," she told Thompson.

Norma had then pointed to Curnow and, according to Thompson, said: "He can't have girls."

Curnow then left the room, but returned a few moments later carrying a box of old photographs that he quickly looked through. Curnow placed a picture of a young girl on the table and started tapping it.

Marianne Rauhut, centre, with Christine and Thomas Rauhut.

"And he looked at us," Thompson said, "and asked, 'what do you mean I can't have girls?'

"There was nothing more said. There was dead silence."

Thompson also told me that years after Curnow 's death in 1969 he asked Norma, who died eight years ago, if she believed that Bert had a daughter in Austria and she replied, "yes there was no doubt".

The wedding that wasn't. Bert and and Marianne are sitting in the centre of the photo.

 So there was the mystery. Where was Bert Curnow's love child?

With the help of Auckland-based German-speaking researcher Katja May, I started my search.

The village where Curnow had been held as a PoW was Irdning, a small central Austrian farming town. There were, May discovered, many people in the town who knew what had happened there when Allied soldiers were used as forced labour in local industries.

So, armed with photographs of Bert Curnow's wartime sweetheart supplied by the Curnow family, I went to Austria and tracked what had happened to Curnow while he was working in a sawmill in Irdning.

My search led me to two women in their late 80s who recognised the woman in the photographs and were able to tell me that the one time Marianne Leitner had married a man with the surname Rauhut and that, incredibly, she was still alive.

They said they did not know of a child born during the war. Fraternising with the enemy was they said forcibly "verboten".

I also found Johann Ettinger, 81, who as a 10-year old featured in one of the photographs that Curnow had brought home from Austria.

Ettinger told me his sister Rosa had, like Rauhut, had a relationship with a PoW and had gone on to marry him. But, he said, his sister had been harshly punished for doing so, having her head shaved and being sent to prison.

Then I found Marianne Rauhut, the woman Bert Curnow had been stopped from marrying 30 minutes before their wedding.

Just weeks after the wedding was stopped the war ended. Curnow was sent home and she was sent to Berlin where she had been forced to marry an older man she did not love.

I met Rauhut in the house in Irdning where she had lived during WWII. We talked in the same room where she and Curnow had sat and planned how they would spend their life after the war living in New Zealand.

With her grandson acting as interpreter Rauhut told me Curnow was the love of her life.

"It was real love," she said. "We were going to marry, but my cousin stopped the wedding."

The cousin, Rauhut's guardian, was, the grandson said, a jealous woman who not only stopped the wedding and sent Rauhut away to a forced marriage, but was also the person who destroyed all the photographs.

"So for 70 years you've never seen a photo of Bert?" I asked Rauhut.

She sadly nodded and cried.

Then, I handed her the photographs. Some were taken on the day she was to marry Curnow. She and Curnow are sitting side-by-side looking sad. The cousin allowed her to go to the dinner celebrating the wedding of Rosa Ettinger to her Australian soldier. The plan had been a joint wedding.

For a long moment Rauhut just stared at the photographs, a sad distant look in her eyes. Then the tears came. She patted her chest. "Heart, heart, heart," she said.

Finally, I asked about the  love child. Where was she?

"We never had a child together," she said. "He really wanted one and he thought maybe I am pregnant, but no."

So who, I asked, is the little girl in the photo? And then, an answer that is the cruelest of twists. It is, said Rauhut, the daughter of the cousin.

Back in New Zealand, I meet the Curnows. Son Gordon and his wife Sue and daughter Dianne who was the baby Norma Curnow was carrying when the mystery photo was presented by Bert Curnow 62 years ago.

They watch video as I explain the story of their dad and his Austrian love.

They cry as Rauhut cries. Their mystery is solved. They do not have a sister.

"But now we have Marianne," said Dianne.

 Lost and Found


Return to top of page
Return to last page