7th November 1932 – 17th August 2015
‘Kurtie’ Rayners was born Kurt Reckendorfer in Vienna. He was the only child of Sophie Wolkenstein, (my father’s elder sister), and Karl Reckendorfer. Around the time of the outbreak of World War II, some time after the untimely early death of her husband in a motor-sport accident*, Sophie re-married. Her 2nd husband was Josef Klein and the small family removed itself to Maribor, in Yugoslavia, where the Wolkenstein family had interests in a silver-plating factory.
By early 1939, the rest of the Wolkenstein family – my grandparents, father and uncle – had managed to make it to England by various means. At that time, it had been assumed that Sophie, Josef and little Kurtie were safe in Yugoslavia – given that country’s then position of neutrality in the conflict. This presumption turned out to be a tragic miscalculation, with The Axis invasion of Yugoslavia in April 1941. After a brief resistance, the country effectively capitulated by the end of the year. The taking-over of the country was accompanied by a mass programme of ethnic cleansing and, with the assistance of native collaborators, Jews and other minorities were systematically deported to local concentration camps and extermination centres such as Jasenovac and Bajica. Letters from Sophie, written to her family in London, became increasingly desperate and infrequent.
One day in 1942 a 9 year old Kurtie returned to an empty home to find a note on the table instructing him to go immediately to the home of Teta, his child- minder. For the rest of the war, Teta** took care of Kurtie passing him off a child of her own. Kurtie survived the war under this pretext but sadly his mother and step-father perished in the camps.
Meanwhile the Wolkenstein family, his grandparents and 3 uncles – Erwin/ ‘Benny’, Kurt and Gerhardt – had survived the war in London. My father, Kurt’s engineering skills had been put to good use building armaments at a factory on the Edgware Road; while his younger brother joined the RAF, going to war as a rear gunner on bomber airplanes. (It was Gerhardt who adopted the name ‘Wilton’ after the location of his training barracks; it being considered to dangerous for him to fly as ‘Wolkenstein’ – a very wise precaution, as in 1944 his plane was shot down and he survived the war in a P.O.W. camp. The rest of the family subsequently adopted this name; possibly in thanks for his salvation.)
Eventually as post-war Europe began to sort itself out, Kurtie was located, via the auspices of The Red Cross, and Gerhardt went over to Yugoslavia to bring his nephew back to England. Apparently the handover in 1947 of the 15 year old was no straight-forward affair; Kurtie being handed over to Gerhardt in a no-man’s-land at the Yugoslav border.
By all accounts, Kurtie’s return to the Wolkenstein family in London was a ‘mixed affair’. Kenneth Rayners, as he was re-named, was sent off to a boarding school in Hertfordshire to return to London only during the school holidays. There may have been good reasons why he was sent to a boarding school. Perhaps it was because he couldn’t speak English and it was thought that that this was the best environment for his rapid acquisition of the language. Also the Wolkenstein-Wiltons were in some upheaval at this time. Kurtie’s grandparents had split-up, Gerhardt had committed suicide in 1949 and both of Kurtie’s uncles had married and were living in cramped surroundings. However, I think it is fair to say that the early 1950’s were a difficult time for Kurtie. During the school holidays he was shuffled between his relatives and, I am saddened to report, that there even were holidays when he did not return to London at all. Perhaps this suited all parties but it is clear to me now that, though Kurtie was treated with kindness and love, he was not held ‘as a son’ by my parents or my Uncle Benny and Auntie Tina. After National Service, Kurtie briefly trained as an optician; something he was somewhat bullied into my father. But Kurtie was not meant to be an optician, and he became a travel representative for a major travel agency.
Working in travel was to become one of the 2 major pillars of Kurtie’s life. The other was meeting Sigred and marrying her on the 28th of March 1956. The stars were in perfect alignment when ‘Siggi’ agreed to become Kurtie’s wife as they were, in almost every way, ‘different sides of the same coin’. Like Kurtie, by the end of the war Siggi’s family were surviving under the most difficult circumstances in Dresden, East Germany. As a result, it was decided to send Siggi on a ‘permanent’ holiday to live in Munich, West Germany, with her aunt, ‘Tante’ Ilse. So, at virtually the same time – the most formative times of their lives – both Siggi & Kurtie were being taken care in distant lands by wider members of their family. Siggi then moved to London and took a job in retailing. Kurtie always told me that he knew Siggie was ‘ the one’ from the moment he clapped eyes on her. As a result, Kurtie & Siggi found in each other not only kindred spirits but also the fullness of love that had been somewhat missing in their earlier lives. Siggi & Kurtie’s first marital home was a flat in Gunnersbury
Siggi & Kurtie’s married life in London turned out to be a brief affair. In 1960, Kurtie was offered, and accepted, a position with his agency in Los Angeles. Kurtie stayed in travel all his working life, carving a good career for himself principally in charge of Air Pakistan’s LA office. Travel was also in Siggi’s blood and when she accepted a position within Walt Disney’s travel department, it was the start of a glittering career; one where she worked for over 20 years under Fred Tatum – taking care of the travel requirements of top executives including Walt & Roy Disney, Michael Eisner, Jeffrey Katzenberg and Don Tatum.
‘Californication’ clearly suited Siggi & Kurtie to a ‘tee’. With the birth of Tanya, in 1969, and of Kurt in 1971, the next generation of the ‘Rayners of California’ was firmly in place. With the marriages of Tanya to Jeff Stowe and Kurt to Katie Cox – a union which so far has produced 3 grandchildren: Luke, Grant & Chloe – a dynasty had been firmly set in place
Siggi & Kurtie’s careers in travel continued on into the 21st century. The end of employment certainly did not mean retirement for either of them, as they carried on in travel to forge a twilight career as cruise organisers and hosts. Siggi and Kurtie’s appetite for foreign adventure, which was enduring both professionally and personally, was only curtailed in recent years by Kurtie’s illness. Diagnosed in his early 60’s with diabetes, the desease eventually took its toll. I truly believe that were it not for Siggi, Kurtie would not have made into his 80’s. From the onset, she was like a dog with a bone in saving Kurtie from his insatiable appetite for the sweet things of life; and when he became truly incapacitated, it was Siggi that provided him with the determination to carry on.
California thus brought Siggi and Kurtie the happiness and fulfilment that thankfully formed the major, and defining, part of their lives. For each of them, the other proved to be the anchor that they each needed in life to grow and kick on after the most difficult of starts to life. Their mutual needs, love and devotion to each other provided each with a purpose; one which they passed on to their children and grandchildren. In an increasingly fragmented self-serving world, the Family Rayners is a rare object; one which not only cares for each other, but which shares its lives with each other.
Kurtie’s story is not a unique one but it certainly is a special one. We are a very small family of survivors, and despite the difficult times in Austria, Germany & England, all parties to the story came out the other side with a stronger realisation of what we mean to each other. I remember well what a wonderful occasion it was when Siggi and Kurtie married and I remember the tears I shed at London Airport when Siggi & Kurtie departed on their pilgrimage west. I also recall the joyous occasions when the family was reunited in London, latterly with children in tow. However for myself, it was during the trips out to California that I really got to know Kurtie properly. In those early days in London, I was a self-preoccupied child but when I went out to LA in 1968, when I was treated royally as the first Wilton family-member to travel west, I could talk to Kurtie for the first time as an adult. Since then, I have been fortunate to be able to travel to LA frequently – twice with my father – while Siggi & Kurtie have similarly travelled in the opposite direction. The term ‘quality time’ is used loosely and widely these days, but in the case of Kurtie and myself we really did take advantage of those precious times. Our discussions were wide-ranging but at the centre of it all was a discursive journey of the telling, and retelling, of the family stories in a mutual attempt to put some order and make sense of it all. Sadly these coming-togethers will happen no more.
Despite all the difficulties of his early life, Kurtie always remained positive and enthusiastic. He embraced living and enjoyed all that Life afforded him. For all of my life ‘Cousin Kurtie’ has been there with me. With him gone, I now realise that I haven’t lost a cousin, I’ve really lost an elder brother. I only wish that I had told him that.
* Kurt Reckendorfer had a son, Karl Reckendorfer, by his first wife. Kurtie was very close to Karl, his half-brother, and then his wife Karin. Karl & Karin, now both sadly deceased, lived in Vienna. Their son, Wolfgang, has a son Wolfgang and a daughter Christa. Kurtie and Karl kept in very close touch and both families continue to visit with each other on a regular basis.
** Kurtie treated Teta as the mother, that she effectively was to him; visiting with her frequently, taking care of her needs and resettling her in a home in Vienna, where she died in the 1990s.
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