One of the last Holocaust survivors in Maine has died at the age of 102. A funeral was held for Kurt Messerschmidt at the Temple Beth El in Portland, Maine Friday, where he was the cantor for more than 30 years.
“He was a wonderful human being,” said friend Norm Wilson. “People loved him deeply.”
“It’s a very sad day,” said Nancy Davidson, Curator at the Maine Jewish Museum. “Even though he lived to 102 and a half, I just always wanted him around.”
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Messerschmidt grew up near Berlin, was an accomplished opera performer, and teacher. He and his fiancé Sonja were deported to a concentration camp in 1944, where they married.
The two were later separated, and Messerschmidt went to the notorious Auschwitz camp, where it is said his voice may have saved lives.
“Some of the guards who were the most sadistic, one in particular, [Messerschmidt] would sing to him and sooth him,” said Wilson. “That way, he saved people’s lives in the camps.”
During a death march at Auschwitz, Messerschmidt escaped by walking through snow-covered terrain. By chance, he made it to Munich and found a bulletin board at a refugee center. His wife Sonja left a message looking for him. The two were eventually reunited, and emigrated to the United States.
Messerschmidt and his wife fell in love with the Portland, Maine area, and got very involved at the Temple Beth El. He became the longest-serving cantor at the Temple Beth El, presided over more than one thousand bar and bat mitzvahs, and taught thousands of children through the years.
“Every student who ever had him, loved him,” said friend Leonard Nelson.
“With all that he went through, he had a marvelous sense of humor,” said Davidson.
With the loss of another Holocaust survivor, it’s a reminder to keep history alive.
“With his passing and with his generation passing, the trick is to hang on to that memory, so that kind of thing never happens again,” said Wilson.