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Portland Cantor and Holocaust Surviver Kurt Messerschmidt Dies at 102

Maine Holocaust survivor Kurt Messerschmidt has died at the age of 102.

Messerschmidt was born near Berlin on Jan. 2, 1915, and chose to remain in Germany, where he witnessed the rise of fascism. He described his ordeal to Maine Public Television in a 1993 documentary.

“First I heard the marching steps of people carrying torches. I realized those were Nazis who, in their brown shirts, celebrated their coming to power on that fateful day,” he said.

Messerschmidt had an option to leave Germany for China, but chose to stay and teach Jewish children. He and the woman who would become his wife, Sonja, were both sent to Theresienstadt ghetto in Czechoslovakia. They married there but were separated when Kurt Messerschmidt was taken to the notorious Auschwtz concentration camp in Poland.

Near war’s end, Messerschmidt walked away one night from a group of 66 prisoners, sensing that the SS guards would not follow. He was right. In fact, the guards abandoned all the prisoners the next day. But while Messerschmidt made it to safety at an inn, the rest ran into other SS officers.

“Mowed all of them down on the spot. This was the shooting I had heard the night before,” he said.

Unlike millions of others, both Messerschmidt and his wife survived to be reunited. They came to Maine in 1950.

“He was brilliant, he was warm, and funny and kind, and a real people person,” says Liz Helitzer, executive director of the Holocaust and Human Rights Center of Maine.

Helitzer describes Messerschmidt as passionate and powerful.

“And the fact that this man had every reason in the world to lose faith in God, lose faith in the Jewish religion, and in mankind, but that he chose not to, is an incredible testament to the person he was,” she says.

Messerschmidt became cantor at Temple Beth El in Portland, where he served for 34 years before retiring. Sonja Messerschmidt died in 2010. Kurt died early Tuesday at Mercy Hospital.

A funeral will be held Friday morning at Temple Beth El in Portland.