Cantor Kurt Messerschmidt was born in Germany in 1915. Despite being a stellar student-athlete in high school, his admission to Berlin University was forfeited because he was Jewish. Before emigration from Germany was closed to Jews by the Nazis, Cantor Messerschmidt felt it was important for him to remain in Germany to teach Jewish children. He graduated from a Teacher’s Seminary and later taught at a Jewish school in Berlin, where he remained until he was deported with his fiancee, Sonja.
They were deported to Theresienstadt in Czechoslovakia where they married in 1944. Separated by the Nazis shortly after, each was sent to a succession of concentration camps. Cantor Messerschmidt miraculously escaped from a death march in the spring of 1945 by walking away in snow-covered terrain. Months later in the chaos of post-war Germany, he found a hand-written note Sonja had left weeks earlier on a bulletin board at a refugee center in Munich, a city neither had ever visited prior to the war. With the assistance of the American military, he secured transportation to find her and reunite.
In the early post-war days, Cantor Messerschdmidt worked as a teacher and translator in Germany. By 1949, he was chief cantor of Munich and had a successful career performing opera, lieder and religious pieces with a professional choir on Radio Munich.. One performance took him to Berlin, where he returned to his old school, the place where he and Sonja had met. He opened the gate and crossed the courtyard to his old synagogue.
“The roof was still open. I had delivered lectures from the pulpit there. It felt so familiar when I climbed to the pulpit… and I sang. The Kiddush, a sanctification prayer. Full voice. Of course I’d been praying and conducting services in Terezin, even in Auschwitz, where we did it in secret, but here at night, with the roof open, I had the feeling, if my prayer is heard, which better place? It goes straight up to heaven.”
In 1950, the Messerschmidts emigrated to the US. After working as a cantor in Lyndhurst, New Jersey for a year, Kurt accepted a position as Cantor of Temple Beth El in Portland where for the next 34 years he was a beloved teacher, mentor and spiritual leader. Cantor Messerschmidt was known for his generous spirit, a ready wit and a gorgeous baritone voice that transported listeners to a spiritual realm.