To celebrate his 100th birthday last January, Kurt Messerschmidt bought a car.

“Brand new!” exclaims the former cantor at Temple Beth El in Portland.

His unbridled optimism doesn’t surprise those who know him. It’s the product of a faith that has never wavered – even during one of the darkest chapters in human history.

In the late 1930s and early ’40s, Messerschmidt was a cantor in a synagogue in Berlin, Germany, and a teacher in a school for Jewish children, who were forbidden by the Nazi regime to attend public school.

“We were all in the same boat,” he says, “living in the same miserable conditions, being ready to be deported any day.”

Kurt Messerschmidt, 100, helped fellow prisoners as a cantor at Auschwitz and later was cantor at Temple Beth El in Portland.

Kurt Messerschmidt, 100, helped fellow prisoners as a cantor at Auschwitz and later was cantor at Temple Beth El in Portland. WCSH-TV

Most of their parents had been stripped of their livelihoods and forced to work endless hours in government factories. Messerschmidt quickly became more than a teacher.

“My classroom, this became their home. I became their confidant, their protector, a real friend. Any problems they had they came to me.”

When the Nazis shut down the school, he continued to teach secretly in people’s homes.

That ended abruptly in June of 1943. Messerschmidt and his then fiancée, Sonja Kolbelsky – whose parents had already been rounded up by the Gestapo – were arrested and transported to the Theresienstadt Ghetto in Czechoslovakia. They married there, one of only a few couples to do so.

The following year they were transported to Auschwitz. More than 1 million men, women and children, including Messerschmidt’s mother, were murdered at the concentration camp between 1941 and 1945.

Messerschmidt decided that as long as he was alive he had a job to do – a job that didn’t end at the iron gates of Auschwitz.

“I assumed from that moment on I was their cantor,” he says. “I forced myself to have a positive outlook. (I would tell the other prisoners): As bad as things are, keep your faith, look up to God.”

He prayed with them. He sang to them.

“I was needed constantly. The need to be needed cannot be underestimated.”

Those moments of grace would have been a powerful motivator for others, says Steve Hochstadt, a Holocaust scholar who teaches history at Illinois College.

In 2012, Hochstadt published an oral history of the experiences of Kurt and Sonja Messerschmidt titled “Death and Love in the Holocaust.”

“My guess is it was very important for some people to see someone else who is maintaining their humanity, maintaining their religious faith … and really trying to survive,” Hochstadt says. “All survivors of Auschwitz talk about other people who lost their will to live and who became walking ghosts. And soon they were dead.”

When the war ended in 1945, Messerschmidt and his wife – neither had any idea whether the other had survived – were reunited in Munich. They emigrated to the United States in 1950 and moved to Maine a year later. They raised two children here, who now have families of their own.

“The moment Sonja entered Maine she occupied it,” her husband says, smiling. “‘Oh, this is my mountain, my river, my ocean.’ She was able to inhale it. She loved it.”

Sonja and Kurt Messerschmidt pose for a photo in the late 1940s. Both survived being held in the Auschwitz concentration camp.

Sonja and Kurt Messerschmidt pose for a photo in the late 1940s. Both survived being held in the Auschwitz concentration camp.

In 2000 the Messerschmidts traveled to London for a reunion with some of the children he had taught in Berlin.

“(They) found my name on the Internet,” he says. “This was a bittersweet reunion because we had all these names that did not (survive).”

They continued to meet in places all over the world until their last reunion in 2008. His beloved Sonja died in 2010. Messerschmidt, who lives at The Cedars retirement community in Portland, still ministers to people.

“He will still take his walker and go all the way down to the nursing home at Cedars to visit people,” says his son, Michael. “He’s very much driven by having a purpose.”

The couple’s story of survival also has been documented in an oral history collection at the Holocaust and Human Rights Center of Maine and the University of Southern California’s Shoah Foundation.

Messerschmidt is quick to point out that while remembering the Holocaust is essential, he has never let that period define his life.

“The concentration camp was one part. But it’s only one part.”

The part that taught him a lesson he still lives by.

“What you have, that (means) nothing,” he says. “It’s what you do with it, what you give. You can do so much good.”