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PLYMOUTH, Minn. — A Minnesota woman who survived the Holocaust received her high school diploma more than seven decades after the Nazis robbed her of the privilege.
Esther Begam was 11 years old in 1942 when Germany invaded her native Poland and she was forced to work, first in a Jewish ghetto, then in a forced labour camp. Wayzata High School in the Minneapolis suburb of Plymouth presented Begam with a diploma this month, KARE-TV reported. The 88-year-old grabbed her blue graduation cap and tossed it skyward as she was treated to a standing ovation.
“It feels good,” she said, surrounded by her great-grandchildren.
Begam’s father, a rabbi, was never seen after he left to serve as a chaplain with the Polish army. Her mother and younger brother were killed at the Auschwitz concentration camp. Her older sister, who was also forced into labour, didn’t survive the ordeal.
“I had very educated families,” Begam said. “My father knew seven, eight languages.”
When the Second World War ended, she found herself alone. At age 17, she married another Holocaust survivor and moved to Minnesota.
Begam told her story at Wayzata High School seven years ago, and a student asked her to name her biggest regret.
“I expected her to say I wish we would have run, I wish we would have hidden, I wish we would have saved pictures — and she said, ‘The one thing I regret is not getting my high school diploma,”’ said Candice Ledman, a teacher.
Ledman came up with the idea to give Begam a diploma, but the school administration originally turned her down.
“It definitely sat with me,” Ledman said. “It’s one of those things, you want to do something for her.”
The opportunity presented itself again when a new principal, Scott Gengler, took over.
“I wasn’t four sentences into explaining Esther’s full story and he said, ‘Absolutely, let’s do it. We need to do this,”’ Ledman said.
Ledman’s class decorated a small auditorium, and a cake was prepared for after the ceremony. Most of Begam’s children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren were present.
“It’s 71 years overdue,” Gengler said.