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.
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.”
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.”
“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.