PLYMOUTH, Minn. - Esther Begam slowly raises her hand to touch the blue graduation cap resting proudly on her head.
“It feels good,” she says, surrounded by her doting great-grandchildren.
More than seven decades after the Nazis robbed her of the privilege, Begam walked into an auditorium this week to receive her high school diploma.
Begam was 11 years old in 1942 when Germany invaded her native Poland. School became a memory, as she was made to work, first in a Jewish ghetto and then in a forced labor camp.
“I had very educated families,” says Begam. “My father knew seven, eight languages.” Begam would most certainly have followed in her family’s footsteps, but fate and the Nazis had other plans.
Begam’s father, a rabbi, had already left to serve as a chaplain with the doomed Polish army and was never seen again. Her mother and younger brother were killed at the Auschwitz concentration camp, while Begam’s older sister - also forced into labor - did not survive her ordeal either.
At war’s end Begam found herself alone in the world. Grandparents, uncles, aunts and cousins – “They were all gone,” Begam says.
At 17 she married Israel, another Holocaust survivor, moved to Minnesota, worked and raised her family.
Then, seven years ago, Begam was invited to share her story in teacher Candice Ledman’s class at Wayzata High School.
A student asked Begam to name her biggest regret.
Ledman was struck by Begam’s answer. “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.”
Begam’s granddaughter, Stacy Segal, a secretary at the school, sat in on the class that day. “It made me sad, just another thing she had to deal with that's so hard to even imagine.”
Ledman approached school administration about the possibility of an honorary degree, but says she was initially told “It’s not something Wayzata does.”
But the notion remained in the back of her mind. “It definitely sat with me. It’s one of those things, you want to do something for her,” Ledman said.
The opportunity presented itself again when Scott Gengler took over as school principal. “I wasn’t four sentences into explaining Esther’s full story and he said, ‘Absolutely, let’s do it. We need to do this.’”
By the time Esther arrived at Wayzata High School this week Ledman’s class had decorated a small auditorium, a cake had been baked, a diploma ordered and a cap and gown laid out with her name on it.
“It’s 71 years overdue,” said Gengler.
Most of Begam’s family was present, her children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren – each greeting her with a hug and a kiss.
Begam was treated to a standing ovation and presented with her diploma by the chairman of the school board. The 88-year-old grabbed the graduation cap that had been perched on her head and tossed it skyward.
Beaming, Begam thanked Ledman and the others responsible for making her dream come true.
In his speech, Begam’s grandson Lenny Segal implored the students attending to share his grandmother’s story, “so we can make sure this doesn’t happen again.”
Several people wiped away tears during a video interview conducted with Begam a few days before her graduation. Asked by Ledman what the diploma would mean to her, Begam responded, “It's going to feel good, that I finally made something out of me.”
Imagine, Esther Begam thinking she hadn't already made from the horrible hand she’d been dealt something beautiful of herself.