During her adolescence, Esther Begam lost her entire family in the Holocaust. More than seven decades later, she has received one life milestone the Nazis denied her: a high school diploma. This month, in Plymouth, Minnesota, Begam symbolically graduated alongside the class of 2017 at Wayzata High School, in Plymouth, Minnesota.
Begam spent her teenage years in a forced labor camp, and was the only member of her family to survive the Holocaust. After liberation, Begam, a native of Poland, spent time in the Heidenheim displaced persons camp—here she is with a group of fellow DPs circa 1946—and at age 17, she married another survivor, Israel Begam. She then moved to Minnesota, where she raised her family.
Begam told KARE, a Twin Cities NBC channel, that her family, which she lost after the Nazis invaded, was highly educated: “My father knew seven, eight languages,” she said. She would have followed in that tradition were it not for the Nazis, and when she spoke at Wayzata High School seven years ago, she told teacher Candice Ledman’s class that never graduating from high school was one of her biggest “regrets.” Ledman suggested the school award her an honorary degree, but her idea gained no traction. But when Scott Lengler was appointed as the new principal, he immediately supported Ledman’s idea upon hearing Begam’s story, and the plan went forward.
Earlier this month, Begam walked into an auditorium at the school. Surrounded by high school students, she celebrated the opportunity to reclaim part of the life she was not allowed to have, or as she put it, “to finally make something out of me.” Her grandchildren and great-grandchildren attended the ceremony; one of them, Lenny Segal, gave a speech imploring the students to continue to tell Begam’s story “so we can make sure this doesn’t happen again.” After she was awarded her diploma, along with a special cake, Begam tossed her mortarboard in the air.
In the video below, Begam tells her story, and teacher Candice Ledman talks about being moved by it to help her receive this honor.
Related: Soon There Will Be No More Survivors
Miranda Cooper is an editorial intern at Tablet. Follow her on Twitter here.