Holocaust survivor finally gets high school diploma after 71 years | News | DW | 20.05.2017
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Holocaust survivor finally gets high school diploma after 71 years

When Esther Begam spoke at a high school seven years ago she was asked about her biggest regret. She replied that it was never graduating high school - but now that dream has been fulfilled.

A Minnesota woman who survived the Holocaust and World War II received her high school diploma more than 70 years after the Nazis robbed her of her family and the opportunity of an education.

In 1939, when the Nazis rolled into Poland and occupied the country, Esther Begam was forced to work first in a Jewish ghetto then in a forced labor camp, never getting the opportunity to attend school.

Fast-forward seven decades to America's upper-Midwest where Wayzata High School in the Minneapolis suburb of Plymouth presented Begam with a high school diploma this month, as reported by the local KARE-TV television network.

The 88-year-old great grandmother received her honorary degree during a graduation ceremony in the school's auditorium, throwing her cap in the air as the audience applauded.

"It feels good," she said, surrounded by her great-grandchildren.

Begam's parents, siblings, aunts, uncles and cousins all perished in the Holocaust.

Her father, a rabbi, left their home to go serve as a chaplain with the Polish army - he was never seen again. Her mother and younger brother died at the Auschwitz concentration camp.

Her older sister, who was sent to a forced labor camp, didn't survive the ordeal.

"I had very educated families," Begam said. "My father knew seven, eight languages."

A Holocaust orphan

When the war ended in 1945, Begam was 17 and alone. She married another Holocaust survivor and they moved to Minnesota to start their lives anew.

In 2010 Begam told her story at Wayzata High School, 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,'" recalled a teacher at the school, Candice Ledman.

It was Ledman who came up with the idea to give Begam a diploma, but the school administration initially rejected the plan.

"It definitely sat with me," Ledman said. "It's one of those things, you want to do something for her."

And she got another chance when new a 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.

"It's 71 years overdue," Gengler added.