Esther Begam, a Holocaust survivor aged 88, was surrounded by her children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren as she was handed the formal recognition she had been waiting for all her life — her high school diploma.
“I finally made something out of me,” said Mrs Begam, inducing tears from those around her.
Of course, for those closest to Mrs Begam, especially her family, this symbolic validation merely added to her remarkable life story.
“She is truly a living legend,” said Stacy Segal, Mrs Begam’s granddaughter.
“We as a family are just so proud and thankful that she is getting some recognition for her life.”
Mrs Begam’s life began in Poland over a decade before the start of the Second World War. The daughter of a rabbi, she understood the importance of education from a young age. However, her own education was cut short. The Nazis invaded and sent her to live in a ghetto and later, a concentration camp, where she witnessed unthinkable horrors.
“You try not to remember everything,” Mrs Begam said in a video shown at her graduation, “but it’s not easy.”
By the time Czech partisans and the Russian army liberated her camp from the Nazis, a tragic new reality had set in for Mrs Begam. As the lone survivor of her family of five, she was all alone in the world.
“They were all gone,” she said.
After the war, at an age when her peers would have been graduating from high school, Mrs Begam got married and moved with her husband to Minnesota. In 2010, she found herself in Wayzata High School, where Mrs Segal works as a secretary, recounting her story to a class of enthralled high school children.
It was there that Mrs Begam revealed that her life’s “biggest regret” was never receiving her high school diploma.
Seven years after that moment, Wayzata High School decided to help Mrs Begam fulfill her dream and award her with an honorary degree. Seventy-one years after her expected graduation, Mrs Begam can finally call herself a high school graduate.
For her family, it was a chance to see the impact of her story on others.
“Grandma Esther’s story is being shared by so many,” said Mrs Segal. “It is making an impact on future leaders.”