Wayzata’s First Honorary Diploma


Esther Reichert Begam at the age of eighteen. Photo courtesy of Candice Ledman.

On Wednesday May 10th Esther Reichert Begam, an 88 year old Holocaust survivor received Wayzata’s first ever honorary diploma.

  Begam was taken when she was eleven to the ghetto of Charnoff from 1939-1942, then Gabersdorf concentration camp from 1942 to 1945 where she worked in sewing at a spinning factory, according to Wayzata communications teacher Candice Ledman.

  “In 1939 my father went to the Polish army and in September
they sent my sister away to be a maid for the Germans,” said Begam.
  “I lived in houses where the shades were always closed, with no light because they didn’t want anyone see that people lived there.”
  The majority of Begam’s family was taken to Auschwitz, but Begam held out hope for her sister, according to Ledman.
  The sisters exchanged letters between camps. With the belief
she’d see her sister again, Begam gave her only picture of her to another camp member who was in grief over the loss of her own sister. Unfortunately, Begam found out too late her sister had passed, said Ledman.
  “Very few people survived. There were some that survived, we just didn’t know it would turn out like this. I was hoping my sister would make it. I try not to remember everything but it’s not easy,” said Begam.
  Once Begam was liberated, she was placed in a displaced person camp where she met her husband-to-be, Israel, later to be called by family as ‘Papa Izzy’. They then moved to Minnesota where they experimented with multiple jobs such as owning a deli, according to Wayzata principal Scott Gengler. Together they went on to have three children, nine grandchildren and fifteen great-grandchildren. 

“My entire life I have been in awe of her. Her quiet strength is something that you notice when she walks in the room. Every
time she speaks about her past I learn something new,” said great-granddaughter and Wayzata High School student, Arin Anderson (10).
  Currently three of Begam’s granddaughters work in the Wayzata District and four great-granddaughters are attending or have graduated from Wayzata High School, according to Gengler.
  “She inspired me by never giving up and that mentality was passed on to everyone else in her family. Her love is unconditional and she is my motivation to never give up,” said great-granddaughter and Wayzata High School student Emily Hansen (10).
  The processing of presenting Begam with an honorary diploma began seven years ago when Begam spoke to one of Ledman’s classes in 2010 about her experience.
  “A student asked her ‘What is your one regret in life?’ Esther responded that she never received a high school diploma,” said Gengler.  “She said that by getting a high school diploma, she would finally be somebody that made something of herself.”
  Around the time Begam spoke to Ledman’s class, Ledman asked about the possibility of Begam receiving an honorary diploma from Wayzata High School. “I did not hesitate one bit,” said Gengler when asked about the suggestion of an honorary diploma. “It is seventy one years overdue.”
  “I think it is amazing because she went through something no one could even imagine and came out as the strongest role model for so many people,” said Hansen.
  “Wayzata doing this is an honor for her and shows the compassion they have as well as bringing history to life for so many students.”

  The graduation ceremony took place on May 10th.
  “From serving food to cleaning up and escorting families,
my students really took the reins and did all they could,” said Ledman.
  According to Ledman, Begam’s story was highly impactful
on her students and ultimately changed their perspective.
  “Her graduation is so special to my family and because
she is so selfless and she finally is receiving something
that is just for her, this has made others recognize her strength and courage that her family has always seen from her,” said Hansen.
  “I am so grateful to everyone who made this happen,” said Anderson. “It may be an ‘honorary’ diploma, but to my family, it’s as real as we are.”
  During Begam’s graduation ceremony, a video of Begam
telling her story was played and both Gengler and grandson Lenny Segal.
  “To most people in the world, when you say 6 million Jews died, they don’t mean much for our human brains to comprehend and some even deny that it ever happened. Each of you know that those numbers are not just numbers, those are real people, you know a survivor, you know her as a person, somebody who has lost their entire family,” said Segal.
  During the ceremony, Segal encouraged the audience to share Begam’s story in an effort to ensure that an occurrence
like the Holocaust will never happen again.
  “We read about history in books and when there’s no personalization to it and just someone reporting on it,” said Ledman. “It’s a whole new level when someone looks you in the face and tells you that they lost everyone they knew and loved.”
  Ledman emphasizes the importance of not only knowing how the Holocaust ended, but how it started. The ‘frog theory’, which states that if you throw a frog into boiling water it will jump out, but if you throw it into lukewarm water and slowly heat it up, it’ll die, pertains to this situation in particular.
“Her [Begam] story shows that the little things count,” said Ledman. “There is no such thing as a bystander. You have the power to stand up and say something, and she [Begam] reminds us of that because she paid the ultimate price.”

Candice Ledman with Esther Reichert Begam after her graduation.
Photo by Joe Kottke.