This spring, one Wayzata teacher received the Leo Weiss Courage to Teach Award for her commitment to Holocaust education. The award—which is named for the late Leo Weiss, a Holocaust survivor and Minn. resident—is given annually by the Jewish Community Relations Council of Minnesota and the Dakotas to recognize exceptional efforts to educate young people about the Holocaust. Candice Ledman, an English teacher at Wayzata High School, was this year’s recipient.
Ledman teaches one of Wayzata High School’s popular courses: Cultural Dynamics Through Literature, which explores questions relating to identity and oppression. The curriculum, which Ledman designed herself, includes a two-and-a-half-week unit on the history of the Holocaust. Eight years ago, she invited Esther Begman, a Holocaust survivor and the grandmother of one of Wayzata High’s secretaries, to share her story with the class.
“I remember one of the girls in my class back then asked Esther what her biggest regret was. I kind of cringed, not knowing what to expect,” Ledman says. “I thought she would say that she wished she and her family would’ve run or saved more pictures, but she actually said it was never getting her high school diploma.”
Begman grew up in Poland in a highly educated family and had the Nazis not invaded Poland and forced Jews into concentration camps, she almost certainly would have followed in her parents’ footsteps. Her mother and brother were killed at Auschwitz, and her older sister did not survive either. Because Begman spent her late childhood and early adolescence in a concentration camp, she was robbed of the opportunity to complete her education.
Immediately after hearing Begman’s story, Ledman felt moved to take whatever action she could. “I went to our principal at the time and asked if we could give [Esther] an honorary high school diploma, but she just said, ‘No, we’ve never done it,’” Ledman said. But when the school’s new principal heard about Begman’s story, he was just as moved as Ledman and worked with her, along with the school board and superintendent to grant Begman an honorary diploma.
Last May, Begman donned the traditional cap and gown to receive her high school diploma—a long 71 years overdue. Though she no longer speaks publicly about her story, she’s entrusted those who’ve heard it as memory keepers. Sharing such stories and speaking openly about the horrors of the Holocaust ensure such histories do not become buried.
Kayla Heinze, an alumna of Wayzata High School, is one such memory keeper. She says the realizations gained, both in Ledman’s class and listening to Begman share her story, have continued to stick with her, even long after her graduation.
“Mrs. Ledman’s class was all about exposing yourself to different perspectives and learning the importance of an open mind. There was an expectation of being understanding, even toward ideas you disagreed with,” she says. “I think those are incredibly important skills and attitudes to practice, and I am beyond grateful to have had a class where that was taught and discussed.”
She also says watching Begman receive her honorary diploma—and celebrating alongside her—was among the most impactful moments of the class. “It was a reminder of human resiliency and a testimony to the power of storytelling,” she explains.