Benjamin Bigelman (1892-1960) was 21 years old when he traveled to America, hidden in the steam room of a freighter enroute from Odessa in the Ukraine to Hamburg, Germany. Dreaming of a new life filled with freedom, happiness and prosperity, Benjamin arrived at the Port of Philadelphia on the Prince Oskar on April 9th, 1913 with $37.00 in his pocket and limitless hopes and expectations. Reality set in fairly quickly when Benjamin saw that his sister had, indeed, exaggerated about the wealth she was enjoying in her new land. There were no streets of gold, there was no money growing on trees; within his first week in his new country, Benjamin came to grips with having to tuck away thoughts of getting a higher education and, instead, finding work that would help pay his sister’s family’s quickly growing bills.
Even if his initial dreams were dashed, Benjamin remained cheerful. He loved America and enrolled immediately in English as a second language classes. A few years later, he met and fell in love with Ida Nevski, a cousin, and married her. Life at last seemed good to Benjamin, especially when he and his wife welcomed their first-born, a baby girl, into their world. Just when everything seemed to be going well for Benjamin, Ida suddenly caught the dreaded influenza that was ravaging the population of Philadelphia, and within the week, was dead at the tender age of 27.
Now alone with his 18-month-old toddler, Benjamin had little time to grieve or feel sorry for himself. He made arrangements for his little girl to be taken care of as he worked, and met and married a second wife, Rebecca, within the year. In the next six years, Rebecca and Benjamin had 2 more children.
Benjamin never had an easy life. Rebecca was stricken with asthma as a young woman and suffered terribly from life-threatening attacks. At the young age of 54, she died in the arms of a doctor from one of those attacks, and once again Benjamin was left a widower. All through these years of hardship and struggle and tragedy, almost miraculously, Benjamin remained optimistic and hopeful. And when his life was blessed with grandchildren, he was determined to make a real difference in their lives, even if he had been unable to do that in his own.
The first-born of his grandchildren was Edie Elkan. Benjamin was first to recognize her love of music, and most especially, of the piano, and so, despite his ever-tight finances, he went out and bought her a brand new piano. When he became ill some years later, and needed rehabilitation, Edie, at the age of 11, played for her grandfather and the other patients in a Philadelphia nursing home. How proud he was of that!
Benjamin did other wonderful things for other people in his life, but it was the single act of making his granddaughter’s dream come true that made and continues to make all the difference in her life.
Two Bedside Harp Instructional Scholarships have been established in his name to honor this most extraordinary husband, father, grandfather, friend, teacher and human being.