A Bronx Woman’s Curiosity Helps Solve A Mystery of An 87-Year Old Tombstone

Headstone found by Nilka Martell belonging to Pearl Sternberger who passed away in 1929 at the age of 10.
Headstone found by Nilka Martell belonging to Pearl Sternberg who passed away in 1929 at the age of 10.

If you live in The Bronx, chances are you know Nilka Martell or know of her and if you do, you know she won’t stop questioning things until she gets an answer that satiates her curiosity and inquiring mind.

First off, let me add the disclaimer that Nilka is a friend I love dearly so if you detect any bias in this post, it’s simply because I love her and I think she’s awesome. Simply put, SHE IS THE BRONX!

Recently at a meeting on City Island for The Bronx Council for Environmental Quality (BCEQ) she decided to take a break to go to the private beach on Bay Street to take some pictures.

Nilka Martell, holding the sign "Loving The Bronx" leads a historical tour of Hunts Point

While standing on the shore she immediately noticed something out of place—a tombstone of a young Jewish girl named Pearl Sternberg who passed away at the age of 10 on August 5, 1929 just laying there on the beach.

Nilka being Nilka asked another BCEQ board member,who was hosting the meeting about it but he wasn’t too sure stating that it had been there and might have been a tombstone with an error on it and was since then being used as a stepping stone for getting up from the shore. Nilka sent out a few emails and the curiousity increased.

Someone even suggested that perhaps somebody knew her history?

One thing they all agreed upon was that the stone should be moved and handled with care according to Jewish law on such things but that it was ultimately up to the owner of the property.

Anthony Pisciotta wrote in an email:

“I spoke to the director of the organization that I am involved with at Bayside Cemetery. She is very interested in helping get this stone either returned to its proper location or disposing of it consistent with Jewish law ( Jews have very specific ways of dealing with religious articles) She reached out to the president of Riverside cemetery to see if they can shed some light on this. Since she is a known person in the Jewish cemetery community, they may be more willing to speak with her.

“I also visited Bay St and spoke to a resident. She told me that the stone has been there as long as anyone can remember. I gave her my name and told her that we are interested in helping get it returned to a more dignified place. She didn’t think anyone would object to that. She took my info and said she would pass it along to the persons who take care of the beach.”

Finally, five days after the investigation began in what turned to be a group effort by amazing Bronxites, Tom Casey of the East Bronx History Forum found a Pearl Sternberg buried in a cemetery out in Saddle Brook, NJ.

Once this information came to light, Anthony reached out once again to his contact, Jamie Cotel at the Community Alliance for Jewish Affiliated Cemeteries (CAJAC) and wrote back to the group:

“Jamie Cotel from CAJAC reached out to Riverside Cemetery in NJ and spoke to the executive director and Pearl Sternberg is indeed buried there. He searched the records pertaining to the grave and discovered that there is nothing about the stone being removed or replaced so its possible that it was removed unlawfully. She was told that the cemetery has quite a bit of downed stones in the area of the grave so thats why it went unnoticed . How it got on the Bay St beach is anyone’s guess.  In any event, the cemetery wants to return it to the grave if we can get permission to remove it. I am waiting to hear back from the people in charge of the beach.

“If they give us permission to take it, myself and Jamie will return it to Riverside. ”

But shortly afterwards, a supervisor for Riverside Cemetery went to Pearl Stenberg’s final resting place and found that a monument was there making the mystery of the duplicate headstone even stranger.

According to details provided by the cemetery, both monuments appear to be from the same time period and the Hebrew inscription was “basically the same.”

Whatever the case may be, Anthony mentioned that it must be treated as a religious article as per Jewish law and disposed accordingly. CAJAC is attempting to get in touch with Pearl’s family to see how they would like to proceed being that they still technically are the owners.

This is what it is to be a Bronxite, this is what The Bronx is all about. It’s about folks coming together and getting things done simply because it is the right thing to do. This was a group effort that started out with one woman’s curiosity that led to a literal rainbow coalition of people to help someone perhaps forgotten in the gulf of time.

Pearl Sternberg, you were beloved and may you rest in eternal peace.
זיכרונה לברכה
zikhronah livrakha
עליה השלום
aleha ha-shalom

May her memory be a blessing
May peace be upon her

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Ed García Conde

Ed García Conde is a life-long Bronxite who spends his time documenting the people, places, and things that make the borough a special place in the hopes of dispelling the negative stereotypes associated with The Bronx. His writings are often cited by mainstream media and is often consulted for his expertise on the borough's rich history.