Jack Bergstein began searching for a small, abandoned cemetery on Rippel Road in White Oak about 30 years ago.
In the late 1980s, Bergstein’s father, Adolph, told him about a cousin, Emanuel Menyheart Bergstein, who was killed by a train at the age of 12 in 1923, and who was buried in an overgrown cemetery not far from Gemilas Chesed Synagogue’s main cemetery on Center Street.
That’s all he had to go on.
“I went looking for it, and I couldn’t find it,” Bergstein said. “About 15 years ago, a guy from McKeesport drew me directions to a cemetery on Rippel Road, but I still couldn’t find it.”
Then, last month, a relative sent him an article published in the Chronicle (“Neglected Jewish cemetery in White Oak restored by non-Jewish volunteers,” July 17) about a tiny, neglected cemetery on Rippel Road that had been restored by non-Jewish volunteers, an effort led by Mark Pudlowski, founder of the Family of God Biblical Reasoning and Counseling Prayer Center in White Oak.
There are eight headstones that remain in that Rippel Road cemetery, ranging in dates from 1902 to 1924. Of those, the inscriptions on only four of the them are legible, among them, Fanny Rittenberg Bergstein, who died in 1912.
Fanny, said Bergstein, was his grandfather’s brother’s first wife.
When he saw that Fanny was buried at the Rippel Road cemetery, he suspected that Emanuel could be there as well.
“When I got that article, it hit me that this must be the cemetery I’ve been looking for,” Bergstein said.
He drove out to Rippel Road to see for himself.
Although he had passed that parcel of land many times before, only now could he see there was a Jewish cemetery there, thanks to the work of Pudlowski and others.
The cemetery has been completely restored. It has been cleared of brush, the headstones have been re-set, mulch has been laid, and a fence has been erected around the perimeter. A large blue Star of David stands on the grounds facing Rippel Road.
“I was so impressed,” he said. “They did a phenomenal job.”
Of the four headstones that cannot be read, Bergstein is convinced that one must mark the grave of Emanuel.
Bergstein, a semi-retired attorney and lifelong resident of Monessen, has long been involved with genealogy, “long before the internet,” he said, and the discovery of these relatives’ graves carries great significance for him.
“This gave credence to my father saying there was a cemetery there all those years ago,” he said. “And now I was able to fulfill a task I’ve been trying to do for a lot of years. I’m sure I’ll go back.”
Emanuel’s brother, Lewis, coincidentally was also killed by a train when he was a child. His grave is in a cemetery in Monessen.
Monroeville resident David Bergstein, a cousin to Jack, had also been searching for the grave of Emanuel, who was his father’s brother.
“When I was a child, my father would say Kaddish at two cemeteries,” recalled David Bergstein. “One was in Monessen and one was on Rippel Road. I remember we couldn’t get in [to the Rippel Road cemetery] because there was a high wall, and it was overgrown. My father would go every holiday and he would say Kaddish outside the wall.”
That was at least 60 years ago, David Bergstein said, and although he remembered accompanying his father to that cemetery, he had no idea where it was until he read the Chronicle article.
He headed out to Rippel Road to see the cemetery after reading the story.
The volunteers, he said, “did a nice, blessed thing to fix it up.”
Like his cousin Jack, David also suspects that Emanuel is buried at the restored cemetery on Rippel Road, and that it is the same site where his father used to say Kaddish standing outside the wall.
David also suspects that his paternal grandmother, Lena Spitz Bergstein — whose grave he has been unable to locate — is buried in that cemetery, and that her grave is also marked by a headstone that can no longer be read, “but there is no way to tell,” he said.
“I just don’t know where else she would be.” pjc
Toby Tabachnick can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.