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The Goldbergs: A Jewish story in western Minnesota

On March 3, 1943, a plane crash took the life of Morris, Minn. native Nathan Goldberg during an Air Force training exercise in French Guinea. This 26-year-old lieutenant became the city’s first Second World War fatality.

The Goldbergs had the distinction of being Morris’ only Jewish family.


The Goldberg family in Morris in 1940. (L to R) Gladys, Hime, Bessie, Louie and Nathan Goldberg prior to Hime and Nathan leaving for WWII. Photo part of the Stevens County Historical Museum collection. Used with permission.

Although Jews traded furs in what is now Minnesota going back to the 1840s, permanent Jewish settlement only began around 1855. The United States itself had a Jewish population (mainly of Portuguese and Spanish origin) dating back to colonial times, large-scale immigration only took place in the 1820s. This first wave came from the mostly German-speaking areas of Central Europe. Amelia Ullmann, an emigrant from the Rhineland, wrote to her husband upon arriving in St. Paul. “I shall go with you to the end of the world. But when we started at noon on that brilliant May day, I did not know that ‘the end of the world’ would come so soon.”

A second, and, much greater, wave came out of Russia from the 1880s to the 1920s. Louis Goldberg arrived during this period.

Having lived in czarist Russia’s waning years, his family most certainly experienced the country’s oppressive anti-Jewish policies. Immediately proceeding the First World War, revolutionary and reactionary forces conspired to send an already precarious Jewish existence into chaos. Edith Modelevsky, who came to St. Paul in 1923, described her homeland’s deteriorating condition:

“We left Russia because every week bandits came and began to kill the people. [It was] about three o’clock that five soldiers came to our house and said to my mother that she should give them all the money we have. They took the hundred dollars [that our father had sent for passage] and threw them in my mother’s face and told her that isn’t enough for them. My grandmother told them we haven’t got any more money so they can do with us what they please. So they told us to stand near the wall and they are going to kill us. When I heard that I was trying to run out and call somebody for help. While I was [heading] to the door, one bandit pushed me so hard that I fell. They took [out] the guns to shoot us. One soldier said something to the rest and they did not shoot us. They took away [the money], all our clothes, broke our furniture and went away.”

First settling in Boston in 1913, Louis Goldberg came to Minneapolis in 1915 where he met and married Bessie Segal (whose handsome, full features Nathan would inherit). He established himself in the fur and automotive businesses. Jews prospered in the fur and hide businesses in Minnesota because discrimination kept them out of banking, grain, and medical jobs, forcing them to find niche markets (a Jewish family founded Berman Buckskin of Minneapolis). One reason the Goldbergs chose to leave for Morris in 1919 may have been the anti-Jewish wave that swept Minneapolis in particular after World War One (Jews, like gypsies, were always “foreigners” no matter where they settled, and Minneapolis had been a well-known center of anti-semitism up to the mayoral election of Hubert H. Humphrey in 1948). The Goldbergs had two sons by then: Nathan and Hime. Louis, quite naturally, opened another clothing establishment, the Goldberg Store, between Fourth and Fifth Streets on Atlantic Avenue. For five years, a lanky Mr. Goldberg, with his dapper hair and thin mustache, greeted his customers along with the warm, if slightly woodsy, aroma of the tanning solution (applied to skins to prevent rot) combined with sawdust and the slight muskiness of mink furs. In the early 20th century, before the days of fiber insulation (not to mention protest organizations like PETA), only skins and furs generated enough warmth for these frigid northern climes.

During a blinding snowstorm in the winter of 1924, a fire destroyed the building. Thanks to the quick-thinking firemen, who put out the fire incrementally rather than attempting it all at once, the adjacent buildings went unharmed The family escaped without injury. Louis himself had been in Benson on business at the time. While 5-year-old Hime suffered from smoke inhalation and had to be physically carried out, 8-year-old Nathan enthusiastically scampered out in only a nightshirt into the blowing snow – no doubt creating patterns in it with his bare feet. His adventurous nature would continue in his pursuit of high school basketball and his later joining the Air Corps. Given the resiliency of someone who had to contend with Cossacks razing entire towns, Louis soon reopened a second, expanded, general goods store.

In modern western Minnesota there are no organized Jewish communities west of St. Cloud (which shares worship space with the Unitarian church). But along the state’s western border there are three: in Fargo, Grand Forks and Sioux Falls. These congregations are the Jewish equivalents of the little engines that could. At the peak of Jewish population, both North and South Dakota had around 1,500 Jewish residents. In the early 20th century, small but active congregations as far west as Deadwood, S.D., in the Black Hills and Beach, N.D., on the Montana border. By the early 21st century, however, the numbers had dropped to around 400 per state. The very existence of these synagogues show a strong commitment to serve those remaining.

Nathan Goldberg with friends in 1941 before he left for war.  Photo part of the Stevens County Historical Museum collection. Used with permission.

Nathan Goldberg with friends in 1941 before he left for war. Photo part of the Stevens County Historical Museum collection. Used with permission.

A local priest in Sinnamary, French Guinea, the Rev. Henry Lecoq, wrote the family several months after the accident.

“The plane that fell March 3, was at the time of the accident piloted by your son. It was 10:30 a.m. The explosion, in arriving in contact with the ground, was very violent and could be seen at a radius of 20 kilometers. It was in the afternoon at 4:30 that I was informed that a plane had fallen at 16 kilometers and that there were five victims.

“At our arrival, the victims were floating between two waves sustained by their life-bouy. Your son was more deeply buried in the water of the marsh because the explosion of the plane had forced him and the pilot’s seat deep into the water. He had two deadly wounds: fracture of the skull and double fracture of the pelvis.

“Your sorrow is very great. May the Most-High comfort you. Also may the thought that your son died in the service of his country and of civilization.”

Surviving brother, Hime, moved to Montana. A sister, Gladys, moved to California . Bessie died in 1957, Louis in 1958. Both are buried at the Minneapolis Jewish Cemetery in Richfield, a suburb of Minneapolis, thus ending the Goldberg presence in Morris.

Source materials: The Morris Sun. The Morris Tribune, “And Prairie Dogs Weren’t Kosher”: Jewish Women In The Upper Midwest Since 1855; by Linda Mack Schloff,1996; Minnesota Historical Society Press, St. Paul, MN; Jews in Minnesota, Hyman Berman and Linda Mack Schloff, 2002; Minnesota Historical Society Press, St. Paul, MN; Website: Temple Beth El in Fargo, ND, “Gentiles Preferred”: Minneapolis Jews And Employment 1920-1950; Laura E. Weber; Minnesota History Magazine

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