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Records in our own backyard

By Susan Weinberg, MNJGS President and JHSUM Board member

Trying to build out a family tree, but don’t know where to start? If you have family in Minnesota there are several local sources for family research.

Birth and Death Indices

To build that tree, you need to identify family members’ birth and death dates. Get started from the comfort of your home. Go to and type “people finder” into the search box.

There you will find birth and death indices and early state census records. Enter a name into the search field, then scroll to the bottom of the page and click on birth records. There you will find birth date, mother’s maiden name and a certificate number. Similarly, you can click on death records to find death data.

Birth and Death Records

Once you pull the indices, you are ready to go to the Gale Library, located on the second story of the Minnesota History Center. You may find that the data from the index is sufficient for your tree, but perhaps you want to verify the parents. With the indices, you can request an original record of the birth certificate in the Gale Library from the librarian, for a $9 fee.

Death records are even more economical — you can pull them up on microfilm and copy or scan them yourself. Available in the Hubbs Microfilm room, which covers newspapers throughout Minnesota, in addition to death certificates, censuses, city directories, maps and naturalization records. These resources are set up for self-service, though a librarian is available to assist as necessary.

Death records may have the parents’ names and country or town of origin, along with name of the spouse, cause of death and the cemetery in which the person is buried. Use the certificate number to pull the correct microfilm, then crank through the film until you come to that number.

Remember that the information is only as good as the knowledge of the person who provided it. Information provided by a spouse from the same European town may offer more accurate location and lineage information than any provided by a child or grandchild who has never been there or known their grandparents.

Furthermore, you may find that original names were Americanized. My great-great grandfather’s name reads Pesach Mordechai on his son’s tombstone. But on his son’s death certificate, Pesach Mordechai had become Peter Max.


With a death date, you can find any obituaries that might be available. Obituaries can be great sources of information — you are likely to learn of their community involvements, spouse’s name as well as those of children and grandchildren, giving you further data for your family tree.

In addition to checking the local papers during the week following the death, I have found that the most likely place to find a Jewish record is the American Jewish World. Pull the film associated with the period of the death, and search through the obituaries of the next couple issues.

American Jewish World: A Time Capsule

When you visit the library, allow extra time for getting sidetracked in the American Jewish World. It is a time capsule of the Twin Cities Jewish community and filled with familiar names — the grandparents and great grandparents of the people you know today. Early issues included fiction, news stories, and editorials by leading American Jews. You will also find coverage of the social activities of local Jewish members, details of who visited whom, lifecycle and organizational events and more. Don’t forget the ads — another source of familiar names.

Berman Jewish Archives

Another important place to check for Jewish history in the upper Midwest is the Berman Jewish Archives, located in Anderson Hall at the University of Minnesota — a rich set of archives specific to the Jewish community of the Twin Cities, including the document archives once held at JHSUM. Save time by checking the holdings online at In addition to documents, you can search maps, images, videos and recordings. When the library re-opens, contact archivist, Kate Dietrick, in advance of a visit so that your desired resources will be ready when you arrive.


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