When Tracing Your Ancestry Becomes a Murder Mystery

How uncovering my lineage became a treasure hunt that changed my summer — and my life.

My cousin, Saul ‘Sonny’ Shister, was shot to death in 1955 in Montreal in an apparent game of Russian Roulette with his buddies. He was 17.

I never met Saul, but his death has been haunting me. Why would his friend, Harvey Litwack, brandish a .32-calibre revolver as the group left a downtown club? Even after Litwack emptied what he thought were all the bullets, why would he pull the trigger at one, then two, of his pals?

Both times, the gun didn’t fire. He could have stopped there. Instead, he aimed a third shot at my cousin Saul, which hit him in the temple. He died soon afterward at Montreal General Hospital, the only son of my uncle Oscar.

I didn’t know any of this until I began researching my ancestry about a month ago. I can’t pinpoint what prompted the search, exactly, but it feels like an urgent mission. Maybe it’s my own growing sense of mortality, pushing me to create a legacy that can be passed on from one generation to the next.

Whatever the reason, I am hooked, obsessed, overwhelmed. The $149 I invested in a six-month membership to ancestry.com (worldwide version) has generated incalculable dividends in acquired knowledge. It has also fueled more than a few all-nighters, which I am far too old for, but I’m not complaining.

In fact, I am so immersed in this quest that I eagerly paid another $99 for an ancestry.com DNA kit. Sometime in the next six weeks, I’m to receive a complete breakdown of my genetic ethnicity and a list of new relatives. Given that my father and his family are from Russia, I may be related to a czar, for all I know.

It’s not easy to navigate some of the more arcane historical databases on ancestry.com, but when you get a hit, it’s like discovering gold. The sensation is euphoric, almost addictive. Thus far, I have traced 185 blood relatives, going back to 1790. Quite a shock for someone who had always thought her family was small.

When I began my exploration for cousin Saul, for example, I didn’t even know his name. All I knew was that Uncle Oscar had had a son who had died young in an accident. Along with Saul’s birth record from his synagogue’s archives, I found one paragraph about his death in, of all places, the Lethbridge (Alberta) Herald.

That led to a longer story in the Winnipeg Free Press, and, finally, to a detailed account in the Montreal Gazette. One family mystery solved, sort of, I thought. Many more to go.

I barely remember my father’s parents, who were in their 40s when they emigrated to Montreal from Russia in 1923. My grandfather, Eli Shister, was a lawyer, but on his arrival declaration to Canada, he listed his present — and intended — occupations as “farmer.”

The country needed farmers at the time, I later learned, so he had probably been coached about what to say. Sadly, he never practiced law again, and ended his life as a street peddler.

On the same document, it stated that my grandfather had $20 in his possession when he stepped ashore from the SS Doric, and that his Canadian sponsor was his brother-in-law, Morris Singerman. The latter set off all kinds of bells related to another Shister mystery.

Many years ago, I learned through an old school photo of my father’s that he had gone by the name of Singerman in Canada. When I asked him why, he insisted that he didn’t remember. I never found an explanation, until the revelation about Morris Singerman. It gave me goosebumps, I admit it.

My father may have taken the name as a way to honor his family’s sponsor to the free world. It may have been given to him by a befuddled immigration officer, a la Don Corleone in The Godfather, which happened a lot in those days. Regardless, Morris Singerman was a welcome clue.

My mother’s side, which settled in Boston, has generated its share of nuggets, albeit with less drama. I was pleasantly surprised to learn that longevity runs in the family, with many of my maternal ancestors living well into their 90s. And with bountiful broods — one of my great uncles sired 10 children in Russia.

My grandfather, Joseph Tuch, was one of six, including twin girls. He sailed to this country in 1903 out of Liverpool on the SS Ivernia. (Eleven years later, the Ivernia would serve as a British troop transport in World War I. It was sunk by a German sub in 1917.)

In a weird way, the passing of my great grandfather, Hirsch Tuch, gave me a chuckle. On his 1910 death certificate from the City of Boston, his occupation is listed as “retired saloon keeper.” Who knew?

I could go on, but don’t worry, I won’t. I am the first to acknowledge that my ancestry obsession is obscenely self-centric. But this treasure hunt has not only changed my summer, it has changed my life.

And that, I decided, was worth sharing.