The Death of Her­cules: A DocuNovel

September 1, 2020

Novem­ber 1918: World War I just end­ed and the dead­ly Span­ish flu was rag­ing across the world. Max Sher­tok, a Jew­ish immi­grant US Army Pri­vate, leaves his Big Red One fight­ing unit in France to res­cue his par­ents from civ­il war in Rus­sia. On his way east, he meets Rab­bi Zal­mund Hofitz and Deena Wojick, rene­gades from the Bol­she­vik Rev­o­lu­tion. The pair had fought police in the may­hem of work­er revolts in Poland, car­ried guns for the Bol­she­viks in the Red Ter­ror in Moscow, and ran con­tra­band for the crime syn­di­cate in the deca­dence of Kyiv. Togeth­er, the explo­sive tri­an­gle pro­duces love, betray­al, arrest and mass mur­der in the chaos that con­sumed Europe after the Peace. Will Max make it through the Cos­sacks, White Army, Anar­chists, Ukrain­ian Nation­als and Bol­she­viks to his par­ents and back home to the US? Based on real peo­ple and true sto­ries of the most tumul­tuous time of the century.

Discussion Questions

Cour­tesy of Daniel Yarosh

  1. Fore­shad­ow­ing. Many inci­dents in the book por­tray peo­ple and places that would become impor­tant in the future. For exam­ple, in 1918 the future leader of France, Charles deGaulle, was a foot sol­dier cap­tured by the Ger­mans; the future leader of post-war Ger­many, Kon­rad Ade­nauer, was the may­or of defeat­ed Köln; Auschwitz was a rail cen­ter for the Aus­tri­an army; pogroms against Jews reoc­curred before, dur­ing and after WWI. How does the past shape our future lead­ers? Is his­to­ry des­tiny? How has the pol­i­tics and pan­dem­ic of the past few years changed our future?

  2. Choice or Fate? Zal­mund takes the view that large move­ments in his­to­ry are events to be watched, not shaped, by peo­ple like him. He uses this to jus­ti­fy his par­tic­i­pa­tion in vio­lent and bru­tal actions. Can his­tor­i­cal des­tiny jus­ti­fy mur­der for a cause? What changes in moral­i­ty dur­ing social upheavals or polit­i­cal move­ments? When do you have a per­son­al oblig­a­tion to inter­vene, or can you just walk away? These ques­tions are as impor­tant dur­ing the Russ­ian Rev­o­lu­tion as dur­ing The Capi­tol Riots of Jan­u­ary 62021.

  3. Love Tri­an­gle. Times of great upheaval can make romance more poignant. Shared risks and sur­viv­ing dan­ger togeth­er can be intox­i­cat­ing. What was the basis for Zal­mund and Deena’s love affair? Were they both out­casts with shared val­ues, or sim­ply two who were thrown togeth­er in chaos? Why did Max feel that he had to save Deena and from what? What did Deena real­ly want? Some­times in the mid­dle of a love affair we are not able to see clear­ly our own self-interests.

  4. The Death of Her­cules. The Myth of Her­cules ends with his human-half death and ascent to Olym­pus because of the unin­tend­ed betray­al by his wife Deiani­ra. Was Max betrayed by Deena? Did Zal­mund intend to elim­i­nate Max as his rival? Or was this all the result of unin­tend­ed con­se­quences? We have all seen good inten­tions go bad­ly because of the unin­tend­ed con­se­quences of our actions. Are we respon­si­ble for dan­ger­ous acts because we mean well?

  5. The events of Katow­ice ver­sus Genesis:34. The sto­ry of Zal­mund in Katow­ice fol­lows the Gen­e­sis sto­ry, where the kid­nap­ping and rape of a woman results in the exe­cu­tion of all the gang mem­bers and much of the fam­i­ly. In the Gen­e­sis sto­ry this includes all the fam­i­ly of the gang and con­fis­ca­tion of all their prop­er­ty. In poten­tial­ly lethal con­flict, is there a moral rule for restraint? Are mem­bers of a group or gang respon­si­ble for the actions of their lead­ers? This is espe­cial­ly rel­e­vant dur­ing urban and civil­ian war­fare, as we saw dur­ing the recent con­flict in Israel and Gaza.

  6. Max and his broth­ers decid­ed that they had to get their par­ents out of Kher­son, even though, or because, they had heard noth­ing from them for more than a year. Is this an oblig­a­tion of hon­or­ing your par­ents – to save them even from them­selves? Do you think your par­ents would want you to risk your life to save them?

  7. Fam­i­ly sto­ries. We all have fam­i­ly sto­ries passed down, of brave or for­tu­nate events of our ances­tors in the midst of his­tor­i­cal change. Can you think of one? Have you ever ques­tioned whether all or parts of the sto­ry are even true? How does the sto­ry cement the family’s per­cep­tion of its his­to­ry? How do sto­ries get changed, by acci­dent or cover-up?