Fritz sat at the head of the table, glowing. The dinner party was past the early stages of food and formality and onto drinks and raucous discussion; juicy gossip of the philosophy department like who was screwing whom and who shouldn’t get tenure; an impassioned diatribe about disco, hip-hop, and punk rock, and how the three were born in the same New York borough in 1977; overflowing confession of pet peeves and childhood fetishes. Fritz remained mostly silent, basking in everyone else’s warmth. Janice, the one undergraduate at the table, sat to his right, lobbing question after yearning question toward him, trying to gain his approval. He responded tersely but in a way that only made her want to ask more questions.
Stan’s voice rose above the rest, “What do you think would’ve been Heidegger’s favorite song- in 1977?” “Let it Be” said Doug. Stan said, “But that was like, ten years old by then.” Doug replied, “But this is Heidegger, of course he’s ten years behind!” Everyone except Fritz and Janice laughed. “Sex Pistols. Pretty Vacant” said Levi, “Because we are. Oh so pretty vacant“. Even Fritz laughed at that one. Janice said, “What do you mean, I don’t get it” “Well, my dear” said Levi, “Dasein, that is, you and I, are hopelessly empty. Inchoate. That’s a bad thing, if we run away from it. But if you stay there, suspended in the midst of nothingness, you just might have a shot”. Janice said, “A shot at what? Where’s the bottle opener?” She stared helplessly at the antique bottle of wine Fritz quietly set in front of her a minute before. “Right here” said Fritz. He handed her a stainless steel wine opener. As Janice struggled to screw it in, she said, “I just love it here. It’s so warm and, and magical. No that’s not it…” Fritz lifted the bottle from her hands.
“It’s Gemütlich“, said Fritz, while efficiently opening the bottle with a POP, “what you are feeling is something no English word can describe”. He poured the white wine generously into Janice’s glass then handed her the bottle. He pointed with his eyes to her left and she automatically passed it to Doug. “Gemewtlish” said Janice. Laurie couldn’t help but snicker as she in turn passed it to Levi, who sat at Fritz’s left. “This bottle looks like it’s come a long way”, said Levi, holding it up to the light. “Where did you, when the hell did you get this? Nineteen-forty…”
“… Last spring” Fritz changed his demeanor from spectator to lecturer, grabbing everyone’s attention, “I was in Würzburg, Germany, visiting a distant cousin. It was March 16. On that same day, over fifty years ago, Würzburg was completely destroyed by British warplanes. It was one of the most senseless tragedies of the war. Berlin was captured only days later. Würzburg was of no strategic importance whatsoever. The British simply wanted to make the German people suffer. Like Dresden- firebombed just weeks before- Würzburg was an old medieval city, made of old, desiccated wood. It and nearly all its inhabitants were incinerated in less than seventeen minutes. From the heavens, Fire fell upon this city as it peacefully slept, nestled in the Franconian hills, hills that are, as it were, carpeted by grapevines. That is where this came from.”
Fritz held out his hand to Levi who, reluctantly, handed him the bottle. Fritz filled his own glass then set the bottle in the middle of the table. “I said the city was completely destroyed. Not completely. In the center, the oldest bell tower of the oldest church still stood, rising out of the carnage. After the war, it was considered whether or not Würzburg should even be rebuilt. It was at this bell tower…” Fritz pointed at the bottle of wine “…that the women of Würzburg rallied (for there were no men left), clearing the entire city brick by brick. Trümmerfrau, or Rubble Women, we call them. The city and all its former buildings were re-built to a T. Anyways, to get to the end, I was there on the night of the 16th, and witnessed their annual memorial. Every light and television in the city is shut off. The city cloaks itself in darkness. Then, for seventeen minutes, every bell in every church rings louder and louder. Both windows and your heart begin to sound and ring and vibrate, to hover and to tremble. The old widows weep.
Silence grew over the table. Janice muffled a burp. “A Toast!” Everyone raised their glass. “To Würzburg!” Almost everyone. Levi’s still sat on the table. Everyone but Fritz looked at him with confusion. Levi asked, “But how did you get this bottle? 1944. It had to be made by the… the Germans were…” “I said I had a distant cousin”, said Fritz. Janice hit her glass a couple times with her fork, the sound resonating through the thick air that had seeped into the room and said, “How ’bout it? A toast to Wurtzburg!’ Fritz’s hand remained raised level. Levi’s hand stayed down. Everyone else shifted uncomfortably.
“I’m not drinking Nazi Wine”, said Levi. There were a few nervous laughs. Some of the hands lowered a bit, but nobody set their glasses down. Everyone looked to Fritz for a reply, and in a sense, instruction. He gave none, except for raising his glass up into the air a little higher, his arm becoming almost straight. Their eyes darted from Fritz to Levi, rising a little when they looked at one and lowering when they looked at the other. Some of the hands began to shake, from the physical strain or nervousness or both. “I’ll toast”, said Levi. “Thank God”, said Janice. “To the destruction of Würzburg” said Levi. Fritz’s hand stayed right where it was. Everyone else’s continued to sway up and back and down and forth like church bells.
“I told you” said Fritz, with gathering impatience, “Würzburg was a peaceful city. It was innocent. As was Dresden. The allies had murder on their mind, not war.” “You did not tell me” said Levi “how you got this bottle. Except for your ‘distant cousin’. Which you continue to distance yourself from…” “… I will not” said Fritz “they were Nazis. I admit it. There’s no such thing as a German- or an Austrian, for that matter- who survived the war who was not a Nazi. Joining the Nazi party was a matter of survival. Fight them and you were dead. It was that simple. But if you’re to tell me a German mother of three is as evil as Himmler, then that’s absurd.” Levi said, “So your ancestors were Nazis. This wine was made by Nazi hands“.
Fritz looked Levi right in the eye and said, “No more a Nazi than your intellectual father, Heidegger was. The Man nearly all of you have built your entire academic career upon”. Everyone else’s hand rose quickly, rigid like a flag at half-mast. Levi drank his entire glass in one gulp and slammed it down.
Fritz quit his argumentative posture and began to speak gently, grazing them with the sound of his voice “Think of it this way” he said, “These grapes arose from the Earth. They didn’t know politics or right or wrong. They became what they are- grapes- from a tiny seed. Their entire existence was mapped out in the beginning within that tiny kernel. We are like those seeds, hopelessly becoming what we already are. We do have, however, some capacity to change things. So did Heidegger. Perhaps he could have done better. But let us not confuse autonomy with godliness. We, like the grapes, have to deal with the conditions of life: Earth, Air, and Water. And Fire. The Fire that fell upon Würzburg was the same Fire used in the Crematoriums. The same Fire vanquished the Armenians and the Native Americans. Yet we drink Turkish Coffee and smoke Virginian cigarettes. Can we not taste Franconian Riesling?”
“Prost” “Prost” “Prost” “Prost” “Prost”
The entire table, minus Levi, raised their arms as if performing a bygone salute and tapped each other’s glasses.