In Memory of Walter Benjamin
The recovery of the memory of Walter Benjamin began in 1979. When Benjamin’s old friend, the German Jewish thinker Hannah Arendt came to Portbou in October 1940, shortly before leaving Europe for the United States of America, to look for her friend’s grave, nobody could tell her where it was: the philosopher had been buried under another name. As a Jew, fugitive, an exile, a philosopher and a probable suicide, his death demanded silence and discretion: he was buried in the Christian part of the cemetery under a stone without any name.
The first step to reinstate Benjamin and his sojourn in Portbou step was to locate the official death certificate and investigate the circumstances. One of the key moments in ensuring his remembrance was the unveiling of the memorial Passages by the Israeli sculptor Dani Karavan in the town cemetery.
Since then, the number of visitors has increased year by year. Two routes have been arranged Walter Benjamin: the route through the streets of the town and up to the cemetery, and the cross-border route by which Benjamin made his escape from Banyuls to Portbou, the last section of which was opened in summer 2009. In parallel, we have put together a collection of Walter Benjamin’s writings and studies of his work which will form part of the future Walter Benjamin Remembrance Centre, which after years of delay is now on the point of becoming a reality. Finally, in September each year, to mark the anniversary of the philosopher’s death, Portbou will host an international conference centred on Benjamin’s work with leading figures from the world of contemporary thought and culture.
Some significant dates:
1979 Unveiling of a plaque in the cemetery as Portbou’s first tribute to Walter Benjamin. Since then, acts of remembrance have been held every September, and three years later, in 1982, Portbou published the first booklet in memory of Walter Benjamin.
1984 In an article in the newspaper El País, Juan Goytisolo recalled Hannah Arendt’s visit to Portbou in 1940 and again raised the question of Walter Benjamin’s grave and the fate of his remains. Goytisolo’s article awakened considerable interest in intellectual circles at a time when the philosopher’s thought was attracting increasing attention worldwide.
1991 A large part of Manuel Cussó-Ferrer’s film The Last Frontier was shot in Portbou. With a script by Pilar Parcerisas and the director himself, and produced by Kronos Plays & Films, S.A., The Last Frontier was included in the Forum section of the Berlin International Film Festival in 1992, the centenary of the philosopher’s birth. The film shed new light on some of the mystery surrounding the route by which Benjamin crossed the border and the circumstances of his death, and these findings were subsequently published in the book Für Walter Benjamin (AsKI e.V. and Inter Nationes, Bonn, 1994).
1994 The unveiling of Dani Karavan’s memorial sculpture Passages, attended by Lisa Fittko, the activist who guided Walter Benjamin and other refugees on their clandestine crossing of the Pyrenees and the author of Escape through the Pyrenees.
1996 Chantal Benjamin, daughter of Walter Benjamin’s son Stefan (1918-1972) and his second wife, the poet and translator Marthe-Marie Germaine de Saint Ours (1923-1993), placed her mother’s ashes in Portbou cemetery in a private ceremony on 7 August.
1998 The project for the future Fundació Walter Benjamin begins to take shape.
2000 The writer Ingrid Scheurmann speaks at the first annual Conference, held to mark the 60th anniversary of Benjamin’s death.
2002 The architect Norman Foster submits a project for the conversion of the old Town Hall to house the future Fundació Walter Benjamin. The permanent Walter Benjamin exhibition opens in the Ca l’Herrero Civic Centre.
2003 A Homage to Walter Benjamin sponsored by the Catalan government. Portbou cedes the old Town Hall to the Fundació Walter Benjamin and the Generalitat de Catalunya agrees to take part in the project. Opening of the first section of the route Benjamin took from Banyuls to Portbou.
2004 The Universitat de Girona working group that will provide academic support to the Fundació Walter Benjamin is presented at the Conference marking the 64th anniversary of Benjamin’s death: Maria Recasens, Rudolph Zimmer, Àngel Quintana, Xavier Antich, M. Josep Balsach, Joan Nogué and J. Maria Nadal from the UdG, and A. Puigverd as external contributor.
2005 Lisa Fittko dies, aged 95. The Catalan government halts the Town Hall conversion by Norman Foster. German funding is sought for the Fundació Walter Benjamin, and Germany and Israel ask to join. That same year, the Argentine director David Mauas premieres the documentary Who Killed Walter Benjamin?
2007 Opening of the second section of the Walter Benjamin Route. The international agreement setting up the Fundació Internacional Walter Benjamin is presented at the Universitat de Girona.
2008 Presentation of the draft project for the Walter Benjamin Remembrance Centre and the Passages webcam (in operation since March 2009) at the Conference on the 68th anniversary of the philosopher’s death.
2009 Opening of the Coll dels Belitres Remembrance Site and the last section of the Walter Benjamin Route. The project for the Walter Benjamin Remembrance Centre is presented at the 69th Anniversary Conference.
2010 New Consortium Memorial Museum and Space Exile Memorial Walter Benjamin. The statutes of the consortium in charge of the Exile Memorial Museu are amended to include the Walter Benjamin Memorial Space in Portbou. From now on, the Exile Memorial Museum in La Jonquera and the Walter Benjamin Memorial Space in Portbou will be managed by the same consortium, composed of the two town councils, the Generalitat de Catalunya, the Alt Empordà Regional Council and the Universitat de Girona.