The Last Passage

After seven years of exile in different parts of Europe (with 28 changes of address), the last passage of Walter Benjamin’s life was to Portbou. His death has been surrounded by unanswered questions and conflicting hypotheses. For many years the exact site where he was buried in the cemetery was not even known. Then in 1991, with the research involved in making the film The Last Frontier and the construction of the Memorial by Dani Karavan, official documents came to light in Portbou Town Hall that have cleared up some of the doubts about the exact circumstances of Benjamin’s death. However, a number of questions remain. The excerpts in italics below are from Lisa Fittko’s Escape Through the Pyrenees (Northwestern University Press, 1991), in which the activist who helped so many refugees over the Pyrenean border describes her crossing with Walter Benjamin. The most complete account of Benjamin’s death and the investigation of the various documents can be found in the book by Ingrid and Konrad Scheurmann, For Walter Benjamin (3 volumes), in Spanish, English and German (Bonn: AsKI e.v. and Inter Nationes, 1994).

Benjamin left Paris in May 1940, passed through Lourdes, and in mid-September reached Marseilles, where he had friends. He met up with Hannah Arendt and her husband Heinrich Blücher, with Arthur Koestler and with Hans Fittko, an old acquaintance who dashed his few remaining hopes of sailing from there to the United States. I’ll give you the address of my wife, Lisa, who has settled in Port-Vendres. She will help you. The only way to get out of France is to do so clandestinely through the mountains. After many difficulties, in Marseilles Benjamin obtained a visa from the U.S. consulate authorizing his entry into the United States, where he hoped to join his friends Horkheimer and Adorno and resume the work of the Frankfurt School in America. He had only one option: to get into Spain over a pass in the Pyrenees, cross the whole country to reach Portugal, and from there sail for America. This was the route taken by many refugees.

With his visa, Benjamin took the train to Port-Vendres with the photographer Henny Gurland (who subsequently married Erich Fromm in the United States) and her son Joseph, whom he had met when applying for the visa in Marseilles. At Port-Vendres, Lisa Fittko told them that the Mayor of Banyuls, Monsieur Azéma, an old republican Socialist, had let her know about a little-used path across the border to Portbou. Despite the difficulties of the route and Benjamin’s poor physical condition (he was 48 years old and had heart disease) it was evidently the only way.

On the afternoon of September 24, Lisa Fittko, Walter Benjamin, Henny Gurland and her son Joseph made a discreet survey of the track. Benjamin, too tired to go back to Banyuls, decided to stay all night on the mountainside and start the climb again from there in the morning. He spent the night alone in a little stand of pine trees. At dawn on the morning of September 25, Lisa, Henny and Joseph set out on the path to meet up again with Benjamin. Azéma had impressed upon us: “Leave before sunrise, mingle with the vineyard workers, take nothing with you … and don’t speak!” They did just that. The road, fairly flat at first, soon got steeper. The term “path” gradually proved to be an exaggeration. Now and then there was a path to be seen, but increasingly it was just a barely recognizable, gravelly track between boulders. Until we came to the steep vineyard, which I can never forget. It was the last vineyard. From there, the road became a clamber over rocks up the shady side of the mountain. Benjamin had calculated that, given his state of health, he would have to stop every ten minutes and rest for one, a resolution he strictly adhered to, concentrating on his watch and his rests. On the last stretch his companions had to help him. After several hours, they got to the top of the ridge. Finally we reached the summit. I had gone on ahead and I stopped to look around. The spectacular scene appeared so unexpectedly that for a moment I thought I was seeing a mirage … the deep-blue Mediterranean …There below us is Portbou!” At this point Lisa Fittko said goodbye. This had been her first crossing by this route on which she was to accompany so many other refugees. The rest of the party followed the path down into Portbou.

In Portbou the effects of the Civil War, which had ended 19 months before, were still very much in evidence. The bombing and shelling had been particularly destructive in the little border town. In Portbou, Benjamin and the Gurlands presented themselves to the police in the railway station, where they were told they were being refused entry into Spain. They would be handed over to the French authorities the following day, which meant their subsequent surrender to the Nazi authorities. Under police surveillance, they stayed the night at the Hostal França, now long closed. In room number 3, Walter Benjamin made some telephone calls, and then took a strong dose of morphine (he had brought it with him from Marseilles). The next morning — 26 September 1940 — his dead body was found on top of the bed. He was 48 years old.

If they had arrived a day earlier, they would not have been refused entry to Spain: a change of orders had been received that very day. If they had arrived a day later, they would probably have been allowed in. The Gurlands, at any rate, Benjamin’s travelling companions, were permitted to continue their journey, although perhaps this was due in part to the impact made on the local authorities and police by the death of ‘the German gentleman’. A few days later, Henny and her son Joseph boarded a ship for America.

Benjamin left a suitcase with a small amount of money in dollars and francs, which were changed into pesetas to pay for the funeral four days later. In the judge’s documentation the dead man’s possessions are listed as a suitcase leather, a gold watch, a pipe, a passport issued in Marseilles by the American Foreign Service, six passport photos, an X-ray, a pair of spectacles, various magazines, a number of letters, and a few papers, contents unknown, and some money. The medical certificate gave the cause of death as cerebral haemorrhage. Probably due to some confusion about his identity, Walter Benjamin was buried on 28 September in the Catholic section of Portbou cemetery, in a leased niche, number 563. In the summer of 1945, his remains were moved to the common burial ground.

In October 1940, four weeks after Benjamin’s death, Max Horkheimer sent a letter to the local authorities requesting precise details of the death of ‘the German gentleman’, thus providing a clue to his identity. Horkheimer received a reply noting the death from heart failure of Sr. Walter and that he had some few papers with him. In October of the following year Hannah Arendt visited Portbou with the idea of paying her respects to her dead friend, but found no gravestone in the cemetery with his name and no one who could tell her anything, as she explained in a letter to Gershom Scholem: I have found nothing, his name was nowhere.

In Portbou Walter Benjamin put an end to seven years of exile and the possibility of a new future in America. For the local people, the death of the mysterious foreigner became shrouded in legend, but for others it was a freely chosen exit, an authentic rebellion against the Nazi terror by one of the most lucid thinkers of modernity. However, no aspect of Benjamin’s death is definitively closed. One hypothesis holds that Benjamin was killed by Stalinist agents (the full arguments of this hypothesis is collected by Stuart Jeffries in his article ‘Did Stalin’s killers liquidate Walter Benjamin’ (The Observer, 8 July 2003). What is more, his guide across the mountains, Lisa Fittko, who died in 2005, referred on many occasions to the suitcase with a manuscript that Benjamin jealously guarded as a valuable treasure. Did it contain his final manuscript? The suitcase was never found: its fate is unknown, and in the judge’s report of the property of the deceased there is no mention of any manuscript.