Published on Sunday, August 1, 2004 by the Los Angeles Times
Hatred at One End, Rejection at the Other
A Writer retraces philosopher Walter Benjamin's failed Walk to Freedom
by Rebecca Solnit
In 1939, when the dictator Francisco Franco declared an end to the Spanish Civil War, tens of thousands of refugees walked north over the Pyrenees, seeking shelter in France. They expected to be welcomed as defenders of democracy; instead many were forced into camps. A year later, the tide had turned, and refugees from the Third Reich and the Vichy regime began trickling from France into Spain, seeking passage out of Europe via Spanish or Portuguese ports. The writer-philosopher Walter Benjamin, a Berlin Jew who had been living in Paris for many years, was one of them, and the tale of his 1940 walk from France to Spain has acquired something of the aura of a legend in the academic and intellectual circles where he matters most, for at the end of it, in Port Bou, Spain, he died.
I'd always wondered about that walk and had always wanted to repeat it, in part to mull over the vicious circumstances that in the end turned Benjamin, a consummate wanderer of Paris streets, into an escapee and a hiker.
My companion and I traveled to our starting point, a steep amphitheater of grape terraces behind the town of Banyuls, France, by the only viable local transit from the next town over, a taxi. The Mediterranean was blue, the unripe grapes were the same green as the leaves of the vines, and the ground was covered with a deep-brown shale. I'd never been to the region, but it all looked strangely familiar, the vineyards like a leaner, steeper version of Sonoma, the hillsides above like the coast north of San Francisco, down to the live oaks and fennel. After we climbed above the vineyards, we walked for a long time on a road, alone except for the insects.
There were huge grasshoppers with the wingspans of dragonflies when they took to the air, and small ones whose scarlet wings made them look like butterflies that vanished into drabness when they landed. And there were many species of butterfly: small white ones, a yellow one that folded its wings to look like a green leaf and a pair of swallowtails that chased and courted each other in the breeze. My companion commented that butterflies have four basic wing motions, which occur in so random a sequence that predators cannot predict their course; this erratic movement makes them elusive. It struck me that the same could be said of Benjamin, who as a historian, a theorist, a lyrical writer created work as uncategorizable as it is influential. He devoted himself to elucidating the meaning of Paris, labyrinths, cities, walks — exploring a series of ideas that spiral around, double back, open into each other, metamorphose and make endless connections, a map of the world drawn as much by poetic intuition as by rational analysis. He was devotedly urban, unathletic, nearsighted, with heart trouble, wandering his Paris labyrinths slowly. He was supremely unequipped for what even the foothill walk from France to Spain would require of him. On his walk to Spain, Benjamin carried a heavy briefcase containing, he told his companions, a new manuscript more important to him than his life, and it was part of what made the walk so arduous for him that he had to stop one minute out of 10 to catch his breath. There is a steep ascent to the plateau between Banyuls and the slopes east of Cerberes, during which the route points due south then rises to loop around the ridgeline that is also the international border. Finally, the path heads due east again along the south-facing slopes above Port Bou. The route looks like a giant inverted question mark, like the ones at the beginning of questions in Spanish.
Benjamin was fortunate in his guide, Lisa Fittko, who was exploring the route thoroughly for the first time when she led him and another pair of refugees to Spain. Fittko is one of the countless heroes who rose to confront disaster. Active against the Nazis, she had had to leave Germany for Paris years before. Then, when France surrendered and the Nazis moved south, Fittko, like Benjamin, like myriad Jews, foreigners and resisters, fled south, looking for a way out of the noose. Fittko came to the southeast corner of France alone to look for escape routes and was given enormous assistance by the townspeople of Banyuls and their socialist mayor, who told her about a smuggler's route that had also been used by the communist Gen. Enrique Lister in the Spanish Civil War. Over the next six months, Fittko helped hundreds of refugees escape along this route before fleeing herself to Cuba, then to the United States, where she is living in Chicago, now in her mid-90s.
The trip, though not more than 15 miles, took Benjamin and Fittko nine hours. But that wasn't the end of Benjamin's ordeal. For refugees in 1940, there was a labyrinth of international paperwork to wade through. Fittko, in her memoir "Escape Through the Pyrenees," recounts the nightmares of scrambling for money to buy exit visas and destination visas, fake papers and real ones. Appeals had to be made to consuls and smugglers and forgers amid a shifting set of opportunities, risks and rules.
Having survived the walk, Benjamin fell into one of those traps. He had a U.S. visa issued in Marseilles and a Spanish visa, but he did not have a French exit visa, and the Spanish authorities in Port Bou told him he would be sent back. Though the nature of his death is unresolved — it may have been from a cerebral hemorrhage, an accidental overdose of his heart medicine or suicide — it is certain that Benjamin died in Port Bou, in a hotel that no longer exists, on Sept. 26, 1940, at the age of 48. Moved by the tragedy, the authorities allowed his companions to continue their journey to Portugal. No one knows what happened to the briefcase he was carrying, described by Spanish officials as containing papers of "contenido desconicido" — "unknown content."
In recent years, the town has begun to remember Benjamin, with a brochure distributed at a kiosk on the beach, with a new grave, with a small museum and with a brilliant monument by the Israeli artist Dani Karavan. On the same steep slope as the cemetery, it consists of a long, walled flight of stairs down toward the sea, a portion of it passing under the surface of the hillside. When you enter, the view through a slot of solid rusted steel frames the blue ocean; when you look up, it shows pure sky.
The monument describes both the tragedy of Benjamin and of the tides of refugees pushed by violence and intolerance across borders then and now. For neither the sea nor the sky is an attainable place; both are only beautiful beyonds. And when you descend, you find that a thick slab of clear plexiglass keeps you from falling into the ocean. Etched on it, in several languages, are words of Benjamin's: "It is more arduous to honor the memory of the nameless than that of the renowned. Historical construction is devoted to the memory of the nameless."
For me, there's always been a question mark inscribed across Europe, one that asks what that continent would have looked like without the persecutions and exterminations of World War II, a Europe with 6 million more Jews and their descendants. But the Europe that Benjamin came from vanished as he did. Many of his friends — Theodor Adorno, Hannah Arendt and many other poets, scientists, philosophers, painters — were more successful. They got to the United States or elsewhere and never went back. In Europe, towns from Salonika, Greece, to Krakow, Poland, are missing the Jews who were central to their cultural life. And it seems to be starting again: In France, Jewish emigration to Israel has nearly doubled of late, perhaps in response to a new wave of anti-Semitism.
Benjamin's walk was a reminder that Europe, which so often seems more cosmopolitan than the U.S., was convulsed by rabid intolerance in 1940 — and that intolerance is more than a distant memory. The week we retraced Benjamin's route, the International Court of Justice ruled that much of the fence across the Palestinian West Bank was illegal. In Arizona, vigilantes patrol the U.S.-Mexican border. In Tijuana, a new border fence and station are going up. And the United Nations counts 17 million refugees and displaced people in the world, a considerable portion hoping for sanctuary in Europe. At the beginning of our hike, our taxi driver told us that he got calls sometimes from refugees seeking rides across the border. He always refused, he added.
Benjamin was extraordinary in his life. But in his death, he was ordinary, another refugee denied refuge. On his grave, another line of his is written: "There is no document of civilization which is not at the same time a document of barbarism."
Rebecca Solnit is the author of, among other books, "River of Shadows: Eadweard Muybridge and the Technological Wild West" and "Wanderlust: A History of Walking."
Copyright 2004 Los Angeles Times