At the train station in Cerbère, France, M. and I have survived the grueling hike on the “ Sentier de la Liberté Walter Benjamin .” I recognize this place from a photograph Varian Fry, “The American Schindler,” took as he was leaving France one year after Walter Benjamin ended the same hike with suicide. Fry, having been expelled from France, was leaving his team, with my great-uncle Danny Bénédite in charge, to continue their work of rescuing people from the death camps. In just a few months Danny himself, hunted by the Gestapo, would go into hiding. Fry shot the photo leaning out of the train window, looking back at his colleagues lined up on the station platform, waving goodbye. They are scared. It is September 1941: a dark foreboding photograph, taken in a dark foreboding time. Even the name of this place hints at Cerberus, the many-headed hound who prevents the dead from escaping Hell. Something about the Cerbère station remains sinister to this day.
I’ve also studied a photograph of room number four in Hotel de Francia across the border in Portbou, Spain—the room where Benjamin took his life. It is a room that might render anyone suicidal. Benjamin wrote, “The camera introduces us to unconscious optics as does psychoanalysis to unconscious impulses” . The hotel no longer exists; we have only the photographic document, which I found on the internet. But as Benjamin might have predicted, in our times the image has replaced reality. We do not exist without documenting ourselves. Benjamin argued that the advent of photographic reproduction moved the work of art from the aura of the original out into the public sphere. It democratized our experience. But now that the public sphere is virtual and everywhere, I miss Benjamin. I would like to follow him on Twitter. What would he say about the internet?
photo courtesy of the author
I have so much to ask Benjamin and so I talked my friend M. into the hike even though it is rated difficile with three little hiking boots and a warning that one needs proper footwear, food, and water. Halfway through the day I admit to myself: Three boots is at least one too many for someone like me who is middle-aged and overweight. Someone like Walter Benjamin. In fact my companion, M., with his asthma, and I are both a little like Walter Benjamin.
Before Benjamin set off on this trail, which was his final attempt to escape the Nazis, his health had deteriorated from years of exile. Having been stripped of his German nationality, Benjamin tried unsuccessfully to get French naturalization. Like my own grandfather, he was stateless, making it almost impossible for him to get travel documents. And few countries were accepting Jewish refugees. Short of money and a stable address, he relied on the kindness of friends. For most of this desperate time he took refuge in the Bibliotheque Nationale in Paris, surrounded by what he loved most: books.
photo courtesy of the author
When M. and I set off on our hike the countryside around us is bucolic. It’s an Indian summer day. The hillside vineyards behind Banyuls-sur-Mer are golden and the smell of the sea fills the air. The trail, which is a memorial, starts at another memorial—the Lisa Fittko Memorial in a newish subdivision in the hills above the harbor. Lisa and her husband Hans were German refugees and anti-Hitler activists. The Fittkos were asked by Varian Fry to delay their own escape from France in order to help others flee.
Starting in August of 1940, Fry and a small team of American and French anti-Nazis, which included my great-uncle Danny, helped at least 2,200 refugees escape from France. And they hid and supported roughly 4,000 more within France. Working against them were the Vichy government, the Nazis, and the Americans, who wanted to maintain neutrality. In spite of that, the list of artists and scholars they saved is impressive, and includes Marc Chagall, Hannah Arendt, Max Ernst, André Breton, Marcel Duchamp, and Nobel Laureate Otto Meyerhof.
I discovered this little-known story about Fry, and Danny’s role in Benjamin’s life, soon after I moved to Paris in the 1990s. Also, soon after I moved there, Danny, at age seventy-five, learning of his terminal diagnosis of Parkinson’s, took his own life. Many who lived through the war wrote about the despair when one cannot control one’s destiny. I understood Danny’s later suicide as an attempt to die on his own terms. This is the family story that led me to hike the trail, and to talk M. into hiking it with me, without mentioning the three-boots rating.
The hike follows the route the Fittkos used to smuggle people out of France into Spain. Benjamin, like us, had to stop every few minutes to catch his breath. With Teutonic precision he climbed for ten minutes and stopped for one, timing himself with his pocket watch. But M. and I aren’t fleeing for our lives. It’s a gorgeous day and we can stop to admire the surroundings. We find the markings of the trail easily. When I see a graffiti stencil of Benjamin on a shepherd’s hut, I snap a picture of it, like a groupie on a pilgrimage. Walter Benjamin, a German philosopher, whose eclectic writings cover diverse fields of thought, was largely unknown during his lifetime, except by an inner circle of friends who included Brecht, Adorno, Arendt, and Georges Bataille. Today, Benjamin is known for his enduring contributions to modern philosophy, art theory, and aesthetic theory. His essays are standard texts for students of art, film, and the history of ideas.
photo courtesy of the author
My devotion to Benjamin began when I moved to Paris and learned about his Arcades Project through The Dialectics of Seeing by Susan Buck-Morss. The book is a synthesis of Benjamin’s unfinished or lost work about the Paris shopping arcades, which was his wide-ranging, brilliant investigation of modernity, capitalism, and the new consumer society. Benjamin counters the Marxist utopian belief that once the workers own the means of production everyone will be happy, with insights into the political power of consumption. Looking at the arcades, precursors of the shopping mall, he argues that workers will be satisfied owning knick-knacks. People will be mollified if they can just buy enough stuff. I am reminded of George W. Bush after the attacks of 9/11 telling Americans to go shopping to prove the terrorists wrong. It is not hyperbolic to say Benjamin was a visionary.
What remains of this unfinished or lost manuscript is voluminous file cabinets, a collection of notes, images, postcards, and clippings that he called the Passagen-Werk . According to Buck-Morss, Benjamin’s thirteen-year project was “a historical lexicon of the capitalist origins of modernity, a collection of concrete factual images of the urban experience” . His files of cards and bits can be moved around and rearranged. He did not work in a linear fashion, constructing an authoritative narrative, but more like a poet who finds meaning in discursive connections. Everything was fair game for Benjamin: smoking hashish, the origins of German tragic drama, Baudelaire, Daguerre and dioramas. The street, the arcade, the labyrinth are recurring motifs. His mental landscape mirrored the urban cityscape. In Paris, I was having my first real urban experience. Benjamin brought me to Baudelaire and the concept of the flâneur. I loved that according to Benjamin, as a flâneur aimlessly wandering, I was performing the revolutionary act of thumbing my nose at capitalism’s demands for my productivity. I spent days wandering from Place des Abbesses to the Parc Montsouris, never knowing what I would find.
One day I came upon a pile of books, clothes, and odd furniture dumped on the sidewalk. There was a manuscript of sorts and pages of it were blowing away in the wind. Passersby were scrambling through the boxes of books. I asked and was told an American writer had died in the building. No one knew his name. He had no family. The landlord had thrown all his things onto the street. Here it was, his library, his life’s work, up for grabs. There were great books of poetry and philosophy. Someone in the crowd commented that the writer must have been a grosse tête. As I walked away I saw more pages of his manuscript blowing down the damp street and I felt sickened. I put the books back down.
Soon after this experience, a friend gave me a copy of Benjamin’s essay “Unpacking My Library: A Talk about Book Collecting.” As he unpacks his library, he describes how each book evokes in his mind a wave of memories. Benjamin writes, “Every passion borders on the chaotic, but the collector’s passion borders on the chaos of memories” . There is a certain pathos rereading this essay, knowing that as a refugee he would be forced to abandon his collection. And knowing how he would cling to his final manuscript as if it were all that mattered.
Benjamin suggests one sure-fire way to build your library: by borrowing books and not returning them. He begins by promising to talk about the act of collecting and not the collection itself, but then midway through he can’t help himself, he joyously plunges into the stories of his own books. “Ownership is the most intimate relationship that one can have to objects” . I was hooked.
“The work of memory collapses time,” Benjamin wrote. I want to collect my family’s memory, to collage my present from our past. And I know it is a rather fetish-like act to hike this trail because it was his last trail, but somehow I think he would approve. Benjamin worked by montage, by finding illumination in the surreal interruption of contexts.
Initially our hike progresses smoothly. We pass the Col del Bast where Benjamin spent the night. He had gone with Fittko on a scouting mission. She had never led people this way; Benjamin’s group, which included two others, Mrs. Gurland and her teenage son José, would be Fittko’s first. Benjamin wanted to go with her to see what was ahead of him, and I imagine when it was time for them to turn back, he could not face returning to climb the same climb the very next day. He elected to sleep there on an open grassy spot alone at the mountain pass while Fittko returned to the village. This would have been his penultimate night alive. I imagine him looking at the stars and the dome of heaven, still hopeful of escape. Benjamin said, “Only for the sake of the hopeless ones we are given hope” .
We stop for some lunch. I am hopeful that soon we will reach the Col de Rumpissa, where we will cross into Spain and from there head downhill to Portbou, our destination. M. is alarmed that the hike is more than he bargained for. But at this stage he still teases me. We’ve known each other for two decades. We talk as we hike: worries about money, my children, and his music. Then we go darker. M. recently went through a suicidal period. I was married to a man who was suicidal, and years ago I discovered the body of a friend who had killed herself. We circle the subject. It’s the subtext of the hike. But it’s all right because M. makes me laugh. I tell him that all my depressed friends are comics, or all the comics are depressed. It’s hard to say which comes first. But I’m an optimist, so not really funny but at least a good audience.
photo courtesy of the author
Around 2:30 our moods shift. M.’s banter ends; he’s not even trying to crack jokes about killing himself. When I mention how beautiful it is, he says he’s too miserable to look. Yet the thought of turning around, undoing what we’ve just done, that’s too daunting. The trail is steep, rugged and uneven. There are slopes of sliding shale and gravel. There are no guardrails and plenty of places to fall off the side of the mountain.
A couple catches up to us on the trail. With their better map, they feel we are one hour away from the top. After they pass we talk about turning around. It’s now or never.
Both M. and I were sailors before we met. We know about difficult passages, ornery crews, failing navigational equipment. We have been in the middle of an ocean passage, with heavy winds and battering seas, and with the realization that sometimes the only way out of a bad situation is to keep moving through it. This has been a valuable lesson for me in writing and in life. In the midst of our deliberations, the woman returns and calls down the trail to tell us that they’ve reached the Col de Rumpissa, only a short distance away!
“We almost pulled a Walter Benjamin,” M. says. He means quitting too soon, thinking hope is lost when in fact we are only five minutes away from the highest point of the hike.
At the Col de Rumpissa we can see France in one direction and Spain in the other. In front of us is the blue Mediterranean, and behind us the gray peaks of Pyrenees, like waves reaching into the distance. Since the European Union, these old borders within Europe are now arbitrary lines that once meant so much. The only way I know I am in Spain is a ding on my phone announcing roaming charges. How different from the outer borders of Europe where people stake everything for a chance to enter.
History repeats itself and, Benjamin argues in defiance of the ideology of his times, reveals that progress is an empty concept. The enthusiasm for world’s fairs and the fantasy perfection of the arcades all heralded a better future. Victor Hugo said, “Progress is the footstep of God himself” . The Marxists believed that the revolution would deliver humanity to a perfect world. But with the rise of Hitler and the approach of the next catastrophe, Benjamin, like a Cassandra, saw otherwise. He saw it in Paul Klee’s painting Angelus Novus :
This is how one pictures the angel of history. His face is turned toward the past. Where we perceive a chain of events, he sees one single catastrophe, which keeps piling wreckage upon wreckage and hurls it in front of his feet. The angel would like to stay, awaken the dead, and make whole what has been smashed. But a storm is blowing from Paradise; it has got caught in his wings with such violence that the angel can no longer close them. This storm irresistibly propels him into the future to which his back is turned, while the pile of debris before him grows skyward. This storm is what we call progress .
Benjamin’s vision is clear-eyed as the poet whose contradictions make membership to any club impossible: He is drawn to historical Marxist materialism, but he can never believe in its romantic hope or join the party; he is passionate about literature and critical theory, but sees it being debased by the commodification of culture; he is drawn to ecstatic messianic Judaism, but refuses immigration to Israel and never embraces faith. Still he holds out hope for the here-and-now present, ending his “Theses on History” with the line, “every second of time was the strait gate through which the Messiah might enter” .
At the Col de Rumpissa we feel the pyrrhic victory of progress, hoping we have endured the worst. Lisa Fittko left Benjamin and the group at the Col de Rumpissa. She had no papers to enter Spain. She pointed out Portbou, which from the top does look like it would be a mere climb back down, but which in fact is several climbs in and out of mountain ravines. Going downhill is slippery and I fall a few times. We are committed, I say, just like an ocean passage. And then we run out of water.
Benjamin ran out of water too. Lisa Fittko describes how they passed a puddle of green and slimy water. When Benjamin knelt to drink it, she warned he was risking typhus. Benjamin replied with customary politeness, “The worst that can happen is that I die of typhus after crossing the border. The Gestapo won’t be able to get me, and the manuscript will be safe. I do apologize” . And then he drank.
Dizzy with thirst, we at last descend to an area with houses and people. I flag down a truck and we are saved. At the train station, we have a happy reunion with the French couple. We buy tickets for Cerbère, the town immediately across the border in France.
As I stand on the platform in Portbou station, I think this is the place where Benjamin was stopped and informed by the police that the stateless would no longer be allowed into Spain. This is the place where he was told the proper authorities would be called. This is the place where he knew he would be handed over to the Gestapo and to his death. Under surveillance the group was taken to the Hotel de Francia. In room number three Benjamin wrote a letter to Adorno and took an overdose of morphine.
With sad fickle irony, the Spanish reopened their borders to the stateless the next day; Mrs. Gurland and José were allowed to continue into Spain and on to Portugal where a week later they caught a ship to America. It makes me wonder about the power held in these places of border and control, where the gatekeepers make with a flick of their hand such vital decisions. On the memorial to Benjamin in Portbou is a quote from his “Theses on History”: “There is no document of civilization which is not at the same time a document of barbarism.” I think of the papers on which lives are lost or saved: the grant of asylum, the transit visa, the passport, the functionaries’ stamp, and the whole morass of what Arendt would call “the banality of evil.”
photo courtesy of the author
The day M. and I climbed over the mountains, hundreds of thousands of refugees are desperate to get into Europe. They are trapped in a no man’s land of war, held in camps, sent back on trains, stormed by police, preyed on by human traffickers, drowned on beaches, and used as pawns in the fear-mongering propaganda of demagogues. In 1940, it was Benjamin and my grandfather. It’s just a trick of birth, of timing, if this is to be your fate or not.
Did Benjamin gamble that if he died in that hotel his belongings already safely out of France could be claimed by friends and thus his manuscript had a chance to survive? With the same fanaticism of his enemies, had he come to believe that an object was more valuable than his own life?
The police record of his personal effects includes a leather briefcase, a man’s watch, a pipe, six photographs, an X-ray photograph, glasses, various letters, and some periodicals. The manuscript is not mentioned and has never been found.
So what happened to Benjamin’s manuscript? A month later, in a letter to her cousin, Mrs. Gurland wrote about that night. She was called to Benjamin’s room where he informed her he had taken the pills and he gave her a letter for Adorno. Then he lost consciousness and died. She describes enduring “a horrible fear for José and myself until the death certificate was made out the next morning” . She had papers for America, but José, like Benjamin, was slated to be sent back to France. She must have been overwhelmed by terror, as any mother would be. She admits to her cousin that she destroyed the letter for Adorno. Perhaps Benjamin had asked her to take his manuscript and send it with the letter to Adorno. But knowing that Benjamin was on the Gestapo’s list of wanted persons, and desperate to save her son’s life, she might have thought the letter and manuscript were too dangerous. If it meant risking my son’s life, I know I would.
As we move our aching middle-aged bodies toward the local bar, I tell M. that I am the optimist, but I’m also the one who finds the body. “We don’t think about the body left behind,” M. says as a way to ease my hint of resentment and to end the conversation.
Benjamin might have been desperate, exhausted, or taking a gamble. But he did leave something behind. He was a storyteller, and part of his story would be his suicide. He wrote, “Death is the sanction of everything that the storyteller can tell. He has borrowed his authority from death” .
Ours was just a day’s hike between old friends. The outcome of Benjamin’s last hike, like the journey of so many refugees, was left to the arbitrary fate of history, a question of life or death, a gamble.
1. Walter Benjamin, Illuminations , (1969) ed. Hannah Arendt, trans. Harry Zohn (New York: Schoken Books, 1969) from “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction,” p. 235.
2. Susan Buck-Morss, The Dialectics of Seeing, Walter Benjamin and the Arcades Project, (Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press, 1989), from a transcript of a phone conversation between Gershom Scholem and Lisa Fittko in 1980, p 332.
3. Benjamin originally conceived of this work as a fifty-page essay, but when his notes were finally published in 1982 the volume numbered over a thousand pages. The standard English edition is The Arcades Project , trans. Howard Eiland & Kevin McLaughlin, Cambridge, MA. & London: Belknap Press, 1999.
4. Buck-Morss, The Dialectics of Seeing, (1989), p 336.
5. Benjamin, Illuminations , (1969), from “Unpacking My Library,” p. 60.
6. Benjamin, Illuminations , (1969) , p. 67.
7. Walter Benjamin’s Selected Writings, volume 1, 1913-1926 (Belknap Press, 1996). It is the concluding sentence of the essay “Goethe’s Elective Affinities,” in the translation by Stanley Corngold, p. 356.
8. Buck-Morss, The Dialectics of Seeing, (1989), p. 90.
9. Benjamin, Illuminations , (1969), from “Theses on the Philosophy of History,” p. 257.
10. Benjamin, Illuminations , (19690, p. 264.
11. Fittko, Escape Through the Pyrenees , (1991), p. 112.
12. Buck-Morss, Dialectics of Seeing , (1989), p. 333.
13. Benjamin, Illuminations , (1969), p. 369.