What is the connection between Walter Benjamin and Portbou? It took me a few days to find the answer. I discovered that after seven years in exile and having lost his German nationality in 1939, the philosopher and literary critic left Paris in May 1940. He headed to Lourdes where he planned to meet Hannah Arendt. They would then try to travel to the United States, the destination for many of the Jewish thinkers from the Frankfurt School.
It seems that he was not expecting the news he received upon his arrival in Lourdes. He was told that the only way he could make his journey was to request a visa from the American Consulate first before entering Spain clandestinely. He would then have to travel its breadth to reach Portugal, where he could catch a boat to the United States. Benjamin was aware his destiny depended on factors beyond his control. Each milestone achieved would not guarrantee his victory, and failure was apossibility he’d have to prepare for.
A few days later, he left for Port-Vendres, a small fishing port on the French border with Spain. Once there, he found it was impossible to cross the frontier. Like hundreds of other exiles, he decided to enter Spain anyway. The only option available was the so-called ‘Lister route’ which ended in Portbou.
On the afternoon of September the 24th,1940, Benjamin and his friends did a practice run. Benjamin was exhausted due to his fragile health and decided to stay there and complete the journey the following day. Early in the afternoon of September the 25th he managed to reach the highest peak and, a few hours later, the village of Portbou.
He immediately presented himself to the Spanish police at the railway station, hoping to obtain authorisation to travel to Portugal. However, he was refused entry into Spain. Instead, an order was given for his deportation back to France and thus his inevitable hand in to the Nazis.
That night, under police surveillance, he stayed at what used to be the Francia Hotel. Benjamin stayed in Room 3, where he made several telephone calls, wrote a few letters and, finally, took a strong dose of morphine, which he had carried with him since Marseilles. The following morning, on 26th September 1940, the hotel staff found his lifeless body lying on the bed. He was 48 years old. Two days later his ashes were laid to rest in rented niche number 563 in the Catholic section of the Portbou cemetary.
A brief note found among his belongings summarises the brief time he spent in the Pyrenees:
“In a situation with no way out, I have no other choice. My life will end in a little village in the Pyrenees where nobody knows me. I ask you to pass on my thoughts to my friend Adorno and to explain the position I found myself in. I do not have enough time to write all the letters I would liked to have written.”
Shortly afterwards, Hannah Arendt visited Portbou cemetery, hoping to pay homage to her deceased friend, but she could not find a plaque with his name on it. This was not surprising as the official documents detailing the last moments of the German philosopher’s life, the causes of his death and the exact location of his remains were not published until 1991. They revealed that his ashes had been in a mass grave since 1945.
For a unique opportunity to relive history, you can follow the Walter Benjamin route in Portbou, clearly signposted in 5 different places. It traces the last 12 hours in the life of one of the great thinkers of the 20th century. This dramatic story gives pause for thought on the consequences of history and why, even in the 21st century, there are still cases in which race, creed or colour can determine a person’s destiny.
This special route includes a visit to the moving monument to the Memory of Walter Benjamin, by the artist Dani Karavan, and the historic exile routes of the Spanish Civil War.
Portbou’s Town Council has a free welcome service for visitors to Portbou and information for people interested in following the Walter Benjamin route. There are two routes:
The Urban Route, which is signposted in 5 places is in the town of Portbou. It takes you through the last places the thinker was in, where he presented himself to the police, where he died and the memorial created by Dani Karavan
Train: Daily trains leave Barcelona to Portbou. It is a two to three hour journey, depending on the train you take and the fare is €18.10. Consult renfe for the timetable.
Car: If you are traveling from Barcelona, take the AP-7 towards France until Exit 4. Head towards Roses and then take the NII road to Portbou. It is a two and a half hour drive and the highway toll is €12.90.
Where to sleep
- Casa Cundaro Apartments located in the heart of the Jewish Call of Girona.