[6] The Tribulations of Escaping


Benjamin on the Edge of the Abyss

Some emigrants have no problems with the border route, the sixteen-kilometre-long path from Banyuls to Portbou via the 550 metre pass, while others only just make it. Many are in poor physical condition- after years in detention, in the underground, in exile or in internment camps, the ever- present fear of arrest, torture and death their constant companion (1➘).
Borders offer a way out, but are also always places of tension, panic, the feeling of loss, impotence, and danger. On the 26th September 1940, the rescue activist, Lisa Fittko takes Walter Benjamin across the Spanish border. It is the first time she has used this route-provided only with a description of the route and a sketch map drawn by the mayor of Banyuls, Vincent Azéma (2➘):

© From the documentary audio-book: Lisa Fittko: 'Meine Biographie liegt in der Weltgeschichte...' ABACUS Medien 2006

Close Originally we only wanted to investigate a short section of the route, and then go back, and to mingle with the winegrowers the following morning. But Benjamin had a weak heart and did not want to walk the whole way again. It was cold and we had no food or drink, but he could not be dissuaded. His system was: to rest before one was tired. That is why he walked to a strict plan.
Benjamin spends the night in the mountains. The following morning Lisa Fittko and the Gurlands come by and they continue on their way together.

Walter Benjamin’s Briefcase

Walter Benjamin, grown old before his time, complains of heart palpitations and finds the steep route up the mountain very difficult. In spite of this, he drags a briefcase containing a manuscript up over the Pyrenees. There is much speculation about which work the briefcase contains. His rescue activist Lisa Fittko talks about the climb up to the Spanish border:

© From the documentary audio-book: Lisa Fittko: 'Meine Biographie liegt in der Weltgeschichte...' ABACUS Medien 2006

Close Benjamin was weighed down by the briefcase. He said that it was his most recent manuscript, his most important work, more important than his life. I warned him of the danger of typhoid when he drank from a stagnant pool, and he replied, I won’t get typhoid until I am on Spanish territory and then my manuscript will have been saved.
The valuable manuscript is not saved. Even a conversation with Henny Gurland and her son, Joseph, who flee across the Pyrenees with Benjamin, fails to shed light on which of Benjamin’s works is meant here. It is often surmised that the incomplete Arcades-Project, which he deposited in the Paris National Library was in the briefcase (3➘).
Erdmut Wizisla, Director of the Walter Benjamin Archive in Berlin, doubts this:

Close If Benjamin had had this important work with him, why would he have left the earlier version of the Arcades Project in Paris for safe-keeping? It is, of course, possible that he had a newer version of the Arcades Project with him. But I believe that he had his work ‘On the Concept of History ‘in his bag, a work which he had sent to his friends, but was not sure it had arrived safely.
The manuscript is never found. In the Portbou Recorder’s report after Benjamin’s death there is a list of his remaining personal belongings, such as passport, glasses, pipe and mention only a few letters and newspapers.

Alma Mahler-Werfel, Heinrich Mann, …

For many city dwellers the foothills of the Pyreenes seem an insurmountable obstacle. The seventy-year-old author, Heinrich Mann describes the goat trail into exile in his memoirs (4➘):
I hadn’t climbed any mountain worthy of the name for years, and was, moreover, clumsy and no longer young, I very often landed on thorns.
On the 12th September 1940 Heinrich Mann flees along the cliffs, on the shortest route from Cerbere over the mountains to neighbouring Portbou. Accompanying him is the artist, Alma Mahler-Werfel (5➘):
The goats in front of us stumbled, the slate rocks glistened, they were as smooth as glass, and we had to walk on the edge of an abyss.
A few days later the escape route Cerbere- Portbou is too closely guarded. The resistance fighters, Else and Konrad Reisner, take the longer route from Banyuls , carrying their baby, who is only a few weeks-old on their backs. For the athletic Viennese author, Herta Pauli, the smugglers’ path would normally pose no problem, but she struggles over the mountain with a high fever and is arrested in Spain, along with her companion, Karl Frucht (6➘):
A couple of puppies were playing with a border guard , I crouched down on the ground and played with them. Then he suddenly smiled at me.
Chance and cigarettes for their guards give them their freedom the following day. The rescue activist, Albert O. Hirschman, also escapes via the F-route in December 1940. A Spanish cowherd, who shows him the way, refuses to take his money and just says proudly, Yo cuido mis vacas (I’m herding my cows) (7➘).

Further Reading and External Links

External Links open in a new browser window or tab.
You need an internet connection.
  1. The Virtual Museum, Arts in Exile, is a network project dealing with the phenomenon of exile [DE] [EN]:
  2. Lisa Fittko’s Reminiscences can be listened to here: Lisa Fittko: Meine Biographie liegt in der Weltgeschichte. Ein Dokumentar-Hörbuch – 3 CD mit Booklet, ABACUS Medien 2006
  3. An Unusual Approach to Benjamin’s Arcades Project: , Francesc Abad’s Art Project on Walter Benjamin: http://www.blockwb.net/ (is multilingual):
  4. Heinrich Mann: Ein Zeitalter wird besichtigt. Berlin 1973
  5. Alma Mahler-Werfel: Mein Leben. Frankfurt 1960
  6. Pauli, Hertha: Der Riss der Zeit geht durch mein Herz. Wien 1970
  7. The economist, Albert O. Hirschman, was active in the Italian resistance, fought in the Spanish Civil War, and worked for the Emergency Rescue Committee. His reminiscences in book form: A Propensity to Self-Subversion. Harvard 1998