For as long as there have been borders, an official stamp can make the difference between life and death-even today. Walter Benjamin is also powerless in the face of the Kafkaesque situation of complete arbitrariness and impenetrable bureaucracy. After a gruelling flight over the Pyrenees, Benjamin, the photographer, Henny Gurland and her son finally reach Portbou in the evening of the 25th September, 1940. Benjamin has a visa for the USA and the necessary transit visas for Spain and Portugal. The only thing missing is the almost unobtainable French exit stamp, something which the border post disregarded the previous day.
Walter Benjamin’s death certificate from the official death records in Portbou
But now new regulations apply, the Spanish border police deny the fugitives entry. After a night in a guesthouse they are to return to France under guard. Carina Birman, a fellow fugitive, who is also in the same guesthouse, remembers:
Benjamin was “in a desolate state of mind and in a completely exhausted physical condition.
Many fugitives make multiple attempts to escape, Birman together with Sophie Littmann bribe the border guards with gold coins. However, Benjamin with his weak heart gives up in the face of the danger of falling into the hands of the Nazis. Henny Gurland:
He told me that he had taken a large dose of morphine at ten o’clock and that I should try and make them believe the cause of death was illness.
Death and Funeral
Memorial plaque for Walter Benjamin at the former Fonda Francia, where he died
Walter Benjamin dies on the 26th September, 1940 in Portbou. The witnesses to his final hours: Henny und Joseph Gurland, Carina Birman, Grete Freund remember hearing the sounds of someone gasping for breath coming from his room. Like Birman they all conclude that he has committed suicide by taking an overdose of morphine:
We heard that he had succeeded and was no more amongst us.
Henny Gurland reports that Benjamin is said to have made his intentions clear in a letter to Theodor W.Adorno. The letter has not survived and Gurland is just quoting from memory:
With no way out, I have no other choice but to end it. It is in a small village in the Pyrenees where no one knows me that my life reaches its conclusion. (3➘)
View of the sea from Portbou cemetery
The town magistrate of Portbou lists Benjamin’s final possessions: pocket watch, bank notes, passport, passport photos, an X-ray, pipe, glasses, letters and newspapers. (4➘) Benjamin is buried on the 28th September, 1940. A bizarre death: the doctor treats Benjamin with injections and phlebotomy and diagnoses a brain haemorrhage, documents mysteriously disappear and the Jewish philosopher receives a Catholic burial. There is absolutely no mention of morphine or suicide, the official cause of death is a brain haemorrhage. Evidence of a cover-up? Or plausible confusion over the death of one of the innumerable foreign travellers in a Portbou still ravaged by the civil war. Some apparent inconsistencies (transposed Christian and surnames, varying grave numbers) can be resolved. Other questions and contradictions remain.
Who killed Walter Benjamin?
Mort (death) is scrawled on an old train wheel in Portbou station
Even today myths regarding Benjamin’s death abound. Was it actually not suicide? Was he killed by Hitler’s Gestapo? Or perhaps even Stalin’s secret service? Spanish fascists? In his film Who killed Walter Benjamin ... the director, David Mauas, collates the discrepancies in the accounts of Benjamin’s final hours: differing dates of death, the Christian burial of a Jew (and suicide?),contradictory eyewitness statements about his death throes, transposed Christian and surname, the doctor being a local Falange leader and fascist ...?
Poster for the film, Who killed Walter Benjamin ... by David Mauas
The Film Who killed Walter Benjamin ...
seeks answers to the strange circumstances of his death and at the same time paints a portrait of a border town, caught between two fronts, witness to flight, persecution and false hopes.
Even before this, namely in 1992, Ingrid Scheuermann seeks to throw some light on the particular circumstances surrounding Walter Benjamin’s death, and discovers as yet unknown documents in the archives. She resolves some questions, throws doubt on some of Gurland’s assertions and writes:
A vestige of uncertainty still remains as to the actual cause of death.
Erdmut Wizisla, Director of the Walter Benjamin Archive in Berlin on the death of Walter Benjamin:
The question as to how Benjamin died can only be answered with a paradox: He killed himself and he was killed. He had no alternative; everyone was working against him and with the fascists: the hotel owner, the border officials, the doctors. By his actions he merely anticipated the threat. Many questions will never be answered.
Culture of remembrance in Portbou
Memorial for Walter Benjamin, It is never a document of the culture without at the same time bearing witness to its barbarity.
Dedicated in 1979: the first memorial plaque for Walter Benjamin at the Portbou cemetery
When we arrived in Portbou months later, we looked in vain for his grave: it couldn’t be found, there was no mention of his name.
So wrote Hannah Arendt, the philosopher and confidante of Benjamin, who passed through Portbou at the beginning of 1941 in an escape attempt. (5➘) Benjamin’s burial niche is unmarked and the costs are covered for five years. Jordi Font, Director of the Museo Memorial del Exilio (MUME) on the first stage of commemoration in Portbou:
In Franco’s Spain no-one wanted to remember Walter Benjamin, his body was thrown into a mass grave. In 1979 the democratic government put a memorial plaque to the German Jewish philosopher in place. Today where there was once a mass grave, there is a monument to Benjamin.
Today there is no avoiding tributes to Walter Benjamin in Portbou. (8➘) Information boards indicate how he spent his last days in Portbou, the museum of exiles (MUME) offers guided tours and educational excursions (9➘). The escape route taken by Benjamin and many others across the Pyrenees is well signposted, the memorial site Arcades in the cemetery reminds us of persecution and exile. Every year on the anniversary of Benjamin’s death in September there is an international symposium on the extensive complete oeuvre of the important intellectual, Benjamin.
Sources and External Links
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Carina Birman: The Narrow Foothold, London 2006
Letter from Henny Gurland to Arkadi Gurland. In: Walter Benjamin, Gesammelte Schriften Band 5, S. 1196
Henny Gurland in: Walter Benjamin, Collected Works Volume 5, p.1203
Report of the town magistrate of Portbou, Fernando Pastor Nieto, 4th October, 1940
Wer tötete Walter Benjamin... Film von David Mauas, 2005
Ingrid Scheurmann: Neue Dokumente zum Tode Walter Benjamins. Bonn 1992
Hannah Arendt: Illuminations. Walter Benjamin. Essays and Reflections. New York 1969
Detlev Schöttker, Erdmut Wizisla: Arendt und Benjamin. Texte, Briefe, Dokumente. Frankfurt am Main 2006
The Museum of Exiles, Museo Memorial del Exilio (MUME) in La Jonquera: