Chronicling Walter Benjamin's final hours
On what would have been his 120th birthday, Haaretz takes a closer look at the days leading up to the German-Jewish philosopher's death and the mystery surrounding it.
The night of September 25, 1940 was Walter Benjamin’s last. Exhausted and despondent, he is said to have swallowed a handful of morphine pills after a trek to Spain from occupied France. In death, Benjamin finally found the safe harbor that had so eluded him on earth.
He had told the writer Arthur Koestler that on his journey to Spain, on which he embarked too late, he had brought enough morphine to kill a horse. Perhaps it was his despondency that sealed his fate early on. Benjamin had never subscribed to the idea that character is destiny, but it is hard to deny the tragic cocktail of pessimism, non-materialism and bad luck that eventually tossed him into the callous current of history.
This is the story of a refugee, one in a sea of millions washed to strange shores during Europe's darkest hour. But Benjamin, the literary critic, philosopher and Jewish luminary, became known to us. He was a light unto the masses until his light tragically went out.
What were Benjamin's final hours like, and what were the dominos that lined up, toppled, and caused his lonely death?
Tuesday, September 24, 1940
Benjamin’s escape on foot from occupied France began on this date. He had originally intended to just make it a practice run, to get familiar with the first few kilometers in daylight before the actual escape under cover of night. But unlike his fellow refugees, Benjamin did not go back at the end of the day. Instead, he stayed the night at a crossroads and waited for the others to return.
The group included Lisa Fittko, an amateur smuggler of refugees, a photographer by the name of Henny Gurland and her son Joseph. Their planned route, which curved through the Pyrenees, led from the French town of Banyuls to the Spanish town of Portbou. The route, known as La Route Lister, was named for General Enrique Lister, a high-ranking officer of the Spanish Republican Army and a sworn Stalinist. Lister himself had fled through the same mountain pass a year earlier, in 1939, on his way to exile in the Soviet Union.
Fittko had learned about the route from Vincent Azéma, the mayor of Banyuls, an elderly republican Socialist who wanted to help the refugees. When Fittko met Azéma in his office, he told her that although the route was treacherous, it did have one advantage: most of it was overhung with rocks, which would give them cover. Armed with a hand-sketched map of the route and a little bit of food, Fittko returned to her new base in Port-Vendres, a coastal town about six and a half kilometers from Banyuls.
Several days after Fittko’s visit to Azéma, Benjamin went to see her. He wanted to flee to America via Spain, he told her, and he needed her help. Benjamin, a German, had spent the last seven years in exile, mostly in Paris. He did his research at the national library and remained tragically oblivious to the chaos surrounding him.
When World War II broke out, Benjamin, like so many others, fell victim to France's extradition policy. He was imprisoned in a transit camp at a monastery near Nevers, a small town in France's Burgundy region. He was then transferred to another prison in Vernuche. This time he was in a former furniture factory, crowded in among 300 other prisoners.
In his book "Walter Benjamin: An Intellectual Biography," Bernd Witte writes that Benjamin's fellow inmates described him as physically weak but emotionally strong. He taught a philosophy course and volunteered to publish a prisoners' newspaper.
In November 1939, thanks to the intervention of some of his French friends, Benjamin was released. But instead of using his newfound freedom to escape once and for all, he threw himself further into his books. On January 11, 1940, in a move of either denial or oblivion, he even renewed his library card at the national library. In a letter written later that week, he told the chemist Gretel Adorno that he was anxious about his work on Baudelaire and was not willing to put the book at risk, even if it meant sacrificing his own safety.
In June 1940, Hitler invaded Paris. The armistice that was signed included an extradition clause that prevented German refugees such as Benjamin from getting exit visas from France. It was only at this point that Benjamin agreed to pull himself away from his work and travel south.
Together with his sister Dora, and carrying only a gas mask, bathing supplies and a single manuscript, he trekked through Lourdes toward Marseilles. He arrived in September.
Marseille was ugly. So ugly, in fact, that in a travel piece about the city, Benjamin described it as "the yellow-studded maw of a seal with salt water running out between the teeth." But the dark city was filled with bright faces: In Marseille, Benjamin met with his old friend, the philosopher Hannah Arendt, as well as her husband Heinrich Blücher, the author and journalist Arthur Koestler and his old friend Hans Fittko. Fittko dashed whatever remained of Benjamin's hopes that he could sail from Marseilles to the United States, but he still offered the author a plan.
He gave him the address of his wife, Lisa, and encouraged him to contact her.
The Fittkos had themselves been on the run since the 1930s, living in Switzerland, France and the Netherlands. Like Benjamin, they too had been arrested in France at the beginning of the war. From 1940 to 1941, they lived underground, helping smuggle out refugees. Both of them were in contact with the Emergency Rescue Committee, an intrepid organization founded by an American named Varian Fry.
Thanks to the intervention of his friend, the philosopher Max Horkheimer, Benjamin got a visa to the United States while he was in Marseilles. Like other refugees, though, what he needed was a French exit permit. According to Hans Fittko, who was advising him in his escape, his only chance was to reach Spain in secret, creeping his way through the mountains. From Spain he could continue on to Portugal, where he could then set sail to America.
Before setting out, Benjamin and Hans Fittko visited Mayor Azéma together. Azéma advised them to hike the lower route once in daylight, for practice. The path was confusing, and taking it in the dark without any practice, he said, might be too dangerous. They should hike as far as the tree line, Azéma said, and then turn back, a trek that should only take them two or three hours.
That Tuesday afternoon, they took Azéma's advice. Benjamin, dressed in his city clothes, must have stuck out among the green hills and vineyards. Throughout the hike he lugged a heavy leather suitcase. It contained an extremely important manuscript, which according to some accounts was a copy of "Theses On the Philosophy of History," one of his best-known works.
Others, however, say it was "The Arcades Project," a collection of essays about life in Paris which he had spent most of the 1930s laboring over.
They hadn't been out long when they realized the route was longer than Azéma had predicted. The path turned steep and rocky, and Benjamin was wheezing and dangerously fatigued. When they reached the tree line at long last, the exhausted philosopher simply refused to turn back. He spent the night there, alone and without proper gear.
Wednesday, September 25, 1940
Early in the morning, Lisa Fittko, Henny Gurland and Henny's son Joseph went out again and passed among the grape pickers.
Many years later, in 1984, Fittko would recall that morning in her memoir "Escape Through the Pyrenees." As they reached the tree line she saw "Old Benjamin," his eyes sunken and surrounded by dark circles. Benjamin was only 48, but had the health and stature of a much older man. He suffered from both lung and heart disease and Fittko, looking at him after a night alone in the wilderness, grew very concerned.
Benjamin saw her fear and took off his glasses. He wiped his face with a handkerchief and assured her that the rings around his eyes were not dark circles from sickness or fatigue but rather an imprint from his glasses, whose color ran when they got wet.
The group trundled on. Gurland and Joseph took turns lugging Benjamin’s suitcase. Years later, when Gurland was asked whether she had known of its contents, she said that it had contained a very important manuscript that Benjamin considered more valuable than his own life.
“For better or worse,” she said of the suitcase, “we had to drag that awful thing over the mountains.” Another nickname that she gave the suitcase was Benjamin’s “burden.” Despite the toil, the suitcase vanished after Benjamin's death. His friends searched for it, but it was never found.
Later on in the journey, Benjamin began alternating several minutes of walking with one minute of rest.
“I can go on until the end using this method,” he told Fittko. The trick, he said, was to stop before he became exhausted.
According to Fittko's memoirs, the route quickly turned steep. “The term ‘path’ gradually proved to be an exaggeration,” she recalled. “Now and then there was a path to be seen, but increasingly it was just a barely recognizable, gravelly track between boulders. Until we came to the steep vineyard, which I can never forget.”
At that point, the path became a relentless climb upward among the rocks up the shady side of the mountain.
After several exhausting hours of climbing, Lisa Fittko led the group to the highest point on the route. She looked down toward the sea to make sure they had actually crossed the border and had, in fact, reached Spanish soil.
“Finally we reached the summit,” she wrote. “I had gone on ahead and I stopped to look around. The spectacular scene appeared so unexpectedly that for a moment I thought I was seeing a mirage … the deep-blue Mediterranean … ‘There below us is Portbou!’”
At this point, Fittko's group met another band of refugees, this time all women. The group was led by Carina Birman, an Austrian smuggler, together with her sister Dele and her friends Grete Freund and Sophie Lippmann.
Birman later wrote a memoir, erroneously describing the professor as a "university professor by the name of Walter Benjamin."
She said that when she saw him, Benjamin was on the verge of a heart attack. The mountain climb, on a particularly hot September day, had been too much for him. "We all ran over, looking for water for him," Birman wrote.
Portbou is located on the eastern end of the Serra de l’Albera, where the Pyrenees meet the Mediterranean Sea. It marks the northern border of Catalonia’s spectacular coastline, the Costa Brava. When it was first established, Portbou was a quiet fishing town. Its population began to grow at the end of the 19th century once the railroad reached it, and the railroad was what turned it into a target of bombardments during the Spanish Civil War. When Benjamin reached Portbou, 19 months after the Spanish Civil War ended, the marks of Franco’s destructive attacks could still be seen.
Benjamin and his group reached the railway station that had turned Portbou into a target for bombing raids. They were exhausted, but their spirits were buoyed by reaching safety. The happiness, however, did not last for long.
They had hoped that the Spanish authorities would grant them asylum but, to their dismay, they were instead informed that they had entered the country illegally. They would be held in Portbou overnight and sent back to occupied France the next morning.
Benjamin made several telephone calls that evening. It is not known whom he called or whether he ever got through.
We can only imagine the awful combination of terror and disappointment that the group felt that evening. After such an arduous journey, they had finally made it over the rocks and into view of the sea. They had tasted freedom as palpably as they had tasted the salt in the air. And now, in a prison-hotel, it was all once again out of reach.
Birman and Lippmann were not ready to give up just yet. In their shared room, they pulled out a smuggled stash of gold coins. Surely, they told each other, someone would cave for a bribe, someone would negotiate with the authorities for the right amount of cash.
Lippmann thought that the guard at the hotel might be tempted. She was right.
When she came back to her room after handing over the gold, she told Birman that she had heard a loud noise coming from one of the nearby rooms. Birman went to check it out, and found Benjamin despondent and in a state of complete physical exhaustion.
He would not leave the hotel, he told her. He could not make it back to the border. According to Birman's statements, Benjamin also hinted that he had some sort of poison in pill form.
Birman told him about bribing the guard and urged him to stay strong. A little later on, Henny Gurland also visited Benjamin's room.
According to records in Portbou, a local physician visited Benjamin, took blood and gave him injections. At some point in the night, theories hold, when Benjamin was finally alone in his room, he swallowed the morphine pills and died.
Thursday, September 26, 1940
In her memoir, Birman writes that the group was informed of Benjamin's death the following morning. She treats the case as a clear suicide. Gurland's account supports this; she later said that Benjamin had left her a note, which she committed to memory and then destroyed as a precaution.
Later, when Gurland reached the United States, she quoted a line for Benjamin's friend, the philosopher Theodor W. Adorno: "In a situation that leaves no way out, I have no choice other than to end this."
But the unclear circumstances of Benjamin's death, together with several oddities in the physician’s records and the death and burial certificates, make the case less cut-and-dried.
First, the legal documents list Benjamin's cause of death as a stroke (perhaps caused by overexertion) rather than a drug overdose. Second, in a letter Gurland sent to her husband Arkadi about two weeks after Benjamin’s death, she wrote that she had been summoned to his room at about 7 a.m. She said that Benjamin had told her at 10 p.m. the previous evening that he had taken a large dose of morphine, but that she must tell the others that he was very ill. After giving her two letters, including one addressed to Adorno, he lost consciousness.
In an article published in the Weekly Standard, Stephen Schwartz writes, “Can we believe that a ‘massive dose of morphine’ required nine to ten hours to take effect?”
Portbou documents put the official time of death as 10 p.m. on September 26 – 14 hours after Benjamin's alleged conversation with Gurland.
Schwartz raises further doubts regarding Gurland’s reconstruction of Benjamin’s suicide note as it appears in the book of his correspondence with Adorno (which was published in English in 1999). The reconstructed letter was written, for some reason, in French and dated September 25, 1940. It describes Portbou as a small village when it was actually a fairly large town. Such discrepancies fed Schwartz's suspicions that the letter was bogus.
There is the fact that Benjamin was given a Catholic burial, which is absolutely forbidden in cases of suicide. Also, he was not buried under his actual name, but as Benjamin Walter.
Based on ambiguities in the case, Schwartz hatches a conspiracy theory in which Benjamin was murdered by Stalinist agents. The documentary film "Who Killed Walter Benjamin?," directed by David Mauas and released in 2005, also presents doubt that Benjamin’s death was a suicide.
In the film, Portbou is described as a small town with a great deal of hostility toward the stateless refugees pouring in from France. Is it possible, then, that Benjamin was actually taken out by an agent of Stalin or one of the Gestapo emissaries who swarmed the town? Perhaps one of the physicians who injected him gave him a stronger dose of painkillers than was necessary?
In truth, does it even matter? Even if Benjamin did swallow those lethal pills that he carried with him, he acted only as his persecutors’ executioner – the hangman, not the one who passed sentence.
An arbitrary change in Spanish policy toward refugees also played a role in the execution. On the day that Benjamin and his group crossed the border, there was a change in Spanish immigration law. The authorities instructed agents to detain anyone crossing the border without Spanish citizenship. The ruling was enforced for several days and then rescinded two weeks later. In her introduction to her collection of Benjamin’s essays, entitled "Illuminations," Arendt wrote, “One day earlier Benjamin would have got through without any trouble; one day later the people in Marseille would have known that for the time being it was impossible to pass through Spain. Only on that particular day was the catastrophe possible.”
It was Benjamin’s timing, therefore, that was fatal. Arendt called it “an uncommon stroke of bad luck,” saying further, “With a precision suggesting a sleepwalker [Benjamin’s] clumsiness invariably guided him to the very center of misfortune.”
The other members of Benjamin’s group fared better. A thunderstorm had brewed in Portbou. After they were taken back to the border and returned to the police station, the authorities changed their attitudes. They were permitted to enter Spain and stay in the hotel as guests. It is possible that Sophie Lippmann’s bribe saved them. Yet there is still a nagging doubt that they were allowed entry because Benjamin was no longer with them. It is also possible that a ray of humanity broke through the midst of bureaucratic evil, and that the authorities, themselves human beings and moved by the suicide of one of the group, allowed the rest to continue their journey.
According to Birman’s report, Benjamin’s Catholic funeral was held several days after they returned to the hotel. A priest led a procession of monks who chanted the requiem for the dead. Afterward, the refugees ate a meal and were taken to the railway station, where they boarded a night train to Barcelona. They reached Lisbon on October 1, 1940, and from there, each member of the group proceeded, separately, to the U.S.
If Birman’s version of events is accurate and it was her bribe of gold that saved the group, it is possible that Benjamin might have had hope of being saved as well. But “the professor,” as Birman had first thought him to be, was not a believing man. In his essay on Franz Kafka, he quotes Kafka as saying that there is “plenty of hope, an infinite amount of hope – but not for us.”