Walter Benjamin Memorial Karavan Portbou2.jpg

passages - walter benjamin memorial

Location: Portbou

Artist: Dani Karavan

Project Date: 1994

In September 1940, German Jewish philosopher Walter Benjamin fled on foot across the French Pyrenees to the small coastal border town Portbou to escape the Nazi regime. Between 1934 and 1944, the quiet fishing town had become a gathering point of exiled German and French migrants. Benjamin had planned to continue his journey to get to the United States. But Spanish authorities under Franco’s rule would not grant him and his group asylum and send them back to occupied France. Walter Benjamin committed suicide that same night. He was buried in the cemetery, up on the hill overlooking the bay where the Pyrenees meet the Mediterranean.

A haunting memorial by renowned Israeli artist Dani Karavan commemorates his last days and the fate of many others fleeing over the border to look for refuge. An enclosed stairway of Corten steel leads down the rock face to the little bay, stopping abruptly. At the bottom, the stair is sealed with a sheet of glass. Its engraving “To honor the memory of anonymous human beings is harder than honoring the memory of famous ones. The idea of historic construction is devoted to this memory of the anonymous” is a quote from one of Benjamin’s last essays. With few materials and elements, the memorial evokes the pain, desperation and deep sense of tragedy associated with the experience of exile. The contrast with the glorious landscape setting heightens the feeling of uneasiness. 

Hannah Arendt, fellow German Jewish philosopher and friend of Walter Benjamin, would cross the French border into Portbou only a few months later to go into exile in the United States. She went to look for Benjamin’s grave, then still unmarked. In a letter to Israeli philiosopher and historian Gershom Scholem on October 21, 1940, she wrote: 

'The cemetery faces a small bay directly looking over the Mediterranean; it is carved in stone in terraces; the coffins are also pushed into such stone walls.  It is by far one of the most fantastic and most beautiful spots I have ever seen in my life.'

More information on Walter Benjamin’s last days in Portbou and the Walter Benjamin Route.

All photos © Sigrid Ehrmann