I just came across this book review in the LRB, containing a detailed account of the death of Walter Benjamin:
Benjamin would set out for the [Spanish-French ] border with two other people, Henny Gurland and her teenage son, Joseph, on 26 September 1940 ...Benjamin was a very advanced 48, with a promising future behind him and a number of medical problems, including lung trouble and a heart condition.
Fittko describes the little party striking out at a steady pace, she and Joseph taking turns to carry Benjamin’s black briefcase. Much later, when people asked her if she knew, or he’d said, what it contained, she was impatient. He was carrying a very important manuscript, worth more in his eyes than his own life, as he’d intimated, but that was as far as it went. Fittko was a militant people-smuggler on her first run, not a scholar or literary hanger-on. ‘For better or worse,’ she said of Benjamin’s luggage, ‘we had to drag that monstrosity over the mountains.’ She also called it ‘his ballast’. It’s likely, given the importance attached to it, that she embellished her memoir – and indeed her memory – to make more of the mysterious briefcase. Rolf Tiedemann, co-editor of the Suhrkamp seven-volume Gesammelte Schriften, speculated that its contents might have included a copy of the Theses on the Philosophy of History; the Harvard editors of the Selected Writings say the same. In any event, the manuscript, along with the bag and whatever else it contained, crossed the frontier and promptly disappeared.
On the journey, Benjamin... was a model compared with some of the fusspots she’d later deliver to safety. She remembers resting up, eating ‘a piece of bread I’d bought with bogus food stamps’ and pushing the tomatoes across to Benjamin, who’d asked: ‘By your leave, gnädige Frau, may I serve myself?’ That’s how it was, she says, with ‘Old Benjamin and his Spanish court etiquette’.
Fittko...had taken ten hours to climb from Banyuls to the Spanish border with the Gurlands....She was basking in her first triumph, delighted with the route and – this has an air of embellishment – gratified to think that ‘Old Benjamin and his manuscript are safe now . . . on the other side of the mountains.’
Had Portbou remained a quiet fishing community it might never have been bombed by Italian aircraft during the Civil War, but it became a strategic railway station at the end of the 1920s and was still badly damaged when the refugees arrived. On announcing themselves to the authorities, they were told they’d be returned to France the following day. Birman [a member of Benjamin's party -alex]was mortified: evidently they should have gone through the formalities at an earlier point of entry, which they must have missed; their contact in Banyuls had warned against this eventuality. Birman’s neck ‘was seized by a big male hand’. She was ‘turned around and commanded by a stocky man to follow him closely’. Her destination was the Fonda de Francia, a hotel in Portbou where she and the others were placed under garde à vue. It was a watering hole for special services, including the Gestapo (in those days undercover as shipping agents), informers and spooks from both sides of the border.
Birman says that they all had to double up except for Benjamin, who got ‘a room for himself: his companion with son another place, Sophie and I a room, and my sister and Grete Freund a small cell’. The situation could not have been worse, yet there was a trapdoor somewhere in this despair and Birman fell through it when she and Sophie Lippmann decided that the gold coins they’d brought with them should now be used to pay someone – anyone – to intercede on their behalf with the authorities. Lippmann felt the ‘hotel warden’ might be biddable and predictably enough, when she went to look for him, he was ready to help.
On her return she told Birman that she’d heard a ‘loud rattling from one of the neighbouring rooms’. Birman went to investigate and found Benjamin ‘in a desolate state of mind and in a completely exhausted physical condition’. He told her he could not go back to the border and would not move out of the hotel. She said there was no alternative and he disagreed: ‘He hinted that he had some very effective poisonous pills with him. He was lying half naked in his bed and had his very beautiful big golden grandfather watch with open cover on a little board near him, observing the time constantly.’ This ‘big golden grandfather watch’ was perhaps a pocket watch; and if so, surely the one he’d consulted earlier in the day to ration the pauses during his heroic, debilitating ascent. Birman told him about the attempted bribe and urged him to hold off. ‘He was very pessimistic’ and thought the odds were way too long. A little later, Henny Gurland came into the room and Birman left. There were several visits by a local doctor who bled the patient and administered injections, but if Birman was aware of this, she doesn’t say so. She takes it to be a clear case of suicide. ‘The next morning,’ she writes, ‘we heard that he had succeeded and was no more amongst us.’
If there’s anything as famous about Benjamin’s death as the briefcase, it’s the fact that at the time he crossed, Spanish officials had been ordered to turn back refugees – anyone sans nationalité, as Henny explained it in her letter to her husband – and that this order was enforced for a day or so, then set aside, or ignored, immediately afterwards. It was Benjamin’s timing that was fatal: Arendt called it ‘an uncommon stroke of bad luck’. Much has been said about this, but Momme Brodersen’s remark, in his 1996 biography of Benjamin, is the one that lingers in the mind: ‘It is hard not to ask whether . . . Benjamin’s death was “preventable”, “unnecessary”, though these are unanswerable, pointless questions. Hundreds of others were dying, unnecessarily, anonymously, on the borders; millions were to die with no border in sight.’
The following day was probably more distressing to Birman than the night before... The warden was serving coffee to Birman, her sister Dele, Sophie Lippmann and Greta Freund when two policemen arrived and announced that they’d all have to return to the border and pick up entry visas. They left under escort and made the ascent in a couple of hours. The only sign of a customs point was a weather-beaten phone booth. The frontier itself consisted of a rope and beyond the rope an ominous, bored assortment of goons, French and German. The Spanish gendarmes turned back, pointing out how honourably they’d refrained from untying the rope and delivering them back into Vichy. They even left some coins for the refugees to use in the phone booth: they should phone through, they advised, to the police at Portbou, requesting permission to set foot on the Spanish soil they’d been pacing in such desolation for the better part of 24 hours.
"There we were sitting on rocks and burnt-out slopes. We were so depressed that we did not even notice that the sky was becoming darker and darker, although it was early in the afternoon. A thunderstorm! No, a rainstorm . . . We weighed our possibilities. There was only one direction with uncertain issue, all the others meant death. So we decided to return to Spain. There was no hope of walking down. There were no passable tracks any more, one could only sit on stones and try to glide down."
They slithered back to Portbou under driving rain and arrived at the police station around six in the evening. The captain of the guard thrust some papers in Birman’s pocket, told her their visas were in order and advised them to leave before dark. He waved them on for a baggage inspection, which they survived with their gold intact. The ‘hotel-keeper’, presumably the guardian Sophie had met the night before, was watching eagerly, and once they were through he demanded the promised reward. ‘Her offer had worked,’ Birman says, ‘even in our absence . . . he must have communicated with the police captain to rescind his previous order,’ but too late to stop them being marched back to the frontier. Once the gold was handed over, everything changed. The refugees were escorted to the Fonda de Francia as guests, rather than prisoners, and a lavish spread was prepared.
The gold probably tipped the scales in Birman’s favour, notwithstanding her all-round resourcefulness. If her story is true, it might have held out hope for Benjamin too. But Birman’s ‘professor’ was not a believer. Early in life he’d got out of gold – turning away from the path indicated by his family’s wealth – and into a pure, non-remunerative form of work, perhaps best thought of as the investigation of modernity: a cornucopia of social production and, as he envisaged it, a nearly miraculous condition of the kind you might come to understand after long study of an infant prodigy capable of grand engineering schemes, precocious feats of reasoning, high poetic utterance, generosity of spirit and a cruelty that knew no bounds. The European culture that Benjamin loved had the infernal vigour of the child genius, even though, in his reflections on the Second Empire, he could also discern the outlines of the ageing hag. Living on modest means, he did as much in his century for the discursive essay as Montaigne had done in his, though he was better placed, historically, not just to think about the world, but to try to say how the world thought back. Unlike his father, an auctioneer, rentier and speculator, Benjamin at 48 had a universe to offer but very little to transact, in life or on the point of dying, and so on his last journey he took the cash he could muster and the few articles he rightly considered essential: an obscure manuscript, a pocket watch and enough morphine ‘to kill a horse’, as Koestler had described it after their meeting in Marseille. Gold was not part of this crude survival kit, which provided for dispatch rather more than salvation. Benjamin may have been devoted to memory and posterity, but he had very little intellectual or moral interest in the road ahead – his or anybody else’s. ‘We know,’ he wrote in the last of his aphorisms on ‘Messianic time’ in the Theses, ‘that the Jews were prohibited from investigating the future. The Torah and the prayers instruct them in remembrance, however.’