Walter Benjamin Inaugural Walk 24th June 2007


Walter BenjaminBy 9 am a mighty crowd including me and Phil and our good friend Ellen Hall, had gathered in front of the town hall of Banyuls sur Mer. We were to follow the path Walter Benjamin took on the 24th September 1940.

Ellen, well read, well informed as ever, told us WB had been a German Jewish Philosopher whose works even she had had to abandon on account of the extreme denseness of their prose and somewhat obscure philosophical theories. He had left his homeland as Hitler rose to power and by 1933 was living in Paris. As the Germans swept into France he fled south, first to Marseille then to Banyuls. There Lisa Fittko, also a Jew and Hans, her Protestant husband, met him. Their own flight from Nazi Germany in 1940 had been terrifying, landing them in separate concentration camps in occupied France. Escaping, they had also fled further and further south.

In Banyuls they had joined the local guides helping refugees flee on the torturous paths over the mountains into Spain. The Mayor of BSM who always has a good speech for every occasion pulled the Catalan flag from the first panel unveiling a map and description of the “Chemin de Walter Benjamin”. Translated into many languages, the English version, unfortunately, had a couple of spelling mistakes, but the Mayor’s speech was moving, honouring the many men and women of Banyuls who led escapees over the mountains from occupied France to the comparative safety of Spain.

Those who planned to walk the whole way on foot set off at a cracking pace. The rest were to be bussed to a midday meeting point high on the Col de Rumpissa.

We walkers stopped briefly at Puig del Mas, the old village of Banyuls where a monument honouring the Fittkos pointed to the distant Col. Phil, limping slightly from an injured ankle, was in the lead with some speedy Spaniards. Ellen and I and some 30 more sedate randoneurs, followed more slowly. We were imagining Walter all those years before, short of breath, bad heart, a heavy smoker, carrying a large briefcase in which was the manuscript of his last book.

The going was steep and the day hot. All around us beautiful and grand scenery, our group strung out along the twisting, climbing path, gradually gaining height. Conversation faded into puffing and panting, waterbottles were passed from hand to hand, sweat wiped from red faces. After three hours we could make out the group who had swanned up in the bus, standing on the skyline. Strains of cobla music drifted across to us, carried on a light breeze, encouraging us to slip and slide down a shale slope and then up the last few metres to the Col.

Looking back, the whole Cote Vermeille spread out below us, Banyuls a toy town at the bottom. Looking forward, we could see the Spanish coast, the bay of Llansa, of Puerta de la Selva . We felt much the same relief the Fittkos and Walter must have experienced on that September day when they too first saw Spain.

The Mayor was there to welcome us, all ready for another unveiling, (more English errors), another speech. First we were given chunks of sweet melon, little cheesy biscuits, fat golden raisins. We were offered a glass of Banyuls but most chose to stick to water or grapefruit juice. The Mayor’s speech was moving. He asked us to remember man’s inhumanity to man, the courage of those who had walked this path so often, helping so many desperate refugees across. He reminded us that in the thirties the same route had been used in the opposite direction by Republicans fleeing Franco. He joined with the mayors of Cerbere and Port Bou, the two border towns, expressing pleasure in working together to open the Walter Benjamin walk, hoping all those who walked it would remember the bravery of the “evades”, the cruelty that drove the refugees back and forth across the border. A stiff wind had got up. He hoped it would blow his words and wishes for peace in the world, freedom from war and suffering to all the corners of Europe. He then joined in a group of spontaneous singers whose voices rose in a haunting traditional Catalan song.

Once again we divided into walkers and bus passengers. Ellen and I stuck firmly to the walkers. Possibly a mistake. The cracking pace was daunting, unrelenting, the going rough, as the sun burned ever hotter. We could see Port Bou in the distance but it never seemed to get much closer. Phil advised me to lengthen my stride. It didn’t seem to make me much faster. The scent of thyme and wild mint filled the air and thoughts of poor Walter, ill, exhausted and carrying his large briefcase filled our minds. We could see the railway stations on each side of the frontier, Cerbere on the French side, Port Bou on the Spanish. We walked the spine of the ridge dividing the two countries.

Eventually hot, tired, blistered we reached the Rambla of Port Bou. It consisted of a wide avenue of plane trees under which trestle tables had been set. The bussed lot had already got all the best shady seats and eaten all the salad. A large and greasy Paella had been prepared in a huge container resembling a giant dustbin lid. Ellen wisely decided to give it a miss and sat under a plane tree till she cooled down. Phil and I poked our portions around our plastic plates with a plastic knife. The plastic forks had run out. A bottle of wine helped it down and restored us.

We then made our way to the beach where Phil dived into the sea dark glasses and all. Ellen and I drifted back in time to that September of 1940…. When Walter and the Fittkos reached Port Bou, Benjamin learned that the Spanish authorities intended to return him to France. He took his life. The brief case containing his manuscript was never found. (Phil had better luck with his glasses finding them on the bottom of the sea exactly where he had dived in.)

Out side the town cemetery we visited the WB memorial. A heavy metal passage containing a steep staircase sloped down to the sea breaking on the rocks below. On a pane of plate glass at the bottom of the staircase was written “ honour the forgotten. Easy to honour the famous, to honour the unknown is more difficult….” Or words to that effect. There were cracks in the glass and it was hard to read.

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