In the footsteps of Walter Benjamin

By Pierre Sorgue

Posted today at 6:00 p.m., updated at 6:00 p.m.

Terribly paradoxical. This is what we say to ourselves in front of the splendor of the panorama on this sunny morning: behind the sparkling yellow flowers of the broom, a bouquet of maritime pines stands out in the azure, above the intense blue of the sea. The shades of green of the groves and vineyards flow in patchwork to Banyuls at the bottom, impressionist touches of pink and white set in the outline of the shore.

Memorial by Israeli sculptor Dani Karavan in homage to Walter Benjamin, entitled

Here, the Mediterranean has retained its serene beauty. But the path that offers this point of view before crossing the pass and the border to tumble down to Port-Bou, the first village in Spanish Catalonia, is marked by tragedy. For about fifteen years, it has been called “Walter Benjamin path” to be the last that the German Jewish intellectual fleeing Nazism took before committing suicide in the small Pyrenean port on September 26 or 27, 1940, when the police Spanish refused him entry and threatened to drive him back to Vichy France, an accomplice of the Gestapo.

The path runs between the mauve flowers of thistles and the old gold of immortal flowers, the wind carries whiffs of thyme or the smoky scent of broom.

About fifteen kilometers of walk, nearly 600 meters of vertical drop, a dozen hours of suffering for the one who, at 48 years old, was cardiac and physically worn out, until the loophole became a death trap. Suddenly, this path which runs in the light of the south is that of despair and absolute defeat.

Leaving Banyuls (Pyrénées-Orientales) at a time when the shadows in the gardens and orchards are still lengthened, we passed in front of a simple steel stele engraved in memory of “Lisa and Hans Fittko and all the others” : Lisa Fittko, German and anti-Nazi resistance, guided, seven months during and two to three times a week, hundreds of escapees by this path of contraband. Walter Benjamin was the first of them and the only one who failed.

The port of Banyuls, from where Walter Benjamin and hundreds of others took the path of exile led by Lisa Fittko.

Lisa and Hans Fittko worked for the American Varian Fry’s network which allowed thousands more to leave Europe. They were then helped by Vincent Azéma, the mayor (SFIO) of Banyuls, and by his comrade Julien Cruzel, that of Cerbère (SFIO), the border town that we will see at the foot of the crumpled rocks, once past the pass. .

Steeply falling reefs

Part of the route had been the “Lister route”, named after the Spanish Republican general who, a year earlier, had taken it in the other direction with his troops. So, by following the dirt track that climbs between scrub and vines clinging to the slope under the cloudless sky, we tell ourselves that, even if it means becoming a memorial, it could celebrate the courage of those who made it a passage to the freedom.

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