Walter Benjamin was a German Jewish philosopher, born in Berlin in 1892. He was wide-ranging in his interests; his work waltzed from translations of verses by the French poet Charles Baudelaire to the essay The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction. (In a nutshell? Originals good; copies bad.)
Benjamin finagled his way through the first world war by pretending to be ill in Switzerland but came into his own in the interwar years. A European intellectual of the highest degree, he managed to become friends with the political theorist Hannah Arendt, the novelist Hermann Hesse, the playwright Bertolt Brecht, and the composer Kurt Weill.
Name a topic and Benjamin had an opinion about it: art, drama, history, the cafe culture of Paris. He bobbed about the continent, too, spending time in Paris, Denmark, Nice and, as a pioneer for the tourist industry, Ibiza.
The years turned steadily less kind through the 1930s, though. The Nazi government stripped German Jews of their citizenship, while those with political thermometers could sense that even colder and darker days were ahead. Exile became the plan. Benjamin obtained a visa to the US; he planned to travel there by boat from neutral Portugal, which he expected to reach through the similarly neutral Spain.
Benjamin certainly got to Spain. Carrying only a heavy, black suitcase, he joined a Jewish refugee group and crossed through the Pyrenees from France on 25 September 1940. Stumbling through mountains is a monumental task. Stumbling through mountains with a heavy suitcase is almost impossible, but Benjamin would not leave his burden behind. It contained a typescript, he said. It was more important that the typescript should make it to America than that he should.
One of the group of refugees, a photographer called Henny Gurland, later explained: “For better or worse, we had to drag that awful thing over the mountains.”
On arrival at the coastal town of Portbou, in Catalonia, the refugees learned that the Franco government had cancelled all transit visas. The Spanish police told the group that they would be deported back to France the next day. Expecting that he would be delivered to the Nazi extermination camps — quite correctly; his brother, Georg, died in one in 1942 — Benjamin killed himself. He took an overdose of 15 morphine tablets that night. He was 48 years old.
His final letter contains these words:
“In a situation with no way out, I have no other choice. My life will end in a little village in the Pyrenees where nobody knows me.”
Benjamin’s status as a thinker and philosopher increased in the years after his death. Naturally, therefore, curious students would turn up in Portbou on the lookout for his lost work, the one he had refused to abandon in the mountains. “Seen a black suitcase?” they would ask. “Got any old typescripts?” No. There was muddle and confusion surrounding Benjamin’s death; nobody is really sure where the body is buried, never mind where the man’s luggage went.
Whatever Benjamin carried in his suitcase, up and down the rocky slopes of the Pyrenees, it has vanished. There are theories that it might have been the great philosophical work that would have transformed twentieth-century thinking. Then again… Perhaps the suitcase has joined Hemingway’s in a great Lost Luggage store in the sky. Until a miracle, we’ll never know.
All these years later, if you visit Portbou, you are unlikely to unearth this particular lost manuscript. What you can do, however, is walk the path through the Pyrenees that now bears his name — sentier Water Benjamin.
Take care, though. Even today, advises the local tourist board, the path is “difficult”. Leave that suitcase behind.