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Hatred at One End, Rejection at the Other

A writer retraces philosopher Walter Benjamin's failed walk to freedom

August 01, 2004|Rebecca Solnit | Rebecca Solnit is the author of, among other books, "River of Shadows: Eadweard Muybridge and the Technological Wild West" and "Wanderlust: A History of Walking."

In 1939, when the dictator Francisco Franco declared an end to the Spanish Civil War, tens of thousands of refugees walked north over the Pyrenees, seeking shelter in France. They expected to be welcomed as defenders of democracy; instead many were forced into camps. A year later, the tide had turned, and refugees from the Third Reich and the Vichy regime began trickling from France into Spain, seeking passage out of Europe via Spanish or Portuguese ports. The writer-philosopher Walter Benjamin, a Berlin Jew who had been living in Paris for many years, was one of them, and the tale of his 1940 walk from France to Spain has acquired something of the aura of a legend in the academic and intellectual circles where he matters most, for at the end of it, in Port Bou, Spain, he died.

I'd always wondered about that walk and had always wanted to repeat it, in part to mull over the vicious circumstances that in the end turned Benjamin, a consummate wanderer of Paris streets, into an escapee and a hiker.

My companion and I traveled to our starting point, a steep amphitheater of grape terraces behind the town of Banyuls, France, by the only viable local transit from the next town over, a taxi. The Mediterranean was blue, the unripe grapes were the same green as the leaves of the vines, and the ground was covered with a deep-brown shale. I'd never been to the region, but it all looked strangely familiar, the vineyards like a leaner, steeper version of Sonoma, the hillsides above like the coast north of San Francisco, down to the live oaks and fennel. After we climbed above the vineyards, we walked for a long time on a road, alone except for the insects.

For The Record
Los Angeles Times Sunday August 22, 2004 Home Edition Opinion Part M Page 6 Editorial Pages Desk 1 inches; 51 words Type of Material: Correction
Refugee's fate -- An Aug. 1 Opinion article, "Hatred on One End, Rejection on the Other," suggested that social critic and philosopher Theodor Adorno never returned to Europe after fleeing the Nazis in the 1930s. Adorno returned to Germany in 1949 and lived in Europe for the remainder of his life.

There were huge grasshoppers with the wingspans of dragonflies when they took to the air, and small ones whose scarlet wings made them look like butterflies that vanished into drabness when they landed. And there were many species of butterfly: small white ones, a yellow one that folded its wings to look like a green leaf and a pair of swallowtails that chased and courted each other in the breeze. My companion commented that butterflies have four basic wing motions, which occur in so random a sequence that predators cannot predict their course; this erratic movement makes them elusive. It struck me that the same could be said of Benjamin, who as a historian, a theorist, a lyrical writer created work as uncategorizable as it is influential. He devoted himself to elucidating the meaning of Paris, labyrinths, cities, walks -- exploring a series of ideas that spiral around, double back, open into each other, metamorphose and make endless connections, a map of the world drawn as much by poetic intuition as by rational analysis. He was devotedly urban, unathletic, nearsighted, with heart trouble, wandering his Paris labyrinths slowly. He was supremely unequipped for what even the foothill walk from France to Spain would require of him. On his walk to Spain, Benjamin carried a heavy briefcase containing, he told his companions, a new manuscript more important to him than his life, and it was part of what made the walk so arduous for him that he had to stop one minute out of 10 to catch his breath. There is a steep ascent to the plateau between Banyuls and the slopes east of Cerberes, during which the route points due south then rises to loop around the ridgeline that is also the international border. Finally, the path heads due east again along the south-facing slopes above Port Bou. The route looks like a giant inverted question mark, like the ones at the beginning of questions in Spanish.

Benjamin was fortunate in his guide, Lisa Fittko, who was exploring the route thoroughly for the first time when she led him and another pair of refugees to Spain. Fittko is one of the countless heroes who rose to confront disaster. Active against the Nazis, she had had to leave Germany for Paris years before. Then, when France surrendered and the Nazis moved south, Fittko, like Benjamin, like myriad Jews, foreigners and resisters, fled south, looking for a way out of the noose. Fittko came to the southeast corner of France alone to look for escape routes and was given enormous assistance by the townspeople of Banyuls and their socialist mayor, who told her about a smuggler's route that had also been used by the communist Gen. Enrique Lister in the Spanish Civil War. Over the next six months, Fittko helped hundreds of refugees escape along this route before fleeing herself to Cuba, then to the United States, where she is living in Chicago, now in her mid-90s.

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