A sleepy Mediterranean

village and its secrets of the past

Full Day

In 1940 the Berlin-born philosopher Walter Benjamin made his way to Portbou, Spain, the first town over the Pyrenees mountains, on an attempted path to freedom. His objective was to arrive in Lisbon and continue his journey to Palestine, New York or Buenos Aires, seeking refuge from the flames of Nazi Europe. But that passage never happened, as Benjamin was interceded by the local Gestapo. Before his arrest took place, Benjamin ingested the only pill of cyanide he possessed and thus met his fateful demise in this small village on the Mediterranean.


Portbou remains at once a sleepy coastal town and a colossal memorial to Benjamin and the thousands of other Jews and refugees in their search for freedom. His memorial, created by Israeli artist Dani Karavanhe, is a staircase leading down a narrow passageway to the sea, whose access is blocked by a pane of glass. Named "Passages" in reference to Benjamin's final passage from France to Spain as well as his unfinished masterpiece "Passagenwerk" (Arcade Project) about 19th century Paris, the name conjures images, memory and the physical reminder of the visitor's journey today, unable to reach the open sea.


On this Full Day excursion we visit Portbou, a fishing village of stunning physical beauty, to gain a deeper understanding of what Benjamin and so many others faced. Led by author and local expert, we retell Benjamin's story in situ and how it fits into the larger context of the Spanish Civil War, Vichy France, Nazi Europe and the legacy of all three. A moving testament to memory, beauty and diaspora.

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