Remembering Benjamin from South of the Pyrenees: The Two-Gauge Problem
Benjamin in Port Bou
Walter Benjamin died on September 27, 1940, in the Hotel de Francia, in the Catalan border town of Port Bou. Like many other Europeans, Benjamin had been driven away from several homes in the 1930s: from Berlin to Paris, from Paris to southern France, and from Vichy France into Spain. Having managed to hike along an unofficial route into Spain, only to encounter fresh difficulties with visas and other papers, he took an overdose of morphine.
Unlike many other deaths around the same time in other corners of Europe, Benjamin’s death was treated as a “normal” case by the relevant municipal bureaucracy: his name was recorded in the local archive of births and deaths (though with the name transposed, with Benjamin as the first name), and he was given burial in the outlying and thus less Catholic part of the local cemetery (fig. 1).
Benjamin’s grave is no longer properly marked: local rumor has it that after a certain number of years bodies were routinely dug up and replaced with fresher bodies. But soon after the fall of Franco, a plaque was put up in a random place in the cemetery: “Walter Benjamin, filòsof alemany” — that is, “German philosopher” in Catalan. (The language is significant, since during the almost forty years of Franco’s dictatorship the use of Catalan was not allowed in any public place, such as on a monument.)
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