Through the Trapdoor

Jeremy Harding

  • The Narrow Foothold by Carina Birman
    Hearing Eye, 29 pp, £7.00, August 2006, ISBN 1 905082 10 X

Most of the expatriates in France who had to run for their lives in 1940 made for Marseille, which had working consulates, maritime companies and smuggling networks. The people in the greatest danger were anti-Fascist Germans and Jews of any political persuasion, followed by assorted individuals who had blotted their copybooks in a manner the Gestapo was sure to ascertain or invent. ‘Human trafficking’ had become the order of the day and remained so, long after the hope of leaving by boat had turned out, for most, to be illusory.

The Narrow Foothold, a 16-page memoir, opens in Marseille, where Carina Birman was waiting in September 1940 to get out of the country. Birman had been the legal adviser at the Austrian Embassy in Paris until the Anschluss, when it was shut down. She seems to have remained in Paris and become involved in a human trafficking scam of her own, helping ‘undesirables’ out of Europe on visas obtained from the Mexican Consulate.

When she heard from some new arrivals in Marseille that her name featured high on a list of people wanted by the Germans, Birman prepared to leave immediately. That evening, she and her sister Dele, accompanied by two friends, Grete Freund and Sophie Lippmann, caught a train along the coast to Perpignan and an overnight connection that brought them within a few miles of the Spanish border, to the small town of Banyuls. They arrived early the next day ‘in marvellous southern sunshine’ and came across a group of ‘Austrian socialists’ who said they were making for the mayor’s office. Birman and her friends followed suit and met someone in the mairie – she doesn’t say whether it was the mayor – who offered to show them a safe way over the mountains to Spain. If Birman’s memory is reliable, this would have been 24 or 25 September. In the afternoon, Birman and one of her party made a two-hour reconnaissance trip with their guide. He pointed out the route and advised them to take a bearing on a large cross which they would see a little further along, when they made the journey in earnest. It all seemed straightforward, if a little nerve-racking, and Birman returned to Banyuls. The four women left the following morning at first light.

Lisa Fittko, who has no part in Birman’s story, made a preliminary excursion from Banyuls on what may well, it appears from her own memoir, Escape through the Pyrenees (1985), have been the same day. Fittko was a stateless anti-Fascist, an agitator and propagandist, born in Austria-Hungary; she had lived in Vienna, Berlin and Prague and was, by the end of the 1930s, more or less on the run with her husband, Hans. They had been in Switzerland, France and Holland before returning once more to France. The Fittkos had both been victims of French internment policy, which was already ‘concentrating’ Spanish Republican refugees in camps early in 1939. With the Hitler-Stalin Pact and the onset of the Phoney War in the autumn, they were among many thousands of German-speaking non-nationals detained by the authorities. Hans was in central France at a camp in Vernuche; Lisa was near the Pyrenees in a ‘women’s camp’ in Gurs, which had been holding refugees from Spain. (Hannah Arendt and Walter Benjamin’s sister Dora were also interned at Gurs, while Benjamin had spent several weeks in Vernuche.) As the Germans advanced deeper into France and the administration reeled, evasion or negotiated exit became a brief possibility: many people, including the Fittkos, got out of the camps. Hans and Lisa Fittko were to remain in France until the end of 1941, in contact though separated for much of the time. In their year of clandestinity, they worked as successful agents enabling refugees to escape through Spain. Both were in contact with the Emergency Rescue Committee set up by Varian Fry, an enigmatic, daring young American who saved the lives of many illustrious figures, including Chagall, Ernst and Arendt.

Fittko and Birman don’t appear to have met in 1940. Fittko remained in Marseille long enough to realise that escape via the port was nearly impossible, but she also understood the uses of the city. Here, prospective refugees could assemble the paperwork to get them through Spain and from there to Portugal, which no one could enter without proof of an onward-bound journey: a boat ticket from Lisbon or a visa issued by a third country. Varian Fry had a friendly US vice-consul who granted hundreds of visas breaching State Department norms. Thomas Cook, Fittko remembers, were issuing bogus transatlantic tickets to help people on their way – at 200 francs a shot – and the Chinese were selling entry permits at 100 francs. Birman and her friends had visas for Mexico. What nobody who needed to get out of France could lay hands on was an exit permit; whence the necessity of a stealthy departure and therefore of a Pyrenean route.

Fittko had already been to the mayor’s office in Banyuls by the time Birman looked in. She had met the mayor himself, a man called Azéma, who was well disposed to the refugees: he’d given her some provisions and a map of the route over the mountains. That evening, walking back to Port Vendres, her new base about four miles from Banyuls, Fittko was in high spirits: ‘Milk and vegetables, and above all a new, safe border route. I remember . . . the incredibly blue sea and the mountain chain, on its slopes green vineyards with a hint of gold between them, and a sky as blue as the sea.’ It was France as she’d not had occasion to see it before. It extended south beyond the bays and on to the shores of the Maghreb, over the Rif mountains, across the desert and down into sub-Saharan Africa, as far as the northern banks of the Congo: the westerly edge of a grand imperium, already undermined by one world war and destined to crumble under the pressure of another.

The passage Azéma favoured was known as the ‘Lister route’. Recoiling from the Phalangist victory, Enrique Lister, one of the Republic’s senior military officials – also a committed Stalinist – had fled up this defile in 1939 on his way into exile in the Soviet Union. (Twenty years later he was in Cuba, advising Fidel on the formation of his Revolutionary Defence Committees.) The advantage of the route, as Azéma explained to Fittko, was that for large parts of the way, it was secluded by canopies of rock. Fittko had done well to establish such a dependable lead so quickly. A few days later, Walter Benjamin arrived on her doorstep in Port Vendres. He’d obtained a visa from the US Consulate, thanks to the good offices of Max Horkheimer, and wanted her to help him escape through Spain.

Fittko’s account of what followed is now a justifiably famous element of the Walter Benjamin cult. Carina Birman’s personal story is not, but it includes the most recent of many last words about Benjamin’s death, a death on which, for his admirers, so much seems to hang that it, too, seems suspended: symbolic to the point of unreality, an enactment more than an event, like the death of the Christian messiah and the disappearance of the ‘risen’ body, for so long a matter of ardent conjecture. In a ritual sense, Benjamin’s death is closer to Judaic purification than a redemptive sacrifice. Yet in the likeness of the scapegoat, he confounds even that tradition, evicted not by his own tribe but by their enemies, wandering a mountainous wilderness not with the misdemeanours of his people on his head – ‘all their iniquities in all their sins’ – but their innocence. At the same time, he is tagged with a prophetic forecast of the impending cataclysm in Europe and the terrible numbers of dead that few could really foresee (probably not even Fittko, who claimed never to have kept count of the people she led to safety in those early days, still less how many were Jewish). As for Birman, she was deeply preoccupied with her own small contingent. Her memoir elides a lot of detail; it can be infuriatingly opaque; it is published with a wealth of footling apparatus, including a photo of the publisher pottering around on the road overlooking the town where Benjamin died. Nevertheless, it is an authentic, pre-mythological fragment from a site strewn with the litter of interested pilgrims and dunned to the substrate by regiments of Benjamin archaeologists. What it amounts to, and where it fits in, depends on what we make of other sources, Fittko in particular, and our readiness to go over this dreadful story yet again.

Benjamin would set out for the border with two other people, Henny Gurland and her teenage son, Joseph (or José), on what was, according to Fittko, 26 September 1940, though others have it as the 25th. There was an orientation trip the day before, like Birman’s, which involved a visit to the mayor’s office in Banyuls followed by a walk up through the vineyards in the direction of the frontier. Even this reconnaissance was trying for Benjamin, and when the time came to turn back, he refused, preferring to remain up in a clearing overnight. It was obvious to Fittko that he didn’t mean to exhaust himself by doing the first leg of the journey three times instead of once; despite her apprehensions she left him. Early the next morning Fittko and the Gurlands set out again, making their way with the grape-pickers. When they reached the clearing, ‘Old Benjamin’, as Fittko called him, ‘sat up and looked at us amiably’. She was alarmed by the dark red spots around his eyes and took them to indicate the onset of something fatal, ‘a heart attack perhaps’. In fact the dew had caused the dye to run from the rims of his spectacles. ‘The colour rubs off when they get wet,’ he explained, wiping his face with a handkerchief. Old Benjamin was a very advanced 48, with a promising future behind him and a number of medical problems, including lung trouble and a heart condition.

Fittko describes the little party striking out at a steady pace, she and Joseph taking turns to carry Benjamin’s black briefcase. Much later, when people asked her if she knew, or he’d said, what it contained, she was impatient. He was carrying a very important manuscript, worth more in his eyes than his own life, as he’d intimated, but that was as far as it went. Fittko was a militant people-smuggler on her first run, not a scholar or literary hanger-on. ‘For better or worse,’ she said of Benjamin’s luggage, ‘we had to drag that monstrosity over the mountains.’ She also called it ‘his ballast’. It’s likely, given the importance attached to it, that she embellished her memoir – and indeed her memory – to make more of the mysterious briefcase. Rolf Tiedemann, co-editor of the Suhrkamp seven-volume Gesammelte Schriften, speculated that its contents might have included a copy of the Theses on the Philosophy of History; the Harvard editors of the Selected Writings say the same. In any event, the manuscript, along with the bag and whatever else it contained, crossed the frontier and promptly disappeared.

On the journey, Benjamin kept up a routine of several minutes’ walking followed by a minute’s rest. ‘I can go all the way to the end using this method,’ he told Fittko. The trick, he added, was to pause ‘before I’m exhausted’. The going was tough and Fittko was struck by Benjamin’s willpower and courtesy. He was a model compared with some of the fusspots she’d later deliver to safety. She remembers resting up, eating ‘a piece of bread I’d bought with bogus food stamps’ and pushing the tomatoes across to Benjamin, who’d asked: ‘By your leave, gnädige Frau, may I serve myself?’ That’s how it was, she says, with ‘Old Benjamin and his Spanish court etiquette’.

In Fittko’s account there is no mention of Birman’s group. Fittko gets her party to the high point of the climb, surveys the coast and feels sure they’re inside Spain: the moment has come for her to retrace her steps but instead she decides to continue a little longer and only turns back when she’s seen the village of Portbou below in the distance. During this first attempt to lead people across she was naturally keen to take a look around. Fittko’s group, it seems, must have caught up with the other party at – or near – the summit, where Birman was in deep dejection. Recalling her guide’s instruction to steer by a large hilltop cross, she was sitting on the ground, trying in vain to match her hand-drawn map to a landscape of hilltops dotted with crosses.

‘In the meantime,’ she remembered, ‘we were joined by an elderly gentleman, a younger female and her son.’ She describes her new acquaintance, who had failed so brilliantly to impress the German academy, as ‘a university professor named Walter Benjamin’. Perhaps it was Benjamin’s admirable unworldliness and civility that evoked the faculty gown: a figure alert in mind and spirit, even if his physique was no match for this crossing. He was, Birman says, ‘on the point of having a heart attack. The strain of mountain climbing on an extremely hot September day . . . was too much for him . . . We ran in all directions in search of some water to help the sick man.’

While the Birman party and the university professor’s trio aimed for what they took to be the nearest customs post, Fittko was retracing her steps. She had taken ten hours to climb from Banyuls to the Spanish border with the Gurlands – it was fewer for Benjamin, who’d slept up in the clearing – but she made it back in two. She was basking in her first triumph, delighted with the route and – this has an air of embellishment – gratified to think that ‘Old Benjamin and his manuscript are safe now . . . on the other side of the mountains.’

Had Portbou remained a quiet fishing community it might never have been bombed by Italian aircraft during the Civil War, but it became a strategic railway station at the end of the 1920s and was still badly damaged when the refugees arrived. On announcing themselves to the authorities, they were told they’d be returned to France the following day. Birman was mortified: evidently they should have gone through the formalities at an earlier point of entry, which they must have missed; their contact in Banyuls had warned against this eventuality. Birman’s neck ‘was seized by a big male hand’. She was ‘turned around and commanded by a stocky man to follow him closely’. Her destination was the Fonda de Francia, a hotel in Portbou where she and the others were placed under garde à vue. It was a watering hole for special services, including the Gestapo (in those days undercover as shipping agents), informers and spooks from both sides of the border.

Birman says that they all had to double up except for Benjamin, who got ‘a room for himself: his companion with son another place, Sophie and I a room, and my sister and Grete Freund a small cell’. The situation could not have been worse, yet there was a trapdoor somewhere in this despair and Birman fell through it when she and Sophie Lippmann decided that the gold coins they’d brought with them should now be used to pay someone – anyone – to intercede on their behalf with the authorities. Lippmann felt the ‘hotel warden’ might be biddable and predictably enough, when she went to look for him, he was ready to help.

On her return she told Birman that she’d heard a ‘loud rattling from one of the neighbouring rooms’. Birman went to investigate and found Benjamin ‘in a desolate state of mind and in a completely exhausted physical condition’. He told her he could not go back to the border and would not move out of the hotel. She said there was no alternative and he disagreed: ‘He hinted that he had some very effective poisonous pills with him. He was lying half naked in his bed and had his very beautiful big golden grandfather watch with open cover on a little board near him, observing the time constantly.’ This ‘big golden grandfather watch’ was perhaps a pocket watch; and if so, surely the one he’d consulted earlier in the day to ration the pauses during his heroic, debilitating ascent. Birman told him about the attempted bribe and urged him to hold off. ‘He was very pessimistic’ and thought the odds were way too long. A little later, Henny Gurland came into the room and Birman left. There were several visits by a local doctor who bled the patient and administered injections, but if Birman was aware of this, she doesn’t say so. She takes it to be a clear case of suicide. ‘The next morning,’ she writes, ‘we heard that he had succeeded and was no more amongst us.’

Birman committed her story to paper in 1975. She was by then a successful lawyer in New York. Published now, 11 years after her death, it is in a slightly dubious sense the breaking news about events in Portbou on the night of 26 September 1940. It leaves a few odds and ends to consider. First, the reminders: Benjamin, who had probably linked up with Gurland in Marseille, left her a note before he lost consciousness. She memorised it, destroyed it as a precaution and relayed its contents to Adorno once she’d got through Spain. ‘In a situation presenting no way out,’ she remembers it saying, ‘I have no other choice but to make an end of it.’ She also wrote to her husband around the same time, mentioning the Birman party and describing the journey to Portbou as ‘an absolutely horrible ordeal’. Later, at various points in their lives, she and her son – and Greta Freund – commented to the best of their abilities on the circumstances of Benjamin’s death, but none could really explain the anomalies, to do with timings mostly, that arose from the doctor’s notes, the death certificate and the burial, recorded on one day in the church register and another in the municipal file.

The archives in Portbou and neighbouring Figueres are full of oddities, carefully laid out in David Mauas’s documentary film Who Killed Walter Benjamin? (2005). They have opened the field for speculative interest about Benjamin’s death. In 2001 Stephen Schwartz, a Trotskyist-turned-Sufist who has always seen the hidden hand of the evil empire, suggested that Benjamin may have been murdered by agents of Stalin. It’s an opportunistic long shot, based on the premise of Fascist-Stalinist co-operation in the mopping-up of Catalonia for the duration of the Hitler-Stalin Pact. If there must be a hidden hand, it’s likelier to be the Gestapo’s. In several published essays Benjamin had advertised his contempt for National Socialist culture and ideology (‘the fusion of the nationalist idea with racial madness’) far more widely than his misgivings about the Soviet Union. Neither partisan view of Benjamin as the object of a specific hatred gets us through the mire of old animosities onto the dependable ground of record.

Mauas’s cagey, unsensational film depicts a little town with more than its share of Phalangist satisfaction in the wake of the Civil War, inimical to the sans nationalités coming over from France and infiltrated by German intelligence. Worrying obscurities cloud the medical record and even the identity of the doctor in attendance. Two doctors were practising in Portbou, according to the residents interviewed by Mauas, and somewhere in the disputatious memory of these local elders is the suggestion that a Fascist sympathiser ministered to Benjamin but that another – allegiance less clear – later completed and signed off the paperwork in his colleague’s absence. Sinister as it seems, this may simply be a function of the duty roster in a small town. In any case Mauas steadfastly refuses to assert that Benjamin was eliminated.

The Narrow Foothold is yet more anecdotal evidence in favour of Gurland’s testimony, the only intimate testimony until now that Walter Benjamin committed suicide. It also enables us to look more coldly at the notion that Benjamin had been specially targeted by the Nazis and that this fact was connected with the detention of the refugees in Portbou: simply, once Benjamin was out of the picture, killed perhaps, dead in any case, there was no longer a reason to return the others to France. But if so, why was Birman, who tells us her name was ‘nearly topping’ a German hit list, permitted to go on her way? Conspiracy theory gets one large truth more or less right, but only inadvertently: what happened to Walter Benjamin was essentially a kind of execution, even if he’d decided to serve as delegate executioner. Cloak and dagger plots in which low-level killers administer lethal doses of contingency detract from this point.

Birman was misled about the importance of finding the ‘first’ customs post: first, second or third was of no consequence. If there’s anything as famous about Benjamin’s death as the briefcase, it’s the fact that at the time he crossed, Spanish officials had been ordered to turn back refugees – anyone sans nationalité, as Henny explained it in her letter to her husband – and that this order was enforced for a day or so, then set aside, or ignored, immediately afterwards. It was Benjamin’s timing that was fatal: Arendt called it ‘an uncommon stroke of bad luck’. Much has been said about this, but Momme Brodersen’s remark, in his 1996 biography of Benjamin, is the one that lingers in the mind: ‘It is hard not to ask whether . . . Benjamin’s death was “preventable”, “unnecessary”, though these are unanswerable, pointless questions. Hundreds of others were dying, unnecessarily, anonymously, on the borders; millions were to die with no border in sight.’

The following day was probably more distressing to Birman than the night before. News of Benjamin’s death, she implies, reached her in the morning, though if the medical record is halfway true he may have been lying in a coma. She recalls a bustle of activity around the hotel telephone: ‘All kinds of personalities were reached and asked for assistance.’ (Research done in Portbou and Figueres by Ingrid and Konrad Scheurmann in the 1990s turned up evidence of four billed phone calls, totalling 8.80 pesetas. They think it likely that the exchange would have tried the number of the US consul in Barcelona.) The warden was serving coffee to Birman, her sister Dele, Sophie Lippmann and Greta Freund when two policemen arrived and announced that they’d all have to return to the border and pick up entry visas. They left under escort and made the ascent in a couple of hours. The only sign of a customs point was a weather-beaten phone booth. The frontier itself consisted of a rope and beyond the rope an ominous, bored assortment of goons, French and German. The Spanish gendarmes turned back, pointing out how honourably they’d refrained from untying the rope and delivering them back into Vichy. They even left some coins for the refugees to use in the phone booth: they should phone through, they advised, to the police at Portbou, requesting permission to set foot on the Spanish soil they’d been pacing in such desolation for the better part of 24 hours.

There we were sitting on rocks and burnt-out slopes. We were so depressed that we did not even notice that the sky was becoming darker and darker, although it was early in the afternoon. A thunderstorm! No, a rainstorm . . . We weighed our possibilities. There was only one direction with uncertain issue, all the others meant death. So we decided to return to Spain. There was no hope of walking down. There were no passable tracks any more, one could only sit on stones and try to glide down.

They slithered back to Portbou under driving rain and arrived at the police station around six in the evening. The captain of the guard thrust some papers in Birman’s pocket, told her their visas were in order and advised them to leave before dark. He waved them on for a baggage inspection, which they survived with their gold intact. The ‘hotel-keeper’, presumably the guardian Sophie had met the night before, was watching eagerly, and once they were through he demanded the promised reward. ‘Her offer had worked,’ Birman says, ‘even in our absence . . . he must have communicated with the police captain to rescind his previous order,’ but too late to stop them being marched back to the frontier. Once the gold was handed over, everything changed. The refugees were escorted to the Fonda de Francia as guests, rather than prisoners, and a lavish spread was prepared.

Before they began the meal the lights went off and a priest led a procession of monks through the dining room, carrying candles and chanting a mass. They climbed the staircase to the first floor.

We were told they had come from a neighbouring monastery to say a requiem at the death bed of Prof. Benjamin and to bury him. We had quite forgotten this most unfortunate occurrence during last night, and although we knew Mr Benjamin to have been Jewish, we made no remark and left this declaration to his lady companion. She never said anything of the kind and let them take the body of the defunct.

The refugees’ clothes were set out to dry, they retired for a brief rest, and well after dark in a pummelling thunderstorm they were taken to catch the night train to Barcelona.

‘Benjamin Walter’, dead not from a morphine overdose but from a ‘cerebral haemorrhage’, was buried in the Catholic section of the cemetery at Portbou, Roman anathema regarding Jews and suicides having been neatly circumvented by the reversal of names on the death certificate and by the given cause of death. The body lay in a niche with a five-year lease. On her way through Portbou not long afterwards, Arendt failed to identify the niche with any certainty.

The gold probably tipped the scales in Birman’s favour, notwithstanding her all-round resourcefulness. If her story is true, it might have held out hope for Benjamin too. But Birman’s ‘professor’ was not a believer. Early in life he’d got out of gold – turning away from the path indicated by his family’s wealth – and into a pure, non-remunerative form of work, perhaps best thought of as the investigation of modernity: a cornucopia of social production and, as he envisaged it, a nearly miraculous condition of the kind you might come to understand after long study of an infant prodigy capable of grand engineering schemes, precocious feats of reasoning, high poetic utterance, generosity of spirit and a cruelty that knew no bounds. The European culture that Benjamin loved had the infernal vigour of the child genius, even though, in his reflections on the Second Empire, he could also discern the outlines of the ageing hag. Living on modest means, he did as much in his century for the discursive essay as Montaigne had done in his, though he was better placed, historically, not just to think about the world, but to try to say how the world thought back. Unlike his father, an auctioneer, rentier and speculator, Benjamin at 48 had a universe to offer but very little to transact, in life or on the point of dying, and so on his last journey he took the cash he could muster and the few articles he rightly considered essential: an obscure manuscript, a pocket watch and enough morphine ‘to kill a horse’, as Koestler had described it after their meeting in Marseille. Gold was not part of this crude survival kit, which provided for dispatch rather more than salvation. Benjamin may have been devoted to memory and posterity, but he had very little intellectual or moral interest in the road ahead – his or anybody else’s. ‘We know,’ he wrote in the last of his aphorisms on ‘Messianic time’ in the Theses, ‘that the Jews were prohibited from investigating the future. The Torah and the prayers instruct them in remembrance, however.’

Birman and her sister were shocked by Madrid, ‘a city half destroyed by the Civil War’, but they were able to look in at the Prado, ‘the one luxury on our flight’. The group reached Lisbon on 1 October and in due course they all left on visas, separately, for the Americas. Birman travelled on the Nyassa, an old and overcrowded schooner, formerly German and now Portuguese, in a state of anxiety about the possibility of being hailed and searched by a U-boat, ‘as an examination of papers and a selection of passengers to be taken off was unavoidable’. The ship’s engines stopped and for several days there was no movement. Finally, on 4 December 1940, the Nyassa entered New York harbour. ‘We were all on deck,’ Birman wrote, ‘with tears of emotion in our eyes.’