Stairs leading down a narrow passageway to the churning ocean waves are suddenly blocked by a pane of glass. Etched in German are the words: “It is more arduous to honor the memory of anonymous beings than that of the renowned. The construction of history is consecrated to the memory of the nameless.”
Taken from Walter Benjamin’s On the Concept of History, the memorial honors the German Jewish philosopher in the town where he spent the last hours of his life.
The coastal Catalan town of Portbou is colored by vibrant flowers and the blue of the Mediterranean, and it is here where Walter Benjamin found himself on September 25, 1940. Along with two other travelers, he had just crossed the Pyrenees from France in his escape from the Vichy regime. The next night in the Hotel de Francia he was found dead. The man who would be recognized as one of the 20th century’s most significant philosophers had died from a morphine overdose, having been told he would be denied passage and an escape from deportation to the concentration camps of Nazi Germany.
Created by Israeli artist Dani Karavanhe, the memorial to Walter Benjamin is on a clifftop by Portbou’s municipal cemetery. It was named “Passages” in remembrance of Benjamin’s final passage from France to Spain, as well as his enormous unfinished work Passagenwerk (Arcades Project) on 19th-century Paris. The name also refers to the several passages visitors make during their time at the memorial, from the journey down the steps to the glass view of the ocean whirlpool and back up to the rectangle of sunlight in the dark.
From the tunnel, there is a steep and rocky path that leads to the back of the cemetery and an ancient olive tree. Benjamin was buried in a common and unmarked grave, but further along the path there is a monument to him in the form of a square platform surrounded by flowers. The top of the cemetery has views of the azure Mediterranean water, as well as the Pyrenees, where Walter Benjamin made his final attempt to escape persecution by the Nazis.