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Readings — From the December 2017 issue

Document of Barbarism

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From The Correspondence of Hannah Arendt and Gershom Scholem. The book was published last month by the University of Chicago Press. Arendt, Scholem, and Walter Benjamin were German-born Jewish philosophers. Translated from the German by Anthony David.

montauban, october 21, 1940

Dear Scholem,

Walter Benjamin took his own life on September 29 in Portbou, on the Spanish frontier. He had an American visa, but the only people the Spanish allowed to pass the border were those with national passports. The report of his death took nearly four weeks to reach his sister and us. Jews are dying in Europe and are being buried like dogs.

new york, october 17, 1941

Dear Scholem,

Here in New York I’ve heard some not unimportant details for the first time. It may be that I’m not all that qualified to give an account of Benjamin’s death, because I had considered such a possibility so far-fetched that for weeks after he died I dismissed the entire business as no more than immigrants’ gossip. This despite the fact that in the past years and months we were very close friends.

At the outbreak of war we were all together for a summer break in a small village near Paris. Benji was in excellent shape. He had finished part of his work on Baudelaire and was prepared to do some extraordinary things. The outbreak of war immediately terrified him beyond all measure. Fearing bombardments from the air, he left Paris for Meaux, a well-known center for the mobilization. The result was that from the start, one air-raid alarm followed the next; Benjamin at once made his way back to Paris. He came back just in time to get himself duly rounded up. In the temporary camp at Colombes, he entered into a kind of asceticism. He stopped smoking, gave away all his chocolate, refused to wash or shave, and more or less refused to move a limb. Upon arrival in the final camp he wasn’t feeling all that bad. He had a bevy of young boys around him; they liked him a lot, and were keen to learn from him, and swallowed every word he said. By the time he returned in November, his initial panic was gone entirely. In the months that followed he wrote his historical-philosophical theses.

In January one of his new young friends from the camp killed himself, mostly for personal reasons. This suicide preoccupied Benjamin to an extraordinary extent; and in all the discussions about it, with a truly passionate vehemence, he stood with those who defended the young man’s decision. In spring 1940, with heavy hearts, we made our way to the American Consulate. Even though we heard that we would have to wait between two and ten years before our quota number came up, the three of us took English lessons. Benjamin had just one wish: to learn enough of English to say that he absolutely didn’t like the language. And he succeeded. His horror at America was indescribable, and he told friends that he preferred a shorter life in France to a longer one in America.

From the middle of April, those of us under the age of forty-eight who had been released from internment were examined for suitability for military fatigue duty. “Fatigue duty” was really just another way of saying “internment with forced labor”; and measured against the first round of internment, in most cases it was worse. Everyone  — that is, everyone but Benji  — had no doubt he would be declared unfit for service. In those days he was awfully agitated, and on a number of occasions he told me he wouldn’t be able to play along once again. Of course, he was declared unfit. Independent of all of this, in the middle of May, the second and far more systematic internment took place. As if a miracle, of the three people spared the internment, Benji was one. Because of administrative chaos, he nevertheless could never know whether, or for how long, the police would accept an order from the interior ministry. I had no contact with him at the time because I was interned. Friends told me, however, that he didn’t dare venture out into the streets, and he was living in constant panic. He managed to get on the last train leaving Paris. He took only a small suitcase with two shirts and a toothbrush. He traveled to Lourdes. As soon as I got out of Gurs in the middle of June, I, too, headed to Lourdes. This was the time of defeat, and after a few days the trains stopped running. No one knew what had happened to families, husbands, children, and friends. Benji and I played chess from morning to evening, and between games we read newspapers, to the extent that we could get our hands on them. Everything was as fine as could be  — until the ceasefire terms were published, along with the infamous extradition clause.

But even then I can’t say that Benjamin fell into a full-blown panic. When news reached us of the first suicide among those in internment fleeing from the Germans, Benjamin began for the first time to talk repeatedly to me about suicide: there was always “that” way out. In response to my energetic and emphatic objections that there was still plenty of time before the situation became that desperate, he predictably repeated that you could never know, and under no circumstances should you wait too long.

At the beginning of July, I left Lourdes. I vacillated back and forth about whether I should take him with me. But that would have been simply impossible. Until September, my only contact with him was through letters. In the meantime, the Gestapo had been at his apartment and confiscated everything. Judging by his letters, he was very depressed. His manuscripts had been saved, but he had every reason to fear he had lost everything. In September my husband and I made our way to Marseille because our visas had arrived. Benji had the transit passes from Spain. When I saw him, the Spanish visa was valid for another eight to ten days. Getting that sort of visa in those days was completely impossible. He asked me, in a fit of despair, what he should do and whether we, too, could get a Spanish visa, as quickly as possible, so we could cross the border together. I told him how hopeless that would be, and that by the same token he had to leave soon because Spanish visas were not being extended. Rather on the spur of the moment, he decided to leave. The Dominicans had given him a letter of introduction to some Spanish abbot. You know the rest of the story: that he had to leave in the company of complete strangers; that they chose to take the long route that required a seven-hour journey by foot through the mountains; that for entirely mysterious reasons they destroyed their French residency papers and thus cut off the possibility of returning to France; that they arrived at the frontiers exactly twenty-four hours after the closing of the Spanish border to people without national passports; that Benji had already completely broken down a number of times on the way to the border; that the group was supposed to report to the Spanish border the next morning; and that that night he took his life. Months later, when we arrived at Portbou, we searched in vain for his grave. His name was nowhere. The cemetery looks off at a small bay, directly onto the Mediterranean. It is composed of terraces carved out of stone. The coffins are shoved into these stone walls. It is by far one of the most fantastically beautiful places I’ve ever seen.

That’s all I can tell you, and I’ve told the story as precisely and without comment as possible.

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