'Walking Borders: borders, risk and belonging' is funded by the Leverhulme Trust
Walking in Souda refugee camp today we were greeted by children and people living there (women with babies, families, young men, children and young people some of whom are unaccompanied). A small girl walking past stopped to say hello and hugged me before skipping away. We arrived towards the far end of the camp as a small group of people were dispersing. Looking out to sea – a man told us a young man had tried to swim back to Turkey he had not been registered/processed because he had swam to Chios and had not arrived by boat. Distraught, he had decided to swim back…The mans wife, carrying their small daughter asked ‘why do we have to stay here, why can we not go on with our journey’. We could not answer nor give the hope they wanted. The camp is open not closed, some people move in and out and use the park and public spaces nearby to sit, talk, wait and be. Food is prepared by local kitchens and funding is needed for this as well as (amongst other resources) to support refugee translators involved in case support. The volunteer aid workers are doing a brilliant job.
Later, I was thinking about Walter Benjamin’s walk across the Pyrenees and the border that he was presented with at Portbou in September 1940.
“Exhausted after a harrowing trek across the Pyrenees from Banyuls-sur-Mer in France (15 km distant as the crow flies)… a stateless German Jew, who carried on his person a provisional American passport issued by the US Foreign Service in Marseille, stamped with a Spanish transit visa, also issued in Marseille and good for the land journey to Portugal. A fugitive from the Vichy regime, he now aimed to reach the safety of the US via Lisbon. He had once visited Ibiza, but spoke no Spanish, although he had an excellent command of French. The Spanish frontier guards accosted the group and demanded their documents. They told the bearer of the US passport that he could go no further: his presence on Spanish territory was illegal because he had no French exit visa. However, in view of the traveller’s evident ill-health, the police agreed to postpone expelling him back to Pétain’s France until the next day. Impelled, perhaps, by inexplicable generosity or covert republican sympathies, they allowed him to spend the night, not in a police cell but in the less undignified surroundings of a cheap room in the Hotel de Francia – at No 5 in Avenida del General Mola, a street in the town centre near the police station, recently renamed after a Francoist commander. At 10 p.m. the next day, in Room No 4 on the hotel’s second floor, the traveller was found dead.
The stateless refugee whose life ended in Portbou on 26 September 1940 was Walter Benjamin, now recognised as one of the greatest philosophers of the twentieth century. He had lived in exile in France since 1933. He had been deprived of his German nationality in July 1939, and later that year had suffered the indignity of an internment camp. After the Nazi occupation of Paris and the creation of the Vichy regime, to be returned to France would have meant certain deportation and death; the great critical thinker’s US passport, obtained through the intercessions of his émigré friends, was his one and only lifeline, and the sole talisman that might allow the continuation of his work.
In these circumstances, and carrying on his person as he did a substantial quality of morphine, to take his own life may have seemed the only dignified way out. It has been claimed that the Spanish border guards might have been willing to let him through after all the next day, subject to a ‘small consideration’, but the hotel owner, Juan Suñer Jonama, apparently had close connections with the Gestapo, and any notion of a police change of heart remains speculative”.
Quoted from Border Crossing, Resting Place: Portbou and Walter Benjamin by Christopher Rollason M.A., Ph.D., Metz, France —