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Three Suitcases: Walter Benjamin; Agusti Centelles; and the Hypothetical Suitcase of Baltasar Garzon – Part One

“Photography and Time at the Border,” by Janet Sternburg, is a multi-part series of essays that explores issues surrounding history, memory, exile and home. The Museum of Exile is the opening essay that focuses on the Museu Memorial d’Exili, in La Jonquera, Spain, juxtaposed with the music of Paco Ibanez. Three Suitcases, a two part commentary, continues this exploration by linking the lives and work of three pivotal figures: Walter Benjamin, Agusti Centelles and Baltasar Garzon, juxtaposed with the music of Lluis Llach and Joan Manuel Serrat.

This is a tale of three suitcases, two real, and one hypothetical, each journeying at different times and in different directions, but bound together by a shared history and place.

Two of these journeys center on Portbou, a Catalan town close to the French border. In 1939, Spanish Civil War refugees traveled through Portbou on the way north to escape Franco’s reprisals. Two years later, a small contingent of Jews, among them Walter Benjamin, clambered over the same Pyrenees, walking south to flee the Nazis. I picture this town like a dissolve in a film: the frame at  the center where both images — one fading out, the other in — are equally present.

I came to Portbou in 2011 to pay homage to Walter Benjamin who spent his last day and night in the town, and also to continue my engagement with The Museum of Exile whose mandate encompasses Portbou. Had I known then of all of the other artists and writers who had preceded me and created their own responses to the place, Walter Benjamin in Portbou, I could not have come there with fresh eyes.

As it was, familiar with only a few films, I saw not the melancholic, economically diminished town that is described in many  accounts, but rather a food stand built into a cliff, ready to sell crepes to the many tourists who come to swim,  lie on the beach, and eat, as I did in one of the many restaurants lining the bay. Later, walking through town, I saw a striking graffiti of a young woman bedecked with a necklace comprised of letters spelling out HIGH TECH, a complex if ambiguous sign of what I take to be a protest against globalism. In other words, in my brief time there, I  found, and brought  away with me, images of the present.

I  walked up a hill to Portbou’s cemetery, terraced above the Mediterranean where the Pyrenees end; this is the cemetery that Hannah Arendt described to Gershom Scholem in a letter, calling it “one of the most fantastic and most beautiful spots I have seen in my life.” She also wrote that her search for traces of Benjamin was fruitless: “I have found nothing, his name was nowhere.”

On the day I was there, I saw signs of a more general caring and tending: a family-plot in a niche, its provenance hand-lettered to identify those encased there and those for whom it is destined. I saw watering cans, their handles hooked into a communal rack, for visitors who want to water fresh flowers.

In the midst of all these presences, I felt  an absence, most keenly when standing in front of a cairn of stones often thought to be the marker for Benjamin’s grave (In fact, Benjamin’s bones lie elsewhere in the cemetery in an unmarked grave). When visitors pause at the cairn, they are invited to pick up a small stone and place it alongside the others, a custom as old as Biblical times when there were no large headstones in the desert.

Here, where stones  are placed to perpetuate the existence of  a man,  we begin the tale of the three suitcases.

In January 1938, in the port of San Remo, Walter Benjamin said goodbye to Theodor and Gretel Adorno who were sailing to New York. When they advised him to do the same, he replied: “In Europe there are positions to defend.”  He waited too long. In 1940, Nazi troops took Paris. Benjamin’s only chance of escape was to get to Banyuls in Southern France and then walk up a trail  that crossed the Pyrenees over a six hundred meter pass and then wound down to Portbou where, with a visa obtained for him by Max Horkheimer, Benjamin was to go on to the United States. The walk had to have been difficult for him; an asthmatic with heart problems, he was carrying a heavy suitcase, sometimes translated as briefcase. Lisa Fittko, his guide across the Pyrenees, has written an account in which she quotes Benjamin as saying “This is my new manuscript.” She asked him, “But why did you take it on this walk?” “You must understand,” he said, “that this briefcase is the most important thing to me. I cannot risk losing it. It is the manuscript that must be saved. It is more important than I am.”

What was in the briefcase? For Lisa Fittko, the question was irrelevant: the suitcase was what Benjamin should have left behind before he went up into the mountains, where it slowed down his own progress and everyone else’s as well. Sympathetic and brave though Fittko was, to her Benjamin’s suitcase had to have been a liability.

Having found his way to Portbou, Benjamin learned that transit visas had been cancelled the previous day; his group was to be sent back to France where they surely would be killed. On the night of September 25, 1940, under house arrest at the Hotel Francia, Benjamin is believed to have killed himself with an overdose of the morphine that he carried for self-medication. The precise circumstances of his death are in contention; undeniable though is that a forty eight year old genius was found dead in the morning. The death certificate, says Fittko, recorded the contents of the suitcase as “. . . papeles mas de contenido desconicido” — papers of unknown content.  A week later at the inquest, officials inventoried his possessions:  “. . . a leather briefcase such as businessmen use, a man’s watch, a pipe, six photographs, an x-ray picture, glasses, various letters, magazines, and also some money.” No manuscript. Shortly, the briefcase itself was to vanish. Neither case nor manuscript has ever been found.

For that matter, we don’t know if there even was a manuscript in his suitcase. Whatever it was, was it more important than his own life? Or was the idea of lasting, of making a difference to posterity, commensurate with his life? When the house of Europe is on fire, as it was then, what was necessary to carry out of the burning building? A life? A life’s work? What is too heavy?

The second suitcase traveled north, carried by photographer Agusti Centelles. Centelles’ journey began close to Portbou’s train station, a spectacular building that suggests its 1929 origin at the time of The Barcelona International Exposition. High above the town, the station is, quite literally, a break in time. Because the Spanish railway gauge is 233 millimeters wider than the French gauge, trains must switch from one to the other in what I see as a last gasp of nationalism. Local legend has it that during the change, time stands still. In fact, precious minutes went by when the Republican Army could get supplies, and Jews — those who could afford to escape by train — could gather their belongings and descend into the station’s vastness, its arching glass roof evocative of Europe’s arcades that had stimulated Walter Benjamin’s imagination.

This station is so iconic that I don’t think it’s stretching things to speculate that it might well be the one that Catalan poet/songwriter Lluis Llach had in mind when he wrote A l’Estacio, whose refrain is  que contigo esperan la senal de la llegada de aire nuevo, de un gesto nuevo, de un paso nuevo, de un tren nuevo (. . . with you they wait for the signal of the arrival of fresh air, of a new gesture, a new step, a new train).

A l’Estacio, sung in Catalan by Lluis Llach

Because Portbou was an active site of Catalan resistance, it became a particular target for Nationalist bombings. To shelter its citizens, the Town Council built tunnels close to the station. Through one of these tunnels went Agusti Centelles in 1939, taking with him a suitcase filled with negatives. As official photographer for the Republican government, he knew he had to keep this suitcase with him; if the negatives were to be found (as some were, because he couldn’t take them all), Franco’s troupes would use them to identify and retaliate against their opponents.

When the Spanish refugees made their way over the border to France, they had no idea that they were headed to improvised internment camps where they would sleep in tents, with only the most meager provisions of food, water, and medical supplies. The entire area surrounded by barbed wire; they were, in effect, prisoners.

Centelles spent seven months in these camps, first in Argelès-sur-Mer and then in Bram, near Carcassone, where he photographed the appalling conditions. To prevent his negatives from being stolen, he slept clutching his suitcase in his arms. In 1939 he was allowed  temporary leave from the camp to work on the harvest; that permit became final when he was given a job at a photography studio in Carcassone where he secretly made counterfeit identification documents for members of the French Resistance. After several arrests, Centelles had to leave. He entrusted his suitcase to the family who had taken him in during his exile and set off, unburdened by weight but heavy with loss, on a clandestine journey back to Spain.

The suitcase stayed in the family’s attic for more than three decades. It was not until 1976, the year after Franco died, that Centelles was able to return to Carcassone to retrieve the negatives that he now feared would be gone. The suitcase was still there, the negatives intact. Centelles spent the rest of his life restoring, copying and cataloguing each image, bringing to light what had been hidden for so many years — and, regrettably, hidden too for years afterward through lack of interest. Though Centelles is now referred to as the Spanish Capa, the international photography world only ‘discovered’ him in 2009 when the Jeu de  Paume presented an exhibition of his work — the first time that his images had been seen in France, perhaps because they exposed the shameful treatment of the refugees. In 2011, they were seen for the first time in the United States in a show and symposium at New York University.  Twelve thousand negatives and plates — the entire collection, among them images his grown children had discovered in a rusty biscuit tin in their father’s laboratory — has been sold to Spain’s Ministry of Culture, at last held in a repository for historical memory.

But what did those years do to Centelles —  the first three decades after his first return from France, when he was prohibited from openly working as a photographer? And later, in the second three decades that followed its retrieval, as he faithfully brought his images back to life, did he wonder what was the meaning of witnessing if the evidence remained in darkness?

Upcoming Three Suitcases -Part Two: The Hypothetical Suitcase of Baltasar Garzon


  1. Congratulations for your work. Very interesting approach to Walter Benjamin and Agustí Centelles. Two thinks to consider: the first exhibition of Centelles work in France was in 2004, in Carcassone, a monographic about Bram’s images: Réfugiés espagnols dans l’Aude (1939-1940). (exhibition and international colloque). The first exhibition in New York was in 1986: Agustí Centelles. Spanish Civil War Photographer. A fifty year commemorative exhibition. (March, 3rd-28th). Art Center Paul Clapper Library, Queens College, CUNY

  2. I’m deeply moved by the bravery and fortitude of the two men, Walter Benjamin and Agustl Centelles. As a photographer, I know the intensity of emotion connected to Centelles leaving his photographs behind, images that had such vital historic importance. “Heavy with loss” catches the trauma as does much of the language describing Benjamin’s tragic suicide. Your writing honors the lives of these men about whom I knew nothing till now. With profound appreciation for taking us on this journey and also for your photographs which add to the powerful spiritual experience.

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