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

“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.

Metaphors don’t always line up: a suitcase can be an emblem of belonging to a place, and of ensuring the safety of one’s belongings; it can also signify something less benign — a grave, a place where things lie out of sight.

This third suitcase is hypothetical in part because it doesn’t have the physical existence of one carried by an individual hand; hypothetical too because, carried by many people, it may reveal the belongings of an entire nation.

During my several-month 2011 sojourn in Spain, I was amazed and moved by the country’s  accomplishments during its Transition: a new Constitution, free democratic elections, moves toward autonomy for its regions, all of this accompanied by literature whose intent is to explore issues of history and memory that cannot be resolved, at least not yet. In Javier Cercas’ Anatomy of a Moment, about the 1981 attempted coup d’etat at the the Spanish legislative assembly,  a reviewer in n + 1 writes that {it} is “secretly and not so secretly about so many things it seems to verge on the inexhaustible . . . the responsibilities of citizens and the performances of their leaders, the peculiarities of heroism, the vice of politics, the ingratitude of democracy, the courage of bourgeois decency, and the final irrelevance of motive.This is a literature that virtually shakes images to see what might fall from them, in this instance the live television broadcast of the coup which Cercas screens again and again, each time finding that it yields  multiple and complex meanings, a literature that implicitly asks of society to do the same.

In 2000, the volunteer organization Association for the Recovery of Historical Memory, founded by Emilio Silva and Santiago Macias, and made up of archaeologists, anthropologists and forensic scientists, began to locate places of executions, collect oral and written testimonies, and excavate bodies from mass graves. As of October 2009, the group had identified the remains of one thousand seven hundred victims; it is estimated that as many as fifty five thousand lie buried across the country.

One of these exhumations, in the village of Villamayor de los Montes outside of Burgos, was documented by photographer Francesc Torres in a book and exhibition entitled Dark is the Room Where We Sleep, which quotes the testimonies of local townspeople, many of whom had lost parents, grandparents, uncles and aunts: “Here is probably the only way that people will know what really happened, because my children, for instance, when you tell them, they don’t believe it. . . It’s not that they don’t believe it, it’s just impossible for them to think that that could happen. The only way they believe it is by seeing it here.”

After the bones were exhumed, forensically examined and returned to their relatives, the graves lay empty for the first time in sixty eight years. The residents of Villamayor de los Montes carried the remains of their families in somber procession to the cemetery, to rest in new graves marked with their names.

In 2008, Spanish investigating judge Baltasar Garzon opened an official nation-wide investigation into the disappearances of opponents during Franco’s regime, calling for a nation-wide exhumation of the mass graves. By then Garzon had successfully argued in an international court that crimes against humanity demand a standard of universal justice that is over and above national law. However, he was indicted and tried by Spain’s Supreme Court for exceeding his judicial mandate by violating Spain’s 1977 legal amnesty.  Recently Garzon was acquitted of these charges, but was found guilty in another politically motivated case  in which he was accused of illegal phone-tapping. The conviction prohibited him from practicing law for eleven years, a sentence that stops his efforts to investigate and exhume the Franco-era crimes.

I must confess: before I began to read and think about the exhumations, I too questioned their point, countering their value with the recriminations they would inevitably bring. Even more heretical, I wondered at the need for an individual grave, whether being placed among the human jumble was commemoration enough. Now I believe a voice from Villamayor de los Montes: “When you see an open grave, you know, if you did not before, that it is absolutely necessary to recover the victims, to take them out of the gutters, the  dumps, the wells, and the mines, all anonymous holes they were thrown into like animals.”

This is a voice that speaks beyond Spain. When I began writing this essay in late February, The New York Times reported that Dover Air Force Base in Delaware — the entry point for the nation’s war dead, and hallowed ground for the military — used its mortuary to “dispose of body parts of some victims of the 2001 Sept. 11th attacks by burning them and dumping the ashes in a landfill.” There were no bones left to recover.

Of Walter Benjamin and his suitcase, I had asked earlier: what is too heavy?  These graves answer that question; they weigh us all down. Only when their contents are acknowledged and released to the living, paradoxically freeing Spain from the onus of individual blame, will the earth be relieved of its burden.

Time stopped for Walter Benjamin one night in Portbou; later, it stopped again when his bones were put into an unknown grave. Time stopped during the 233 m. change at Portbou’s railway station. Time was ordered to stop when Garzon’s judges invoked the pact of forgetting.

Time, though has its own imperatives.

Among the many art projects that honor Benjamin in Portbou, there is one that I find especially  touching. Several years ago a group of young Italian artists filled a suitcase with objects that had symbolic value to each of them, then hiked along Benjamin’s escape route where, at a spot along the way, they buried the suitcase. They have written, ‘We will post the objects we have left inside it and the geographic data in order to find it and dig it out. Everyone can go back to that place, find the briefcase, add his special object and post its story and its photo on this blog.The object chosen has to answer to the following question: What you would put in the briefcase, if you were pushed to escape from home like Benjamin did 70 years ago?’ They add, ‘This is our way to remember Benjamin and all those people – migrants, refugees, asylum seekers, vagrants and homeless – forced to escape from home.’

The destination of the young Italians was the official memorial to Benjamin, a great work of public art on a cliff in Portbou. Made in 1995 by Dani Karavan,  ‘Passages‘ is a steel tunnel cut into the ground, passing through the cliff edge and coming out overlooking the sea.

A few steps before what seems to be a certain tumble, there is a sheet of plate glass that demands contemplation and return; inscribed on its surface, in several languages, is this quotation;  ‘It is more arduous to honour the memory of the nameless than that of the renowned. Historical construction is devoted to the memory of the nameless.‘

It is the end of the journey of the three suitcases. Time has done its work. These young artists have walked, buried, passed on the information for how and where to add to what they’ve started.

Cantares, from Dedicado a Antonio Machado, Poeta, by Joan Manuel Serrat a song that was important to the generation growing up in fascist Spain in the sixties.

All things pass
And all remain
But we, ourselves, we pass,
We pass making paths,
Leaving tracks on the sea. . . .
and the refrain
Traveler, there is no path, you make the path as you walk.

They sit on the steps of the memorial and pay tribute to the man who inspired it and because they are young, to themselves and their art-making. In beauty and awkwardness, they perform both elegy and hope. The steps to the sea can hold it all.


  1. I love the suitcases buried with memories.

  2. Lewin Wertheimer says:

    Dear Janet,

    I love your series of articles and choice of songs and poetry, many that I know by heart. “Caminero, no hay camino. Se hace camino al andar.” One of my favorite poems and Serrat songs. I have very vivid memories of arriving in the middle of the night in Port Bao in train and having to wait to change to the Spanish size tracks. I always felt uneasy there, like I too would be caught and sequestered. I think as a gay Jew I can’t help the empathic paranoia of the misery that preceeded and still continues in this world. Thank you for all your thought provoking images and words; I must visit the museum.

    Love, Lewin

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