Hannah Arendt (1906 -1975) photographed from the United States shortly after arriving in the country, in 1941. Gilardi Photo Library (akg-images /Album )
Although Hannah Arendt's life has been repeatedly biographed and also narratively recreated and taken to the movies, even to comics, the episode of her passage through Franco's Spain at the beginning of 1941, on a "transit trip" that was in vanishing reality, had not received the slightest interest from scholars.
The two great biographical reconstructions, that of Elisabeth Young-Bruehl and that of Laure Adler, delve into the labyrinth of procedures that allowed a Jew of German origin and who had not registered with the new authorities of Vichy France to leave from that trap that was soon to be deadly.
But once the Spanish border of Portbou is reached and once it is crossed—it was not the same thing—the two biographers immediately put Arendt on a direct train to Lisbon, without another word about it.
Arendt's probable itinerary, and that of her second husband, Heinrich Blücher, would rather consist of four or five consecutive links: Portbou / Barcelona / Zaragoza / Madrid / Cáceres-Valencia de Alcántara station.
And the transfer was not at all immediate.
Tickets for each partial journey could only be purchased at the departure station and there was also an enormous demand for them;
the frequency of rail traffic was low and irregular, since the infrastructures had been seriously damaged in the recent war and the machinery was depleted.
In this other scenario, the forced waits at the successive stations could last several days, and a Portbou-Lisbon journey could require more than a week... if everything else went well.
From Arendt's mouth or pen we knew only two specific details regarding this handful of days through Spain, from train to train.
The first piece of information is that he visited the marine cemetery of Portbou, in an unsuccessful search for the tomb of Walter Benjamin;
the place actually seemed to him, he said, "one of the most fantastic and beautiful I have ever seen in my life."
The second piece of news is that his theses on the philosophy of history
were traveling in his suitcase
, the manuscript of the friend who reached Portbou and who did not cross the border.
Arendt must have been aware that Benjamin had sent another copy of the precious text to Gershom Scholem, but still, given the uncertainties of a postal delivery to Jerusalem with the world war already underway, concerns about the fate of her the manuscript in his suitcase would add to the anxiety caused by crossing a country friendly to the new masters of the continent.
Being an essential stage in his long flight from the swastika, the transit trip through Spain was not without risks.
By a series of testimonies from dates relatively close to January 1941, namely: at least three of those collected by Jacobo Israel Garzón and Alejandro Baer in
Spain and the Holocaust (1939-1945),
and also the memoirs of Lisa Fittko
De Berlín to the Pyrenees
, it is possible to enrich, with a solid base, some other circumstances of the Spanish fragment of Arendt's biography.
The official policy of Spain towards emigrants and refugees in transit was at that time what Serrano Suñer began to translate into theological terms: “Let them pass through the country like light through glass”.
At the Spanish borders, Hendaye or Portbou, the traveler was questioned, however, about the religion he professed and on the entry form there was a written record: “Religion: Israelite”.
In certain cases, this led to an individual or group of travelers being rejected at the Portuguese border, despite having their documentation in order;
then there was a painful return pilgrimage, with overnight stays in dungeons, until they reached Madrid,
where a prison had been set up for foreigners with passport problems or crimes of non-declaration of currency.
The people affected were separated from their luggage and may have to get rid of jewelry or valuables to face fees and fines.
They had the occasional help of the Red Cross, but the threat of ending up in a Spanish internment camp (Miranda de Ebro, Nanclares de Oca, Figueras) persisted.
Arendt undoubtedly knew what she was talking about when, in the letter she wrote from Lisbon to his friend Salomon Adler-Rudel in London, she took stock: “I am stranded here, along with my husband.
Since September we have had emergency visas [to enter the US], with which, as stateless persons, we could neither leave [France] nor cross Spain.
Finally things have clicked.
In comparative terms, we have not done badly.
We have hardly been bothered."
These Jewish travelers fleeing racial persecution and a continent at war were struck by the misery of the Spanish population, which was evident in the crowds of children begging at the stations and in the profusion of war mutilated working as shoe shiners. or selling lottery tickets — "there are more on the Ramblas in Barcelona than in all of Paris," commented one of them.
That winter of 1940-1941 was, in fact, the most dramatic of the terrible postwar period, on the very edge of famine.
His attention was also drawn to the still evident devastation of Spanish cities, especially Madrid.
But in the depressing panorama, a singular possibility of joy is repeated in several testimonies.
They are the hours spent in the Prado Museum,
Just a 20-minute walk from the Delicias station —from which the Portuguese connection left.
Without any other basis than consistency with the set of circumstances referred to, it is therefore possible to conjecture that Arendt also had the opportunity to contemplate
For what cabals are not needed is to affirm that in articles from the forties, as well as in
The origins of totalitarianism
(1951), the Jewish thinker made a series of lucid references to the Spanish civil war and the regime of General Frank that reflect well his unique vocation to understand without prejudice.
Nor had these allusions to the person who crossed Spain towards life and freedom attracted the attention of scholars.
This is a text by
Agustín Serrano de Haro
(Madrid, 1960), a scientist at the CSIC Institute of Philosophy, adapted from his book
Arendt and Spain
, by Trotta, published on March 13.
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