WHO KILLED WALTER BENJAMIN

New on The Jewish Channel: 2005 doc questions what we think we know about the final days of German intellectual Walter Benjamin (1892-1940) who supposedly killed himself after learning he would be deported back to France after arriving in “neutral Spain” in a vain attempt to reach Lisbon & then NYC. 

Writer/Director David Mauas does an excellent job of poking holes in current assumptions, looking for deeper truths in suprising robust physical evidence like bills & receipts.  For example, the local priest actually charged for a complete Catholic burial, claiming to have administered Last Rites & conducted a Mass!

Mauas interviews scholars in France, Germany, Israel, & the USA (all of whom seem annoyed that he’s opening up such an old can of worms), & he also spends a considerable amount of time with current citizens of the Catalanian town of Portbou (some of them now quite elderly) trying to tease out facts from mythology.  How ironic that the proudly Pro-Franco residents who did nothing to welcome the stranger (& may well have done him harm) have bequeathed their children an income stream from Holocaust Tourism.  (In addition to Benjamin’s grave site, it seems there’s now a museum, a monument created by an Israeli sculptor, etc.)  

For me, this fascinating doc is another instance of the “follow the money” principle.  While I respect Oral History, I don’t trust it: human memories are fragile, elusive, & often embellished.   While “follow the money” doesn’t answer everything, it’s ultimately reliable in ways that memory alone can never be. 

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