The memorial

Passages: Hommage to Walter Benjamin

Passages, by the Israeli artist Dani Karavan, is a memorial in honour of the philosopher Walter Benjamin to mark the 50th anniversary of his death. Located beside Portbou's cemetery, where Walter Benjamin is buried, Passages is composed of elements of historical, cultural, environmental and symbolic significance.

The memorial is an initiative of the AsKi association in Bonn and was supported by several German Federal States and the Generalitat of Catalonia, the Catalan government. Richard von Weizsäcker (1920-2015), the President of the Federal Republic of Germany at the time, was personally interested in the project and visited Portbou.

Walter Benjamin, born in 15 July 1892 into a wealthy Jewish family in Berlin, committed suicide on 26 September 1940 in Portbou, having arrived there a day earlier by foot from France. He had a visa, issued in Marseille, which was supposed to grant him safe passage through Spain to Portugal and from there on to the USA. Nazi Germany had stripped him of his German citizenship in February 1939 and France refused to grant him a residence permit, although he had settled in Paris in 1933. As a result, he did not have the necessary documents to leave France, thus forcing him, together with other refugees, to attempt the clandestine crossing of the Pyrenees Mountains by foot. This was particularly difficult for Benjamin because of his bad heart condition. Wanted by the Gestapo, Benjamin’s suicide can be attributed to him knowing that the Spanish authorities intended to send them back to France, and the fate that this inevitably entailed. Indeed, the previous year he had been interned for three months at the Nevers camp.

Passatges / A Walter Benjamin

Photography: Angelus Novus Foundation.

Integration and meaning of the work within the landscape

The Memorial is a sculptural installation thoroughly integrated into the landscape. Karavan’s extraordinary sensitivity enables him to gave the natural and urban spaces in which he worked a life of their own. He knew how to capture their intrinsic historicity and set the elements in play so that historicity can flourish. Rather than the work incorporating the landscape, the landscape becomes the catalyst that activates the work. In Karavan’s intervention the cliffs of the Costa Brava and such archetypal natural Mediterranean elements as olive trees, stone and wind weave a story about their past as a place of exile and at the same time enact an exercise in contemporary memory.

The title Passages, chosen by Karavan, refers not only to Benjamin’s fateful passage from France to Portbou, but also to his unfinished last work, Das Passagen-Werk or The Arcades Project. This major project, on which Benjamin begun working in 1927, is a collection of writings on the life of 19th-century Paris and its arcades and reflections on the contemporary urban experience. It was his work on this project that kept Benjamin from leaving Paris and Europe until the Nazis had entered the French capital.

In creating his memorial, Karavan adopted an approach akin to Benjamin’s own, connecting the traces of past pain, memory and exile with the possibility of a new and better future. In fact, the memorial incorporates some of Benjamin’s most influential ideas about the philosophy of history, the necessity of experience, the concept of boundaries, the landscape as aura and the vital role of memory.

The memorial was unveiled on 15 May 1994 in the presence of a number of notables, such as Lisa Fittko, who helped many refugees, including Benjamin himself, to escape Nazi France, by leading them over the Pyrenees Mountains by foot. The memorial pays tribute to all those who flee into exile in pursuit of freedom.

Passatges / A Walter Benjamin

Photography: Angelus Novus Foundation.

Elements and visitor experience

The Memorial consists on four elements integrated into the landscape: 1. Swirling water, 2. The stone wall, 3. The fence and 4. The platform. It is a unique experience to go down the iron tunnel in which a thick glass closes the stepped path and visitors cannot go further. On the same glass, a quote from the Theses on the concept of History (1940): ‘It is a more arduous task to honour the memory of anonymous beings than that of famous persons. The construction of history is consecrated to the memory of those who have no name.’

Seen from above, the memorial is perfectly integrated into its physical setting - a landscape of oxidized granite, a bare, arid terrain of hard grey-brown rocks. Viewed from within, the work offers the visitor a unique experience: an itinerary made of several ‘passages’. Instead of imposing a single itinerary, the artist has chosen to give the visitors absolute freedom to pass through and construct their own experience.

Passatges / A Walter Benjamin

Photography: Angelus Novus Foundation.

Acknowledgments and restorations

In 2014, the Passages Association presented to Portbou City Council the proposal to declare the Memorial as cultural heritage of national interest (BCIN), and in 2018 the government of the Generalitat declared the Memorial BCIN, in the ‘historic site’ category, for its commemoration of men and women who fought for democracy and freedom, and as a landmark in the history of human rights in Catalan, European and world history. In 2016 Dani Karavan was recognized with the National Culture Award of the Generalitat of Catalonia for this Memorial.

In 2020, the Angelus Novus Foundation helped to find funding of €24,000 to restore the Memorial from various graffiti and in 2023, it received a grant of €5,000 from the Consulate of the Federal Republic of Germany to replace the glass that closes the Memorial tunnel.

Passatges / A Walter Benjamin

Photography: Angelus Novus Foundation.

Dani Karavan: The artist behind the memorial

Dani Karavan (Tel Aviv, Israel, 1930-2021). 

Dani Karavan is known for his outstanding site-specific public art interventions in the natural and urban landscape. Thanks to his cultural origins and tradition, he has been particularly sensitive to projects relating to memory and exile. In his works he unites nature, landscape, art, memory, history and humanism.

His first large-scale environmental sculpture, the Negev Monument (Be’er Sheva, Israel, 1963-1968), earned him international recognition. As a result, he was invited to take part in the Venice Bienale in 1976 and in documenta 6 in 1977. Since then he dedicated his life to the creation of ‘places’ - large-scale environmental sculptures that are designed specifically for each site and prompt visitors to become a part of them.

In the last 50 years, Karavan has created over 70 ‘places’ in Israel, Europe, Asia, and the United States. Among them: Ma’alot (Cologne, Germany, 1979-1986), Way of Human Rights (Nuremberg, Germany, 1989-1993), Morou Art Forest (Nara Prefecture, Japan, 1998-2006); Sinti and Roma Memorial (Berlin, Germany, 2000-2012), Culture Square (Tel-Aviv, Israel, 2005-2013) and the Axe Majeur, a 3 km urban sculptural axis in Cergy-Pontoise, north of Paris, on which he has been working since 1980.

Dani Karavan 

Photography: Angelus Novus Foundation.


The Angelus Novus Foundation conducts guided tours of the Memorial Passages in collaboration with the Passages Association throughout the year, faithfully following the teachings of artist Dani Kravan in interpreting the Memorial. 

Hours: by appointment. Minimum 5 people. Multiple languages

Price: 10 €.

T: + 34 660 827023