Passages Karavan


Passages is the name of the Memorial the Israeli artist Dani Karavan created in Portbou in honour of Walter Benjamin to mark the 50th anniversary of his death. Financed by the Government of the Generalitat de Catalunya and the Government of the Federal Republic of Germany, it was inaugurated on 15 May 1994.


The Walter Benjamin Memorial in Portbou is a sculptural installation thoroughly integrated into the landscape. Karavan’s extraordinary sensitivity enables him to give the natural and urban spaces in which he works a life of their own. He knows 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 chosen by Karavan, Passages, refers not only to Benjamin’s fateful passage from France to Portbou, but also to his unfinished last work, the Passagen-Werk orArcades Project, which he began in 1927, a vast collection of writings on the life of 19th-century Paris and its arcades and reflections on the contemporary urban experience. 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 a number of the thinker’s concepts most characteristic themselves: the philosophy of history, the necessity of experience, the idea of limit, the landscape as aura and the necessity of memory.


When the Israeli artist was commissioned to create the Memorial, he was warned that the budget was limited, but he had no doubts: Benjamin was a kindred spirit. And though he did not set out to illustrate the thought of the writer and philosopher directly — considering himself to be no expert on his work —  he has given visual form to a truly Benjaminian experience. At the heart of Dani Karavan’s Passages is Walter Benjamin’s Passagen-Werk.

Seen from above, Karavan’s work is perfectly integrated into its physical setting, a fold of the landscape itself — a landscape of oxidized granite, a bare, arid terrain of hard grey-brown rocks. Viewed from within, the work offers the visitor a genuine experience: an itinerary that takes in the three points on the Portbou mountainside occupied by the cemetery: three passages that call for the plotting of a course. Instead of imposing a single itinerary, the artist has chosen to give each of us absolute freedom to pass through and construct our own experience. No moral, no message. In this way its three passages — a tunnel and a flight of steps with a surging sea and a whirlpool at the end of it, an ancient olive tree and a platform for meditation, open to the horizon — are a wheel of emotions: exile and loneliness, a lesson in survival and acceptance. Karavan has managed to open up possibilities of experience and in so doing overturn what Benjamin perceived to be one of the most lacerating effects of the pain of the twentieth century: the impossibility of experience.

November 2018. The Memorial Passages of Dani Karavan is declared BCIN (Cultural Good of National Interest).

The Government of the Generalitat declares BCIN the Memorial Passages of Dani Karavan dedicated to Walter Benjamin. Next, we cite the official statement issued by the Government of the Generalitat:

The Government, at the proposal of the Department of Culture, has approved to declare Cultural Good of National Interest, in the category of Historic Site, Memorial Passages to Walter Benjamin, in Portbou, in the region of Alt Empordà, It has delimited a protection environment.


First passage


A steeply sloping passageway with 87 steps leads down from the little square at the entrance to the cemetery towards the sea. The passageway makes no concessions to the visitor, and can only be traversed with attention. The narrow metal stairway is flanked by plates of rusted steel 2.35 m high in a corridor dug into the slope like a tunnel. When we have come three quarters of its course, a sheet of glass closes off the way and stops us from going further. The whirlpool in the sea at the end of the tunnel looks close but is inaccessible. And etched into the glass are words that invoke the weight of the past and of memory. 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. Karavan chose this quotation from the preliminary work of Benjamin’s On the Concept of History.

Second passage


Coming back out of the tunnel, a steep and rocky path leads from the little square to the other elements of Karavan’s Memorial. The artist has integrated his work into this natural path, which takes us to the entrance to the back of the cemetery, where non-Catholics are buried. The path brings us to an old olive tree, native to the place, on which fate, the sun and the wind, have left their mark in sinuous forms. Karavan has used the olive tree time and again as a symbol of reconciliation. The narrow platform at the foot of the olive tree is a good place to pause and take in the landscape: the Pyrenees and the Mediterranean. And in the distance, the old border crossing.

Third passage


Narrow and rocky, the path leads to a small clearing with a square platform, four metres by four metres, with a stone cube in the centre that invites us to stop. The little esplanade is open to the sea and horizon, but a metal fence stands between us and the horizon — the old cemetery railings. Our journey ends in the cemetery, at the place where Benjamin’s remains lie in a common grave.


The construction of Passages between 1990 and 1994 was beset by many difficulties. Jointly funded by the Catalan and German governments, the initiative came from the former President of the Federal Republic of Germany, Richard von Weizsäcker.


Karavan came to Portbou for the first time in October 1989. He had been commissioned by the publisher Konrad Scheurmann, one of the directors of the Arbeitskreis selbständiger Kultur-Institute (AsKI), acting on behalf of the Federal Republic of Germany’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs. Portbou Town Council offered him its wholehearted assistance, giving him complete freedom to choose the site and the materials. On his second visit to Portbou, in December of that year, Karavan found the location for his project. He sketched in the air, with his characteristically expressive gestures, a first draft of the Memorial. There were many other visits to Portbou (in fact he virtually lived in the town from 1990 to 1992) and many climbs up to the cemetery, guided always by the initial idea, now firmly embraced, which revolved around the whirlpool in the sea. The phenomenon of water, as he has often said, served as a metaphor for the life of the philosopher. Karavan framed with his hands the patch of stormy winter sea containing the vortex and began to give form to his project. Olive tree, stones, path, sea, horizon, fence, cemetery. Karavan saw that the philosopher’s fate could be read in the elemental signs with which the landscape expressed itself. His work would be to make it visible.


In the summer of 1990, Karavan marked out a first sketch on the chosen site with tape. He measured and oriented it a hundred times, shaping and refining its three passages: the tunnel and steps, the olive tree and the platform of meditation with the horizon. While the process had financial difficulties and interruptions to overcome, two exhibitions helped make the project known: Border Crossings and Passages, presented in Portbou, Germany and the Netherlands, generated the interest and dialogue that helped make it a reality. The first stone was placed in September 1990. Three years later, construction began. In the spring of 1992, just as the drilling and installing of the tunnel was due to start, the project was shelved after a political debate in Germany, on the grounds of cost. The support of Federal President Richard von Weizsäcker, in October 1992, was decisive. On 15 May 1994 the Memorial was inaugurated in the presence of Catalan and German dignitaries, emigrés, former exiles and the whole town of Portbou, and attracted considerable international interest.


The Memorial Passages was funded by the German federal states of Baden-Württemberg, Berlin, Bremen, Hamburg, Hesse, Lower Saxony, Rhineland-Palatinate, Saarland, Saxony and Schleswig-Holstein and the Generalitat de Catalunya.

Those attending the inauguration of the Memorial on 15 May 1994 included:

Emigrés and resistance fighters:

-Lisa Fittko, active resistance fighter, emigrée. She guided Walter Benjamin across the border from Banyuls to Portbou in September 1940. Author of the book Escape Through the Pyrenees.

-Princess Helga Maria zu Löwenstein-Wertheim-Freudenberg, emigrée and opponent of Nazism. She and her husband, Prince Hubertus, founded the German Academy of Arts and Sciences in exile in the United States in 1936.

-Volkmar Zühlsdorff, emigré and opponent of Nazism. Director of the Germany Academy of Arts and Sciences in exile.


-Richard von Weizsäcker, former President of the Federal Republic of Germany

-Hans Eichel, Premier of Hesse

-Erwin Teufel, Minister-President of Baden-Württemberg

-Jordi Pujol, President of the Generalitat de Catalunya

-Hans Heinert, Honorary Consul of the Federal Republic of Germany in the Empordà

-Francisco Martínez, Mayor of Portbou

-Josep Arribas, Portbou Town Councillor


1 Tunnel, 1 Stairway, 1 Seat = Passages. The Memorial in Karavan’s Own Words


The text below, ‘1 tunnel, 1 Scale, 1 Seat = Passages’ is from Dani Karavan’s project sketchbook and was included in Ingrid and Konrad Scheurmann’s book Dani Karavan. Hommage an Walter Benjamin. Der Gedenkort ‘Passagen’ in Portbou (Mainz: Verlag Philipp von Zabern, 1995).

I had never thought of erecting a monument to Walter Benjamin. Nor had I ever had the idea of proposing anyone anywhere any project. I never start working without someone commissioning a project for a specific site. In fact, the idea had never crossed my mind of proposing the creation of a monument to anyone. […] But in 1989 the phone rang. In that call from Bonn, Konrad Scheurmann, director of the AsKI, asked me to design a monument in memory of Walter Benjamin. Right at the start he warned me that he only had a small amount of money. This is not about money, I replied. I myself have a great debt to Walter Benjamin.


I knew right away that I could not design a memorial to Walter Benjamin. But perhaps a tribute to the man, the philosopher, the chronicler, the critic, the partisan of new ideas.

The cemetery

The first time I came to Portbou, it immediately became clear to me that that place up there where Walter Benjamin is buried would be the site for my project. All of the other possibilities were crossed out. From a distance, from the west, came the sound of trains arriving and departing from the border station, and these were mixed with the sounds coming from the east, from the sea. In the north I saw the old border.

The whirlpool

From above, on the rocks, I look at the sea. The churned-up water swirls noisily, it suddenly foams white, rushes down, then everything is calm. The sea does not move. Then again: swirl, foam, roar, calm.

Here nature tells the tragedy of this man. Nobody could present it better. All that remains to be done is to bring the pilgrim to see what nature says.

The olive tree 

Among the stones and rocks, in the dry dusty soil, scorched by the sun and dried out by the wind, a little old olive tree that fights for its life.

The fence

On the steep hill, above the boulders that have to be clambered over to walk around the cemetery, a wall, a fence, a barrier, the graves behind. A long way away, below the horizon, framed by the high dark and mountains of the Pyrenees, the blue sea, the clear sky, freedom.

I decided to construct a platform with a seat from where, through the fence, beyond the cemetery, freedom could be seen.


From very far away I heard the noise of the station, the border, the railways, the voices of the locomotives and the rattling of the carriages of the trains that lead to the death camps.


“I must confess that I did not much like the idea that a monumental portrait or something like a mausoleum was to be erected in memory of my uncle in the landscape between the Pyrenees and the Mediterranean. When I saw the plans for the memorial project, I immediately felt that the solution developed by Dani Karavan was highly interesting.

Dani Karavan’s memorial will further the task that Walter Benjamin left us.”

Michael Benjamin, ‘Opening the Door’, text written for the Karavan Memorial in Portbou, 1993.

“Dani wanted to know how I feel about his work. But I cannot find the words. People often ask me how I interpret this monument. I have not yet found an answer; I cannot interpret it because it moves me.”

Lisa Fittko, active resistance fighter and emigrée, guided Walter Benjamin across the border from Banyuls to Portbou in September 1940. She returned to Portbou for the inauguration of the Karavan Memorial. Author of the bookEscape Through the Pyrenees.

“I think that with this work Dani Karavan has made possible an almost personal encounter with Benjamin.”

Helga Maria zu Löwenstein-Wertheim-Freudenberg, emigrée and opponent of Nazism. She and her husband Hubertus founded the German Academy of Arts and Sciences in exile in the United States in 1936. She attended the inauguration of the Memorial in Portbou.

“Karavan has made the rough nature of the Catalan mountains speak through a restrained and therefore particularly penetrating artistic translation. Here there is no consolation, no effusion of sentiment, no moral lesson dictated to the visitor; on the contrary, the artistic interpretation of the landscape opens up in all its force.”

Ingrid Scheurmann, along with Konrad Scheurmann, and director of the Memorial Arbeitskreis selbständiger Kultur-Institute (AsKI), Bonn.


Born in Tel Aviv (now in Israel) in 1930, Dani Karavan is known for his outstanding interventions to the landscape, monumental yet minimal. Given his origins and cultural tradition, he has been especially sensitive to proposals for projects concerned with exile and memory.


Karavan trained in Tel Aviv with the painters Aharon Avni, Marcel Janco, Avigdor Steimatzky and Yechezkel Shtreichmann, and with Mordechai Ardon at the Bezalel Academy of Arts and Design in Jerusalem in 1956 and 1957; he studied the technique of fresco painting from Giovanni Colacicchi at the Academy of Fine Art in Florence, and drawing at the Grande Chaumière in Paris. In 1958 he won the competition to design the pavilions for the celebration of the 10th anniversary of Israel’s independence. From this time on his work acquired a distinctive quality of social commitment it has never abandoned. In the 1960s he worked as a set designer with choreographer such as Martha Graham. His first major work, the Negey Monument in Beersheba (Israel), earned him international recognition. Since then he has carried out projects in Israel, Italy, France, Denmark, the Netherlands, the USA, Korea, Japan and especially Germany. Following his participation in Documenta 6 in Kassel, Germany is the country in which he has developed most projects for public spaces: Ma’alot in Cologne (1979-1986), Weg der Menschenrechte / Way of Human Rightsin Nuremberg (1989-1993), Mimaamakim in Gelsenkirchen (1997) and Grundgesetz 49 in Berlin (2002). In 1997 he was awarded the Orden Pour le Mérite für Wissenschaften und Künste in Germany and in 1998 he received the Praemium Imperiale in Japan.


In his projects, Dani Karavan has an extraordinary ability to bring to life the natural and urban spaces in which he works, and an exceptional capacity for engaging with them to transform memory they contain into an experience that is at once sensory and communicative. Humanity, nature and art: his work can be understood as an ongoing exploration of the possibilities of acting on the environment and of the power of landscape to communicate experiences. Karavan looks for large open spaces in which he can structure arteries of circulation. He uses signs, elements of the landscape itself and minimal sculpture to tell a story. In this way be brings together concepts such as landscape, sculpture, architecture, urbanism, memory, history and commitment.