John Dugdale in The Guardian:
Like many a refugee in southern and central Europe today, Walter Benjamin was in flight from war and persecution 75 years ago, but was blocked at an intermediate border en route to the country chosen as his haven. He was part of a Jewish group which, hoping to escape occupied France, had hiked through a Pyrenean pass in autumn 1940 with a view to entering Franco’s Spain, crossing it to Portugal and then sailing to the US. However, in the words of Hannah Arendt, they arrived in the frontier village of Portbou “only to learn that Spain had closed the border that same day” and officials were not honouring American visas such as Benjamin’s. Faced with the prospect of returning to France and being handed over to the Nazis, he “took his own life” overnight on 26 September, whereupon the officials “allowed his companions to proceed to Portugal”. For Arendt, who successfully reached New York via his intended route a few months later, this was a tragedy of misunderstanding, a poignant but fitting end for a brilliant but misfortune-prone older relative (her cousin by marriage) whom she writes about with a kind of affectionate exasperation.