When Benjamin and Arendt meet on Netflix

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Walter Benjamin and Hannah Arendt, prodigious intellectuals and close friends, were familiar even to Kerala's rural college campuses during the 1970s. Besides their brilliant writings, their untold sufferings for being Jews under the anti-Semitic Nazi regime and their adventurous attempts to escape Hitler’s Germany were the stuff of legends. Though Arendt and many others made it, Benjamin, at age 48, committed suicide on the way instead of surrendering to the Nazis.

These maestros' great escape -though some like Benjamin fell en route- with the help of a few conscientious Americans aided by African resistance fighters and British spies during the 2nd Word War has remained a relatively unknown episode in the anti-Nazi resistance history. As many as 2000 persons were helped to escape from Nazi persecution by the Emergency Rescue Committee through the Franco-Spanish border in this one-year-long, incredible mission.

This sensational story now appears as a fictionalised miniseries -Transatlantic- on Netflix, created by Anna Winger, an American writer living in Berlin whose earlier series "Unorthodox" was received well. Those who made it to the USA through the neutral French port of Marseilles during 1940-41 included formidable cultural icons of the 20th century like French surreal poet Andre Breton, his wife Aube, French modernist painter Marc Chagall, German surrealist artist Max Ernst and his wife and historian Luise Strauss, Russian Marxist Victor Serge and others besides Arendt.

The seven-episode series adapted from the American novel, "The Flight Portfolio", by Julie Orringer, engagingly portrays the stunning escape intermingled with stories of personal sacrifices, romance, artistic idiosyncrasies, eccentricities, and also racist or ideological prejudices, betrayal, and deceit. Even as it narrates the heroic attempts carried out at great personal risk by a few American individuals to help the intellectuals and artists, it also exposes the American government’s pathetic appeasement, vacillation, and crass opportunism. Particularly slammed is the American President Franklin D Rooswelt’s disguised anti-semitism or anti-Communism that led to the government’s hesitancy to help the escapees and antagonize Hitler. These events occurred months before the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbour that forced the USA to join the war.

The heroes of the saga set in breathtaking locales are the American journalist Vivian Fry (Cory Michel Smith), the Chicago heiress Mary Jayne Gold (Jillian Jacobs), the German economist Albert Hirshman (Lucas Englander), and the German jew Lisa Fittko (Delila Piasko). Presented by an ensemble of international artists, the real-life characters are aided in their mission by a few fictional characters who are amalgamations of real persons.

The series begins with the 33-year-old Fry arriving at Marseilles as a member of the American group “Emergency Rescue Committee” formed in the USA to help the persecuted Jewish intellectuals in Germany and France. Fry was ably joined by Mary Gold, the 33-year-old American heiress who, too, reached Marseilles and solely funded the entire mission thanks to her wealthy father, who kept sending her money from Chicago. The young Hirshman, who had fought in the Spanish Civil War, also arrives in Marseilles to help the mission and also falls in love -which is fiction- with Gold. An exceptionally colourful real-life character is the stunning 31-year-old Lisa Fittko, a German Jewish woman who, pretending as a vineyard worker, helped many to escape to Spain through a secret route -"F route" named after her- she and her husband discovered in the Pyrenees Mountains.

Transatlantic shows Benjamin who was in exile in France since 1933, trekking agonisingly through the Pyrenees with others led by Lisa. But once they arrived in Spain, the Franco government’s police moved to deport them back to the pro-Nazi, Vichy government-ruled France. This makes Benjamin kill himself by an overdose of morphine in the room he stayed at the Hotel de Francia in the coastal town of Portbou in Catalonia on 26 November 1940. A shattered Lisa who used to tend to the sickly Benjamin (Moritz Bleibtreu) especially takes all his manuscripts as he instructed in a suicide note and gets them published later, which brought him posthumous fame.

The fictional or semi-real characters include the brave African, Paul Kandjo (Ralph Amoussou), who fights a twin battle -against French colonialism in his motherland Benin and also a Nazi occupation in France- the crassly opportunistic American Consul, Graham Patterson (Cory Stoll), who wanted to use the Nazi regime to further business interests than help the refugees, the gay Zionist, Thomas Lovegrove (Amit Rahav) working for the British Intelligence who is in love with Fry, provide the series with spice and richness.

Notwithstanding its many positives, Transatlantic appears to prove what Benjamin himself pointed out in his famous essay, The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction (1938). Shackled as it is by the contemporary dictates of the mass market, the series stresses tediously the elements of “popular entertainment” and much less on the deeper political and intellectual currents that informed and shaped this incredible resistance. The conspicuous lack of authenticity, particularly in portraying the great intellectuals and artists who belong to some of the best of the century. They often appear as caricatures with the stress on their alleged eccentricities and wackiness than even a cursory look into their ideas or art that made them a threat to the Nazis. Judy Berman of Time magazine hits the nail on the head in her review; “ (It) spends so much time on bureaucratic logistics and familiar romantic narratives that end up glossing over the revolutionary arts, ideas, and experiences for which the Emergency Rescue Committee risked everything.”

Among the great intellectuals and artists who made it out of Marseilles, Luise Strauss, wife of Max Ernst, was captured by Nazis in 1944 and sent to the concentration camp of Auschwitz, where she was murdered. But most others not just survived but led the most creative years of their lives to produce some of the 20th Century’s greatest works of art, literature and also politics, and philosophy. Ernst settled in Paris and died at age 84 in 1976, while Breton returned to Paris with his wife Aube and died at age 70 in 1966. Chagall and his wife Bella first went to New York but returned to Paris and died at 97 in 1985. Duchamp settled in New York and died at 81 in 1968. Serge spent the rest of his life in Mexico. Arendt, who settled in the US, penned her classics like The Origins of Totalitarianism and Eichmann in Jerusalem, which are textbooks even today on how and why dictators emerge. She died of cancer in New York at 69 in 1975.

Quite shockingly, many who led this highly risky and heroic mission that saved thousands of people, including the formidable intellectuals and artists from the Nazis, were even persecuted or largely unrecognised by the so-called free world! Emily Burack of the American entertainment magazine “Town & Country” has researched what happened to the real characters portrayed in the series in their actual lives afterward. The great Fry was arrested and expelled by French authorities to Spain, where he was deported to the USA. He remained under FBI surveillance after he returned to his home country and was avoided by his former colleagues and friends until he died in 1967 at age 58. He made a living as a Latin teacher in a boys’ school. Shortly before his death, the French government awarded him the Chevalier of the Legion of Honour. Posthumously, he became the first American to be honoured as Righteous among Nations by Yad Vashem, Israel’s official memorial to the victims of the Holocaust, in 1996. A street in Berlin is named Varian Fry Strasse, seeing which, for the first time, made Winger work on the series.

The Paris-based Gold, the American heiress who funded the mission, was forced to leave France but returned after the war and lived there until she died at age 88 in 1997. She wrote her memoir “Crossroads Marseilles” and remained unmarried with no children.

Hirshman became a prominent political economist who worked at various American universities, including California at Berkeley, Yale, Columbia, Harvard, and Princeton. He met his wife, Sarah Chapro, at Berkeley. Hirshman worked at Princeton until he died in 2012 at age 97 of pancreatic cancer.

Lisa and Hans Fittko, the “Pyrenees heroes,” helped thousands across the mountains for seven months, delaying their own escape to assist others to get out. They first escaped to Cuba and later settled down in Chicago. Lisa penned two books -Escape Through the Pyrenees and Solidarity and Treason: Resistance and Exile 1933-40- and passed away in 2005 at age 95 of pneumonia.

Critics call Transatlantic a great series that could have been. Yet, the world owes to its creators for bringing to the notice a largely unknown episode of incredible bravery and sacrifice by a bunch of ordinary people to help a group of formidable intellectuals and artists enrich and empower our lives with their creativity.

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