When I agreed to take part in a Dante conference in Berlin this fall I found myself almost at once thinking about Walter Benjamin. I reread "A Berlin Chronicle" in Reflections and then read the whole of Berlin Childhood around 1900. This was going to be my first trip to Germany, a place I had scrupulously avoided, and the idea of turning the trip into a pilgrimage to Walter Benjamin’s home gradually took over my imagination. I thought about how he had not been able to return, and how he had written Berlin Childhood around 1900 precisely as a way of dealing with the irrevocable loss of the world of his childhood and its security. I thought, too, about another exile, Dante, whose cruel banishment from Florence comes to mind whenever I am in Florence and see that anyone can go there now, while he was never able to return. I was going to be able to visit Berlin, something Benjamin knew by 1932 that he would never be able to do again. Both Benjamin and Dante immortalized the cities that had rejected them, both writing bout their memories of earlier and safer times. When Dante meets with his great-great-grandfather at the center of Paradiso, Cacciaguida recalls the Florence of his time as "peaceful, sober, and chaste" (15. 99), a reposeful, beautifully civil and trustworthy community (15. 130-32) that no longer exists. This is the same ancestor who will predict Dante’s exile, defining it as "the loss of everything most beloved" (17. 55-56). Even though the Commedia is saturated with fierce attacks on the Florence, it is clear that Dante remains obsessed with it, longing to return to his "bel San Giovanni," the baptistery at which he imagines receiving the laurel crown. Benjamin, like Dante, is recalling a lost world. He selects a variety of places and spaces that contain or prompt memories of his childhood and the high bourgeois world that nourished his fantasies and predilections. By 1932 this world was gone, or at least inaccessible to Benjamin and other Jews like him.
Benjamin’s descriptions of the places dear to him in childhood made me eager to find the neighborhoods and the houses in which he had lived. Everyone assured me that the houses no longer existed, and it was difficult to find specific information. The neighborhood was Charlottenburg, still a wealthy residential area. From several sources I was able to gather that the family had lived first in Kurfurstenstrasse, then in Nettelbeckstrasse, and later in Carmerstrasse. It is easy to find Carmerstrassse since it runs out of Savigny Platz, a beautiful, leafy square with an elegant Spanish restaurant and a few upscale stores. Carmerstrasse is tasteful and serene, its domestic architecture both cozy and stylish. Walter Benjamin Platz is located in Kurfurstenstrasse, a commercial area west and south of Savigny Platz. As Benjamin’s father prospered the family kept moving further West, ultimately residing in Delbruckstrasse in the Grunewald district that bordered on the royal hunting preserve. It was to this parental villa that Benjamin, his wife and son, returned when he was unable to support the family in later years. Still later, in 1930, Benjamin came back to Berlin and lived in Prinzregentstrasse 66 in the neighborhood of Wilmersdorf where there is now a plaque in his honor.
Many of the other places about which Benjamin wrote—the Tiergarten and the zoo, the Victory column, and certain streets where various relatives lived—are still there. Whatever aura they have for me comes from their existence in Benjamin’s memory and his prose.||| "A Berlin Chronicle" is published in Walter Benjamin: Selected Writings, Volume 2, part 2, 1931-1934, and Berlin Childhood around 1900 is published as a standalone paperback.