Between Canada and the USA : a tale of immigrants and anarchists

Attilio Bortolotti (1903-1995), from Friuli in Italy, emigrated to North America as a very young man in 1920 and soon turned to an anarchism that was more than just a political outlook; it was above all an ethical enthusiasm. This account, recorded in Canada in 1980, covers the first 20 years of his time in the Americas, a period fraught with incidents concerning clandestine immigrants in danger of deportation and covers the Great Depression, antifascist campaigning, the campaign to save Sacco-Vanzetti and the mobilization of support for the revolution in Spain.

When I arrived in Windsor (Ontario) in September 1920, I had no notion of the meaning of the terms fascism, socialism, anarchism or communism, although I had heard plenty of talk for and against. After a few months in Windsor I happened to be in a friend’s house and came across a socialist newspaper La Voce del popolo, published in Chicago by Prof. Bertelli; I took it home with me and really liked what I read. I sent off my two dollar subscription and so I started to read the socialist press. After a few months I bumped into my first two anarchists - they claimed to be individualist anarchists - and in conversation with them I was won over by their arguments, but I was still a novice in matters political. But every chance I got to find out more I wanted to know why fascism was on the rise back in Italy and becoming more and more brutal … But we’re jumping the gun a bit here.

I’d seen what war was like. I was born on the right bank of the Tagliamento, a short distance from the front lines, on 24 May 1903. Since my father’s house was three stories high - the third floor was used as storage space for our silkworms - right from day one of the war, we had about two hundred soldiers billeted with us on the third floor. I saw and heard them talking for and against the war and heard them telling jokes about the king and about Badoglio, and I watched them return from front-line service with their morale broken, cursing … I saw two soldiers shot - both family men - because they came back from Bari a few days late and, for reasons of discipline and to demonstrate that the officers were in charge, they were put up against the wall of the cemetery and shot… After Caporetto, things turned even more brutal and it was devastating to see an army throwing away its weapons and saying “Let’s go home. This war is over”, whilst others said “No. We have to stand fast and stop the enemy advance.”

Such experiences prepared me for acceptance of something I couldn’t quite put my finger on but which I learned in Windsor as I flirted with anarchist ideas. Then in 1921, that autumn, I declared myself an anarchist during a debate with another anarchist, Giuseppe Tubero. A few weeks after that I first heard the names Sacco and Vanzetti, La Voce del popolo having carried a few articles about their being innocent of the crimes with which the authorities had charged them. I quickly developed an interest in the affair and asked my brother if he knew of a dance hall where we might hold an event to raise some money to help the Sacco-Vanzetti Defence Committee. My brother said that there was a dance hall nearby: so I went to the two individualist anarchists and they helped me with the advertising and the tickets: it was a hit with the small Italian community in Windsor.

Then, back in Italy, the reaction was on the rise and we nearly came to blows with folk who argued that the fascists had saved Italy from the chaos of revolution. Meanwhile, the first fugitives from Italy were starting to arrive: socialists and the odd communist (who broke away from the socialists at the Livorno Congress). One day, a guy from Pordenone who had slipped away from the USA during the Great War in order to dodge military service (going first to Mexico and then to Canada) asked me if I would travel down to Detroit to deliver a letter to the address of one Cernuto, a Sicilian who had set himself up as a businessman. When Cernuto read the letter I had brought him, he told me to wait so that he could scribble his reply and invited me to browse through his book collection while I was waiting. One whole wall of his business premises was lined with books and pamphlets and I started to thumb through them. Before long I had picked out about twenty pamphlets - Malatesta, Gori. All new to me. Cernuto showed up with his letter of reply and two hundred dollars for me to deliver to the comrade. I was touched that a complete stranger should trust with such a sum. Cernuto also handed me the first edition of L’Adunata dei Refrattari, edited by Emilio Coda: I can still remember its rhetoric…

In Detroit and again through Cernuto I was introduced to a group of about twenty anarchists, including Ugo Valdi, a doctor. They stage lots of social plays and he was the organizer. Then I met Arturo Bertoli. Their discussions were very wide-ranging, even if, at that time, I didn’t know a lot about it: they would talk about Kropotkin, Bakunin … but, as time passed, I became more enthused.

At one point a group was formed in Windsor and I was in touch with it too. I can remember one Umberto di Fontanafredda, who had lost a leg in a coal mine, and his wife, a Piedmontese woman who couldn’t have weighed more than twenty five kilos. She was all go and sold whiskey and other smuggled goods. Prohibition was in effect at the time. In those days I was working in Windsor as a locksmith and lathe-operator, and then I left to look for work in Detroit with my brother, as a builder, as hod-carriers. In 1926 Pietro Bedus called me from Windsor to let me know that the fascists had issued a manifesto stating that the Italian consul from Toronto would be coming down to Windsor to urge all young men who had not done their army service to regularize their position: we issued a manifesto of our own, urging every antifascist to turn out. The meeting was held in the basement of a Catholic school. The fascist consul announced that all young men had a duty to serve their homeland: at the end of his address there was some slight applause whereas the rest of his listeners sat in silence; then somebody asked leave to speak and the chair, a leading Italian businessman from Windsor, for whom I had worked for a couple of years, gave him leave to do so. He queried why young men should go back to Italy to serve a country that had done nothing for them, mentioning that they had had to move to Canada because there was no work for them in Italy, and that Italy hadn’t even issued them with passports and that they had had to pay their way. His speech was loudly applauded … At which point I asked to speak and when I went to stand up, one of the fascists - his name was Meconi - went up and had a word with Luigi Merlo, the chairman, and they began a whispered exchange. I couldn’t hear a word of what was being said, but then Luigi Merlo said: “That will do with the speeches. I won’t give you the floor, Attilio.” I replied: “What’s the point in my being here if I can’t speak? You’ve allowed everybody else to have their say.” Merlo muttered something and the fascist interjected: “Come up on to the platform and speak, if you’re brave enough.” I bounced up to the platform and turned to the consul and told him that I’d seen the war and left for Canada resolved that I would never serve as anybody’s soldier. Then I turned and spotted the poster of King Victor Emmanuel III: in a flash, I ripped it up, screwed it up into a ball and tossed it into the consul’s face. At which point a ruckus erupted, the police stepped in and my brother said to me: “We’d better get back to Detroit right away. Otherwise you can expect a beating and you’ll be charged.”

A couple of weeks after that, we began work on a house twenty kilometers outside Detroit. Nobody knew where my brother had been sent to work, but at around 10 o’clock a car pulled up and out stepped two tall, well-dressed men who came over to us. I vaguely recognized them … and then it came to me. Immigration Service. They came over to me and I asked in English what I could do for them: their answer was that they were there to check if we were illegal immigrants. I calmly replied that they could start with me and I told them my name was Carriaris - a guy I had bumped into on Ellis Island. When they asked to see my passport I replied that I’d been there for over five years and that it was a free country and I didn’t need to carry my passport on me … The second of these inspectors said that I was right, but he added that since they had no wish to keep us from our work they would call again: this was definitely the fascists getting their own back .. So I told my brother Guglielmo that it might be better if we were to seek work elsewhere for a while. But a few months later, my brother said to me one evening: “Pack your backs and get away! The fascists have discovered where you are staying and Immigration will be here at any moment.” In fact, within ten minutes, Immigration showed up, but in the meantime my brother had driven me in his truck to Windsor before they could arrest me. I tried to find work there but the fascists had had me blacklisted, so I spent the winter of ‘26-‘27 unemployed. Not that I was idle. I was able to do a lot of propaganda work on behalf of Sacco and Vanzetti. […]

One evening at dinner time, though, the police caught up with me. They swooped on me and since I was sitting down I could see all the leaflets that had been made up for Sacco and Vanzetti as well as a few propaganda leaflets from Meconi the fascist. The police chief’s first words were: “If you weren’t Guglielmo’s brother, I’d pack you off to jail for twenty years. We have a law, article 98 of the penal code, that states that somebody like you, going around saying that the State is useless and harmful to humanity … But thanks to all your brother has done, even if he is down in Detroit these days, I’m telling you that you have a week to get out of Windsor and, if you know what’s good for you, out of Canada.” Penniless and unemployed, I dropped everything and took the ferry down to Detroit. I left Bortolotti behind in Windsor and became Bartelot, from the name of a French chemist, and went to ground with a comrade living near the Ford plant.

Getting over the border was easy. I’d seen so many people stepping off the ferry saying: “Windsor, back in a day”. I did the same. I was tall and fair-haired and could pass for anything but an Italian. Which is why I was only ever arrested once. I burned my Italian passport the day I read about Mussolini’s having had Matteotti killed. I burned the passport in the stove and from 1924 to 1927 had no papers at all: all I needed to get by was a fashionable hat. I had noticed when I got off the ferry that the inspectors knew who to challenge because they were dressed like immigrants. I was always a snappy dresser and could slip through … Eventually, I joined Ford, under the name of Alfred Bartelot and to begin with I made an effort to steer well clear of Italians. I stayed at Ford until I was arrested in 1929, on the second anniversary of the execution of Sacco and Vanzetti. In the latter months of 1927 we mounted a great propaganda effort on behalf of Sacco and Vanzetti: on the day of the executions every radical was on the streets in Detroit: there were speakers speaking from eight trucks and we numbered about forty thousand. At one point I jumped on to one of the trucks and said: “Let’s do something. Let’s attack city hall”, and others backed me in this. But around city hall there was a cordon, four men deep, of police; there were scuffles and some fisticuffs and one comrade from Tuscany put a police vehicle out of commission and night sticks were used … I caught a few myself and scuttled away towards the premises of the Detroit Free Press which was not far away: I was crushed and they told me that Sacco had been executed and that Vanzetti was on his way to the electric chair. Then I went home and found my brother Guglielmo and other comrades there, all sobbing…

Then in 1928 the inevitable happened. The fascists wanted to march in black shirts on Columbus Day and this celebration of Italian-ness was organized by dumb ultra-Italian businessmen - most of them scoundrels who charged twice the going rate. So we organized a counter-demonstration to stop the fascists from marching in their black shirts. But in the end only eighteen of us out of the hundreds of antifascists turned out to confront around fifty to sixty black-shirted rogues. When the band struck up we attacked them and one of them who was armed opened fire, killing comrade Barra and wounding Ventricchia. I had a fascist by the hair when, with the sound of gunfire and police sirens going off, I heard myself being summoned by one comrade who had a nearby wholesale fruit business. His name was Mancini and I hid under the crates of apples for an hour, then I was called out .. and, after an hour, I was still holding the fascist’s black hair in my hand. In spite of all this, we carried on with our propaganda as best we could, even if the fascists were becoming stronger and stronger and besides, they had the backing of the Church. […]

On 27 August every year we held rallies in memory of Sacco and Vanzetti. By 1929 we had set up an international anarchist group and decided to mark the anniversary with a leafleting campaign. Carter, a comrade from Cleveland, said that, as illegal immigrants, we shouldn’t take part in the leafleting, because Detroit had a law banning leafleting. That day, though, there were only the four of us and when I went out in the car delivering leaflets to comrades, I was a bit edgy because of this and I took a package myself and set about handing them out outside the factories. Which is exactly where the cops grabbed me and dragged me off to jail and tossed me in the cells […] I was then moved to the county jail and remanded for a deportation hearing: after three months in jail they declared that I was due to be deported to Italy under the 1903 legislation. At the trial they asked me: “Do you believe in God?” “No, I’m an atheist.” “Do you believe that we need government for the good of the country, or are you an anarchist?” “Yes, I’m an anarchist.” Not that they would have let me go if I had said no, but you know how it is … Then my comrades raised three thousand dollars’ bail for me pending deportation. I skipped back to Canada and dropped out of sight for a while […] I made my way to Toronto where I knew nobody. All I knew was that there was a guy from the Carnia there who had worked with my brother. I showed up with a tiny suitcase that I stowed in a luggage compartment at the station and off I went … luckily I was in the right area and found myself near the university, on College Street. I began to roam past the university buildings and stumbled upon a great library where the students would go to study. A little further on, in the Convocation Hall, I came upon a notice saying that there was a meeting there with one of the lecturers every Saturday. I decided to hang around and I found myself a room that I shared with two Finns for four dollars a week. I began to while away my days at the library, reading and chatting with the students. I would eat at a Greek restaurant for 25 cents and there I struck up a friendship with some other students. Then on Saturdays I would attend the lectures. However I had to look for a job and I found one several kilometers outside of town. I worked only three days a week: the crisis of 1929 had already broken out but I held on to the job throughout. It was a time of great restrictions: if I ate breakfast, I had no money left for my tram fare …

At that time I came across my brother’s mate from the Carnia and he told me that there was a subversive, a guy from Trieste who was always talking like I did about uniting against the fascists. Anyway, one evening we were introduced, but right from the outset I realized that the guy was a communist and after a ten minute chat I said to him: “You’re a communist and as far as I’m concerned, you people are as bad as the fascists.”

Eventually I came across a comrade - Nicola Leone. We met on 1 August and Leone and I became pals. We promptly decided to write and publish a leaflet and, even though we had no idea where the Italian community was, we printed up several thousand. Thanks to Leone’s sister we discovered that there was a local Italian community and we found a socialist from the Marches who took us to see Riggero Benvenuti, another guy from the Marches, who, after some initial reluctance, agreed that he was an anarchist sympathizer himself. […] After finding Ruggero and few others we began to frequent the Circolo Mazzini which met on Sundays and we applied to become members. We walked into the first meeting - of about a hundred people - and began to ask questions and query what was going on in Russia … and all of a sudden, all hell broke loose […] When we were a bit better organized we then decided to set up an international group just as we had done back in Detroit, and in 1931 we also set up an amateur dramatic group modelled on the ones in New York and Detroit […]

Then, in 1934, Emma Goldman moved to Toronto. We had started reading her books back in 1923 but it was only in 1935 that we became friends […]

With the outbreak of the war in Spain we had fresh opportunities to do things and to influence lots of people: we raised funds for the Spanish revolution and transferred the money to Paris or Marseilles, from where it went directly to the FAI or CNT. Mario Mantovani in Brussels came up with the funds to bring comrades across to America or Mexico after the defeat. In 1939 Emma came back from Spain determined not only to expose the truth of what had gone on in Spain but also to raise funds to help the comrades held in concentration camps in wretched conditions in the south of France. We organized two picnics to raise funds and at the second one on 20 October, Emma addressed a crowd of 400 people, 70% of them Italians. Emma gave a fine speech covering all the salient points and highlighting how the European democracies had behaved towards the tragedy in Spain: freedom fighters had been allowed to die. We had also made toys in order to raise money and I had come up with three puppets with a red target in the centre of which I had placed three faces - Hitler, Mussolini and Stalin, with Stalin in the middle. The communists dropped by around three o’clock, more out of curiosity than anything else, and all of a sudden we clashed over what had happened in Spain. Then we went to Emma’s home for a coffee and turned on the radio. The first item on the news was that a Pact had been signed between Molotov and Von Ribbentrop. When the war broke out, censorship of the mail was imposed in Canada. Together with Mantovani, we tried to lend a helping hand to those trying to escape to Mexico. I came to an arrangement with Luigi Mancini from the Carnia that should any comrades arrive I would help them out and do our best for as long as we were able. After the war broke out, comrades began to arrive, but shortly after that the Toronto group broke up because one comrade had written four letters, two to Geneva, one to Paris and one to Brussels and they had all been intercepted. On the morning of 4 October the federal and local police burst into my home and said: “Get up and put on your Sunday best. You won’t be going to work for quite a while” …

The newspapers created uproar, partly because two revolvers without triggers had been found as well. After a month, a lawyer who always defended workers decided to take on my case after he found that I was an anarchist and friendly with Emma Goldman. His defence was superb - he made the prosecution counsel look like an idiot - but even so, I was refused bail. Emma did what she could with her acquaintances, among them a Protestant pastor. Even though I had told him what I believed in, he assured me that he would have helped me any way. The next day, I was called before the protestant council: they asked me how long I had been an antifascist and I answered that I had been an antifascist since before the March on Rome: whereupon they huddled together and said: “It is our belief that Bortolotti has more right to stay in Canada than we do: he has fought fascism right from the outset whereas we have yet to start.”

There was a chance that I might be deported to Italy, but shortly after that the Second World War erupted. We promptly made a stand against the war. We tried to talk to all young people, inviting them to shun the war and not report for front line service. And by word and deed we opposed the war, helping out deserters, even American ones who had fled to Canada. In short, we spent that whole period engaged in splendid anti-militarist work.

From: Bollettino Archivio G. Pinelli (Milan), No 24, December 2004. Edited by Rossella Di Leo, transcribed by Luca Fraulini. Translated by: Paul Sharkey.