Alfonso Failla's Memories of Internment [Italian antifascists on the Island of Tremiti under Mussolini]

In 1937 the war in Spain had swollen the numbers of active antifascists. Tremiti island which by then held a community of ordinary offenders was reopened to politicals. That July a group of internees suspected of clandestine liaison in Italy and with the outside world through some residents of Ponza, were moved from that island to Tremiti. Tremiti (in the Adriatic) was filled with cherished memories, especially for anarchists. Among the residents there were still vivid recollections of the heroic behaviour of comrade Argante Salucci from Santa Croce sull’Arno, who back in 1898 had been murdered by the prison guards charged with keeping an eye on political internees, after he had stood up to their bullying. One old woman on the island (she was born in Umbria), known as “Regina”, tried to make us a present of copies of old anarchist publications such as Kropotkin’s The Conquest of Bread which she had obtained from comrades of ours who had been interned there in 1894 and 1898, people of whom she and other islanders still had vivid and respectful memories. Outstanding and pugnacious comrades such as Stefano Vetteroni (who had stood trial alongside Gino Lucetti) and Bernardo Melacci from Foiana della Chiana, had only recently been released from prison after serving many long years and had been dispatched to internment rather than being set free. This had already beenthe case with Paolo Schicchi and Filippo Gramignano. We were all outraged when, a few days after our arrival on the island, we read a notice posted on the dormitory door: it required all internees to give the fascist salute “during roll-calls, when entering offices and every time they encountered persons in authority”. This was not the first time that we had had to confront this sort of insulting attempt on the part of fascist goons, black-shirted or otherwise, while in prison and in internment. On the island of Lampedusa, comrade Rossi from Rome had even been stabbed. However, on every occasion, the determination of the internees and political prisoners had carried the day.

Did Fusco, the police inspector in charge of the Tremiti settlement really think that he could bring veteran prisoners and internees to heel? Had Mussolini issued direct orders to the effect that the regime in internment should be run along the same lines as German concentration camps? Or, as word on the island had it, was the governor, prey to the whims of his wife and daughter, determined to enhance his public and private standing through the sort of “snapped orders” that Mussolini had used to write about?

The “hole”

Memories of what had happened on Ustica were still fresh.

To that island, which at the time was set aside for the internment of ordinary offenders, Vincenzo Capuana (an anarchist from La Spezia) and Menghestu, a young antifascist Eritrean studying engineering in Rome, had been transferred just a few months earlier. There they had bumped into comrade Antonio Sicilia from Agrigento.

The administration on Ustica refused to countenance Sicilia’s refusal to give the fascist salute like the ordinary offenders did and so they sentenced him to lengthy periods in “the hole”, an underground cell painfully remembered by any who served time on the island. But Antonio Sicilia stood his ground, just as he did right to the end, resulting in serious and irreversible damage to his health. When Capuana and Menghestu arrived, Sicilia was no longer on his own in his refusal to give the fascist salute but after several months of sacrifice Capuana and Menghestu were transferred to Tremiti.

There were already upwards of five hundred of us antifascists there by that point. The war in Spain had breathed new life into our resistance to fascism, especially among the very young and the old timers used to life behind bars or on the island - anarchists, communists, socialists, republicans, members of Giustizia e Liberta etc.

On the evening that that notice was put up there was animated discussion in all the dormitories and the various political factions resolved to reject the imposition and looked into the chances of escaping from the island under the aegis of a select action committee. The launch from Manfredonia linking the island with the mainland dropped anchor off the shore, there being no proper port on Tremiti. On the tiny Capraia in the Tremiti archipelago there was a Naval radio station, so the idea arose that we should hijack the launch and mount a massive break-out and we decided to fight to the finish. The following day, at the 9.00 am. roll-call, which coincided with the distribution of the mazzetta - as we called our daily allowance of 5 lire - the first and most serious incidents erupted. The prison guard, Varia, in charge of the roll-call, took offence when the internees answered with just the usual “Present”. So, irritated, at one point he stepped down from the table from where he was calling out names, and the grabbed the internee Andrini who had given a sarcastic answer in his native Lombard dialect to the effect that he did not know how to give the “Roman” [fascist] salute and Varia tried to drag him away to the lock-up to intimidate the other internees. He was so carried away that he started to use his fists on Andrini: this was the straw that broke the camel’s back. First the psychological bullying, then the attempt to offend our sensibilities and now physical violence! The first person to leap to Andrini’s defence was our dear, much missed comrade Bernardo Melacci. The officers present used force to help their colleague and a general melee erupted. Within a few moments, the great square overlooked by the Tremiti internment administration turned into a battlefield: on one side, the carabinieri and guards ran hither and thither to confront the internees, several teams of whom had cordoned off the store-house where we knew that light arms, crates of hand grenades and a few machine-guns were held. At one point the internees were in control of the situation. Fusco had definitely not foreseen the impact of his act of provocation because when he stepped out of his offices and into the square he was apoplectic and could do nothing but call for calm.

Daily provocations

To make matters worse, a squad of fascist internees and provocateurs sided with the officials. They got a drubbing they will never forget: one of them, by the name of Evangelisti, was sent flying through the air. With the daily provocations they made our time on the island even more sour and that day they reaped what they had sown. After several hours of brawling we were ordered back inside the dormitories with a promise that there would be no reprisals. Instead, shaken though the provocateurs may have been in the fighting, they were even more mischievous in the repression.

On a number of occasions a hundred internees were rounded up and over the days that followed they were removed to prisons in Foggia and Lucera.

The order was not withdrawn and the police organised teams brandishing bullwhips, to strike terror into the uncooperative. As in every human grouping, some people cracked and faced up to the shame of saluting the guards - and with a slavish gesture at that. After those who had been rounded up had been charged with incitement to resistance and rebellion, that left about a hundred of us refusing to give the salute. So began a long period of passive resistance in the wake of the violent opposition of the riot. Gandhian tactics were widely employed on and off, in the struggles of antifascists. Violent revolt might be triggered by outrage at short-term provocation but ongoing opposition undoubtedly requires greater moral fibre.

And the administration switched tactics too. As soon as any internee declined to give the Roman salute he would be locked up with other resisters in the dormitories, cut off from the compliant remainder and referred to a disciplinary hearing, after which prosecution counsel from Manfredonia acquitted and dispatched back to Tremiti the first of the internees who had been arrested on charges of “refusing an order from the administration”. That courageous prosecutor reported that internees could not be required to do things offensive to their consciences. In practice, though, our circumstances deteriorated because the administration first locked us up for ten days and then sent us in batches to serve several months in isolation in a number of jails and troubled the courts no more. From time to time a few of us might be removed to other islands where the requirement to give the fascist salute did not apply, whilst the odd one who had served out his period in internment was rewarded with added years on the islands without ever having appeared before any provincial internment board. In order to break the resistance of that sizeable group of die-hards, they were even denied their ration of drinking water. The communist Ferrari from Reggio Emilia caught Typhus, was removed to hospital in Foggia, and died within days of his arrival there, without ever having been attended to. The Venetian anarchist Ferdinando Perencin, who succumbed to a very aggravated stomach ulcer, had been to the fore in the campaign and his resistance had earned him an untimely death. For nearly two years about a dozen inmates shuttled between prisons in Foggia province and the island of Tremiti.

Rations cut to make punishment more severe

In prison, they were placed on punishment detail by order of the internment administration for periods of up to three months, during which time their rations, already very meagre for prisoners at that time, were cut even further in order to aggravate the punishment. Weakened physically but with their morale unbroken, prisoners from these batches would no sooner be back from prison and back on Tremiti than they would be invited to give the fascist salute, would again refuse and would then be dispatched back to prison. One day, though, the usual carabinieri escort delivered to Tremiti the anarchist Giuseppe Messinese who came from Taranto and who had been an internee since 1926. Since he had come down with TB and had a fever on arrival he was taken straight to the island’s infirmary. Governor Fusco promptly sought him out as he had every new arrival ever since the order relating to the salute had been imposed. After a few hypocritical pleasantries, he tried to get comrade Messinese to rise from his cot and give the Roman salute. Only to find his policeman’s face slapped and himself being beaten on the back with a blind. Resistance by a hard core of twelve men over a two year period had made Inspector Fusco unpopular even with the native islanders of Tremiti who had told him: “If there were any of Argante Salucci’s comrades among the politicals presently interned on Tremiti, you wouldn’t be able to break them.”

The lesson he had been taught by comrade Messinese made him reluctant to show his face in public after that. So he was transferred whilst Messinese was arrested and brought before the court and given a two year prison sentence. The die-hard group, among whom I can remember comrades Antonio Vari and Olivier (both Romans) was removed to Ventotene where there was no talk of Roman salutes. Rome must have worked things out for itself, and Inspector Coviello (who had mounted other government machinations against the internees in Ponza in the preceding years) was sent to Tremiti to take over from Fusco as administrator of the settlement. At the same time (this was August 1939) a large group of us internees were moved from Ponza and Ventotene back to Tremiti. On arriving there, overlooking the square with its vista of the Adriatic beaches and Majella, Coviello told one of the newcomers that two years previously, around the time when the order requiring the fascist salute had been issued, he had been due for release from internment after serving his seven years but two extra years had been tacked on for the refusal to give the Roman salute and told him: “So if you want to get home this time, you need only drop your refusal to give the salute.” Which drew the answer it deserved.

The veteran policeman then realised that he should expect no compromise from these new arrivals, many of whom had been “guests” on Tremiti two years before and then been transferred elsewhere because of the order in question. And he responded by saying: “Let your comrades know that you won’t be bothered by the Roman salute any more.” And from that point, in 1939, right up until internment was ended in August 1943, there were no further impositions of that sort.

[Alfonso Failla (1906-1986), Sicilian-born anarchist who resisted the fascist goon squads and was interned in 1930 and was not freed (except for a short period under close police surveillance in Syracuse) until 1943. Whereas other antifascist factions were freed in July 1943, the anarchists were not. Many of them escaped while being transferred to a camp in Renicci d’Anghiari in a mass break-out led by Failla. He then joined the resistance before resuming his activities after the war and helping to refloat the Italian Anarchist Federation.]

From: A Rivista Anarchica, No 294, November 2003. . Translated by: Paul Sharkey.