Pietro Ferrua (1930-2021)

by Marianne Enckell, CIRA Lausanne
August 2021
Translated by Paul Sharkey

This founding father of the CIRA died in Portland, Oregon, USA on 28 July 2021.

He was born in San Remo on 18 September 1930 to a housewife mother and a father who worked as a casino croupier. Whilst in his youth, he served in the Resistance as a runner. Come the Liberation, he and two comrades launched the ‘Alba dei Liberi’ anarchist group in San Remo. All three refused to perform their military service. Jailed in 1950 as a conscientious objector, Ferrua then went partly to ground, helping to organize international libertarian camp-outs, editing the review Senza limiti (1952-1954, 5 issues) and working on the sites of the International Civilian Service.

He arrived in Switzerland in 1954 to dodge imprisonment and was initially harboured in the home of Lise Ceresole (the widow of the founder of International Civilian Service) in Daley-sur-Lutry before moving to Geneva to pursue his education as an interpreter/translator. There he ran into libertarian comrades and got them to carry on with the work of Louis Bertoni; and so, in 1957, a fresh series of Le Réveil anarchiste/Il Risveglio anarchico appeared as a monthly over one year, thereafter appearing fitfully. Notable collaborators there were Alfred Amiguet and André Bösiger from francophone Switzerland, Claudio Cantini, Carlo Frigerio, Carlo Vanza and Ferrua himself (he used the pen-name Vico) for the Italian-language content. That same year, he came up with a scheme for an exposition on the anarchist press around the world. He sent out lots of letters with varying success; out of this came the idea for an International Centre for Research on Anarchism (CIRA) to preserve the periodicals that were being received. Publications retrieved from Louis Bertoni’s library and that of the Geneva-based ‘Germinal’ group were added to these, followed by a huge number of books that had belonged to Jacques Gross and other activists who signed up early for the project, people such as Hem Day, E Armand, André Prudhommeaux, the Swedish SAC and so on. Later the CIRA was entrusted with the archives of the SPRI and of the CRIA (the Provisional International Relations Secretariat and Anarchist International Relations Commission, respectively, 1947-1958) which were left bundled up for a long time and were not catalogued until forty years later.

Pietro Ferrua was forever trying to secure recognition for anarchism in intellectual and academic circles. To that end, he tried to assemble an honorary international CIRA commission made up of researchers and activists; he had a measure of success in this but was also rebuffed in several instances. He built up contacts with the University Library and United Nations Library in Geneva at a time when the CIRA was still made up of crates of newspapers and stacks of books sitting on the creaking shelves of a single room.

He had also recruited students and young researchers to help out with the cataloguing, the organization of lectures and the publication (and multi-copying) of the Bulletin du CIRA. In 1955, at the anarchist camp held in Salernes (Var department, France) networks of French, Algerian and Italian refractories were organized. Several of them were living in Geneva where the border was quite easily crossed. In a burst of international solidarity, four young people hurled a few Molotov cocktails at the Spanish consulate in February 1961, which triggered a significant wave of sympathetic opinion, but also a number of arrests and deportations. Pietro Ferrua had to quit Switzerland in January 1963, leaving the CIRA in the care of Marie-Christine Mikhaïlo and Marianne Enckell who stepped into the breach; Pietro moved away to Rio de Janeiro with his Brazilian wife and their two children. There, he quickly resumed his intellectual and militant activities, notably launching the CIRA’s Brazilian chapter, up until he was expelled again in October 1969; thanks to family connections, he found a safe haven in the United States, in Portland (Oregon).

There he was able to lecture at Lewis and Clark University from 1970 to 1987; he headed the foreign languages, comparative literature and film history department. He had long had an interest in avant-garde artistic and literary trends; in 1976 he organized the First International Symposium on Lettrism and published several texts and works on the matter; he was also a member of the Infinitesimal Innovation International (Internationale novatrice infinitésimale, INI). It was many a year before he was able to get back to Europe and before the bans on his entering Italy, France and Switzerland were lifted. Then he lived for a time in Nice and in San Remo, where he cared for his mother.

Not that his interest in anarchism ever left him. In 1980 he successfully organized an international week of discussions, film screenings, concerts and other events on anarchism at the university where he worked; and this despite the irrational misgivings on the part of the university hierarchy. He published studies on Surrealism and Anarchy, Anarchism and Cinema and The Anarchists as Seen by Painters, as well as two important books on anarchists in the Mexican Revolution and a review of sources on the subject, and he pursued his research into the origins of conscientious objection in Italy.

He also contributed articles to A rivista anarchica, ApArte and the Rivista storica dell’anarchismo, plus the review Art et anarchie, the Bulletin du CIRA in its Geneva/Lausanne and Marseilles versions, some Brazilian publications and a number of other reviews and collective works.

On his retirement, he secured the odd commission as an interpreter, but eked out a meagre existence, which obliged him to sell off some of his archives. And he still orchestrated movie festivals, took part in various international symposia and explored several areas of research.

In recent years his health declined. He experienced the grief of the premature loss of his daughter Anna and his son Franco; and was pre-deceased by his wife, Diana Lobo Filho. A number of his ex-students who remained close to him were able to act as his loyal companions right to the end, by which time he was living in a hospice and could no longer speak.

Portions of Pietro Ferrua’s archives were dispersed or impounded during his series of times in exile, but he had retained and rebuilt much of them. They have been turned over (or will be shortly) to the Archivio Famiglia Berneri in Reggio Emilia (Italy), to the Labadie Collection at Ann Arbor University (Michigan, USA) and to the CIRA in Lausanne. Ferrua’s initiative also gave rise to other CIRA chapters that have been long-lived or ephemeral, but since 1974 they have been included under a variety of names under the umbrella of the FICEDL (International Federation of Libertarian Study and Documentation Centres, see ficedl.info).

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I knew Pietro in the 90s. he was always a gentleman, "He was always willing to share his time, his energy his knowledge to anyone. He really was a remarkable man, and one of the most remarkable man I ever met. His stories would make great movies or great plays , like when he was arrested and put in prison for being a conscientious objector he was in the same prison as the butcher of Rome, and honest to God real fucking Nazi war criminal.

The Nazi war criminal was a gasp that three young men refuse to be drafted into the Italian post-war army. The Nazi war criminal asked met Pietro, from what I was told from Pietro and through this war criminal he learned German to translate "All Quiet on the Western Front" in Italian.

Later when he became a translator and moved to Brazil Pietro and some comrades were arrested for writing a manifesto what article denounce in the newly installed military junta, however Pietro also had to go and do some simultaneous translating at a conference, I think in Uruguay, but I'm not sure, anyway somehow he convinced the police to release him otherwise would be a big international incident because his wife is Swiss and blah, blah, blah, blah, blah, so he gets out of the Brazilian jail and goes to Montevideo, he meets up with some comrades, and told them the situation and the Uruguayan comrades are OK how many people do we need to get out of Brazil, the Uruguayan comrades Pietro thinks for a minute and said I don't know maybe 50, comrades like OK we can sort this for you.

These are just a few of the stories that I heard from this man and yet at the same time he was still the consonants Italian/French academic that you expect at University. I mean how many people have you ever met that have been kicked out of Switzerland for political reasons? I mean I think Pietro is officially kicked out of about three or four countries, and through all this is a man who kept his interest in humanity close to his heart.

Hell, he even converted his mother to anarchism.  <3

I remember talking to him once about so how did you become an anarchist Pietro, and he says well “I was an altar boy at my church what they had the Fascist Encyclopedia, so like any curious young kid in the encyclopedia starts to read it found the entry for anarchism and thought well this makes sense, and became an anarchist.

Mussolini 0/ Anarchism 1 :)

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