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Gino Bartali: The Superstar who Defied the Fascists

January 24, 2018 | by Dr. Yvette Alt Miller

One of the greatest cyclists of all time risked his life to save thousands of Jews.

Gino Bartali was one of the greatest cyclists of all time.

Coming to prominence while Fascism was spreading throughout Italy, Bartali faced a choice: go along with right-wing populism and anti-Semitism, or resist. Bartali chose to resist. In recent years, the extent of his resistance, as well as his secret work to save Jews, has finally come to light.

Born in a poor Italian village in 1914, Bartali saved up money to buy his first bicycle when we was 11 years old so he could ride to school in the city of Florence. After years of riding on hilly roads, Bartali became a competitive racer at the age of 17.

He became a professional racer in 1935 and won the Giro d’Italia, Italy’s top bicycle race and one of the three Grand Tour bike races in 1936. And he won it again in 1937. His training regimen in the hilly Italian countryside earned Bartali the nickname “Giant of the Mountains”. Delighted that an Italian was such a wonderful physical specimen, the Italian Cycling Federation hoped to use Bartali to prove the superiority of the “Italian race”. They forced him to enter the 1938 Tour de France, and when Bartali won that race too, pressured him to dedicate his victory to Fascist leader Benito Mussolini.

Bartali was under enormous pressure to dedicate his victory to Fascist leader Benito Mussolini. He refused.

Bartali’s son Andrea Bartali later recalled, “It was a matter of national pride and fascist prestige that my father won the 1938 Tour, so he was under real pressure” to honor Mussolini. But Bartali refused, and a disgusted Mussolini denied him any honor or publicity when he returned to Italy.

Italy and the Rise of Anti-Semitism

That same year, Italy began instituting a series of anti-Jewish laws, modeled on Germany’s infamous Nuremberg Laws. Jews were excluded from schools and universities, banned from government jobs and professions, stripped of their assets, restricted in their travel, and in finally targeted for deportation and imprisonment.

While some Italians embraced their country’s new official anti-Semitism, many did not. In 1942, Nazi propaganda minister Joseph Goebbels complained about Italians’ “lax” enforcement of anti-Semitic decrees. Germany invaded Italy in 1943 and stepped up efforts to deport and murder Italian Jews. Even then, many Italians showed incredibly bravery and a willingness to help Jews; about 80% of Italy’s approximately 45,000 Jews survived the war, often with help from friends and neighbors.

As Italy’s Jews were targeted, Gino Bartali did what he could to help. By then, Bartali owned an apartment in Florence, and at great risk to both himself and his family, he lent it to a Jewish family to hide in. Throughout the war, Bartali helped support them. Shlomo Goldenberg-Paz, one of the Jews Bartali hid, was nine years old when he met the great cyclist in 1941. Shlomo was present at a meeting with his father, Giacomo Goldberg, Bartali, and one of Bartali’s friends, Armando Sizzi. Shlomo was too little at the time to know what they discussed but he does recall that Bartali gave him a bicycle and a signed photo which he’s kept his entire life.

Hiding Jews

Two years later, as Germany intensified the round-ups of Italian Jews, Shlomo Goldenberg went into hiding with the rest of his family in the apartment that Bartali owned. Bartali’s friend Armando Sizzi also lived in it during that time. In addition to the Goldenberg family, one of their cousins, Aurelio Klein, also fled to Florence and stayed in Bartali’s apartment for a time. During those years, the Jewish family was terrified; Shlomo’s mother was the only member of the Goldenberg family to set foot outside the apartment. She left its confines only to do the family’s food shopping, then hurried back home to safety.

“He hid us in spite of knowing that the Germans were killing everybody who was hiding Jews.”

“He hid us in spite of knowing that the Germans were killing everybody who was hiding Jews,” Giorgio Goldenberg, who was a child during the war, explained.

Secret Courier

Bartali was asked to take an even greater risk to save Italy’s Jews. During World War II Florence became a major hub of the Italian resistance due to the heroism of two local religious leaders: Rabbi Nathan Cassuto and Cardinal Elia Angelo Dalla Costa, Archbishop of Florence. Together, the two recruited and coordinated rescue efforts involving hundreds of Italians and saved the lives of thousands of local Jews, as well as Jewish refugees living in and around Florence. Cardinal Dalla Costa helped recruit rescuers, wrote to the heads of monasteries and convents in his territory, begging them to shelter Jews, and even hid Jews himself in his cardinal palace. After many of the Jews active in this network were found and arrested, Cardinal Dalla Costa continued the vital rescue work, encouraging church officials to risk arrest and even torture to help Jews.

Rabbi Cassuto was murdered in Auschwitz in 1945. Cardinal Dalla Costa survived the war and was recognized as Righteous Among the Nations by Yad Vashem in 2012.

Cardinal Dalla Costa had married Bartali’s parents and knew the young cycling star. Sometime in 1943 he approached Bartali with a top-secret request: would Bartali work for the Italian Resistance network, using his bicycle riding as a cover?

Bartali agreed and was soon working as a courier, ferrying forged documents around the Italian countryside hidden in secret compartments in his bicycle’s frame and handlebars. Few people questioned Bartali’s explanation for these long rides that he was training. In time, Bartali ferried documents not only for the Florence-based underground rescue ring, but also for the Assisi network, another rescue organization based in that town. He delivered forged documents such as life-saving visas, forged identity papers and passports to Jews as far afield as Florence, Lucca, Genoa, Assisi and Rome, and travelled thousands of miles by bike through mountain roads and all weather.

Several times Bartali was stopped and searched by German authorities. He deflected suspicion by talking about cycling and asked them not to touch his bicycle since it was specially calibrated for maximum speed. Impressed by Bartali’s fame, officials complied with his request and the secret compartment was never discovered.

Winning the Tour de France in 1948

After 1944, cycling races were cancelled and it became harder for Bartali to pretend his long rides were serious athletic training for races. In July 1944, he was arrested by the Fascist secret service in Florence and brought to the Villa Triste, the “House of Sorrow”, where the police often tortured their suspects. Fortunately for Bartali, one of his inquisitors had been Bartali’s commander in the army. He convinced the other police officers that Bartali was not hiding anything. For a time, as he faced mounting suspicion, Bartali hid in the town of Citta Di Castello in Umbria, living under an assumed name.

I’m No Hero

Thanks to Bartali’s efforts, many of the Jews he brought documents to survived the war. Giulia Baquis explained that during Germany’s occupation of Italy she and her family hid in the home of two sisters in the Tuscan town of Lido di Camaiore. Bartali visited the family bringing precious forged documents. Another survivor, Renzo Ventura, recalls the day that he, his sisters and parents received false papers brought by Gino Bartali, enabling them to survive.

After the war, Bartali resumed his bicycle racing, winning another Tour de France and Giro d’Italia, and cementing his reputation as one of the all-time great cyclists. He almost never spoke about his wartime heroism.

Andrea Bartali points to his father's name at Yad Vashem

Gino’s son Andrea recalls that his father did sometimes mention his courier activities, but only to close family members. “When I asked my father why I couldn’t tell anyone,” Andrea explains, “he said ‘You must do good, but you must not talk about it. If you talk about it you’re taking advantage of others’ misfortunes for your own gain.’”

His son recalls that Bartali didn’t see his actions as particularly heroic. “When people were telling him, ‘Gino, you’re a hero’, he would reply: ‘No, no - I want to be remembered for my sporting achievements. Real heroes are others, those who have suffered in their soul, in their heart, in their spirit, in their mind, for their loved ones. Those are the real heroes. I’m just a cyclist.’”

Bartali refused to be publicly interviewed about his wartime exploits. The one non-family member he seems to have spoken to is Shoshana Evron, the daughter of Rabbi Nathan Cassuto, who’d helped organize the underground rescue committee Bartali worked for. When she got in touch with him on behalf of the Centro di Documentazione Ebraica Contemporanea, a Jewish historical organization in Milan, Bartali became very emotional to hear from a member of the Cassuto family and agreed to tell her about his work, but emphatically said he did not want to be recorded. In their ensuing meeting, Bartali explained to Ms. Evron everything about the forged life-saving documents he distributed throughout the Italian countryside.

The true extent of Bartali’s heroism only emerged after his death in 2000. In 2013, Yad Vashem recognized Gino Bartali as Righteous Among the Nations.

Israel Hosting 2018 Giro d’Italia Bike Race

In 2018, Israel will host the 101st Giro d’Italia bike race that first propelled Gino Bartali to fame, and one of cycling’s three Grand Tour races. It will be the first time the Giro d’Italia takes place outside of Italy, and the first time any of the three major Grand Tours bicycle races will be held outside of Europe.

The 101st Giro d’Italia will begin May 4, 2018, in Jerusalem, as the 176 top racers from around the world begin the three week tour against the backdrop of Jerusalem’s Old City. Riders will then race through the Jewish state’s scenic countryside, passing through Haifa, Tel Aviv, Beersheba and Eilat. The race is typically watched by hundreds of millions of viewers in 194 countries.

It would be fitting for visitors to Jerusalem watching the race to visit another site in the city: the Garden of the Righteous at Yad Vashem, where the tree that was planted in honor of Gino Bartali still grows, reminding us that no matter how heroic Bartali seemed because of his sporting ability, it was his quiet decency, honor and bravery that truly set him apart and made him a hero in the fullest sense of the term.

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