Gino Bartali was an Italian cycling legend having won the gruelling Tour de France twice, once prior to and once after World War Two. But the true heroism of Bartali’s actions went far beyond his prowess on the bike, as he used his sporting fame to help save the lives of many Jewish people.
Born outside Florence in rural Tuscany in 1914, Bartali grew up in isolated poverty. He was happiest cycling through the hills around his home with his friends and by his early 20s had commenced a professional career in the sport. He quickly became very famous in Italy, hailed the ‘King of Cycling’ and his 1938 win of the Tour de France was thought by many to be the start of a very long reign at the top of the cycling world.
Even at this early stage of his life, Bartali had strong moral convictions and was a devout Catholic. Upon winning the 1938 Tour he chose not to dedicate his win to Mussolini, which was expected, even though another prominent cyclist who vocally criticised fascists was found dead around the same time. When war broke out in Europe in 1939, Bartali was conscripted into military service as a bike messenger and it was in this role that he truly began to take a secret stand against fascist rule.
When Germany occupied Italy in 1943, nearly 10,000 Jews were deported to concentration camps, 7,000 of them dying there. Many more survived, however, thanks to the efforts of Italian officials in obstructing deportations. Safe in the knowledge that many of the soldiers manning checkpoints were fans of his, Bartali used his position as a messenger and reputation as a cyclist to help Jewish people. Responding to the request of the Catholic Cardinal of Florence, a close friend, Bartali began to transport counterfeit identity documents between Florence and Assisi where they were printed covertly.
An Italian news source, Il Sole – 24 Ore, reports that Bartali undertook at least 40 long training rides, often between Florence and Assisi as part of this underground mission, hiding his cargo in his bike’s frame and handlebars. He would also pick up money from a Swiss Bank account in Genoa to distribute to Jewish people hiding in Florence. As if this wasn’t risk enough, Bartali hid his Jewish friend Giacomo Goldenberg and his family in his apartment and then a nearby basement.
Bartali was a complex character, at once pious and opinionated. He was known for being tempestuous and once dismounted from his bike mid-race to punch a man who jeered at him. But while hot-headed at times, his firm sense of morality was at the core of all he did. While he knew he risked imprisonment and death by his actions and was fearful for his life and for those of his family, he knew that this was far outweighed by the importance of doing the right thing and helping those in need.
When the war ended, Bartali was a changed man. The stress of his endeavours and food shortages had taken a toll on him mentally and physically and many doubted his ability to recapture his Tour de France title. However Bartali called upon his considerable inner strength to secure a powerful victory in 1948, much to the delight of Italian fans.
For a long time after the war, Bartali’s exploits in saving Jewish people remained a secret at his insistence, and the story was only revealed on his death in 2000. Amongst several other posthumous honours, Gino Bartali was finally declared Righteous Among the Nations by Yad Vashem in Israel in 2010.
Bartali is remembered by some only for his supreme talent as a cyclist. However, Bartali was much more than this, living his life according to the very highest principles of sportsmanship. In his own words to his son Andrea Bartali,
If you’re good at a sport, they attach the medals to your shirt and then they shine in some museum. That which is earned by doing good deeds is attached to the soul and shines elsewhere.
For more information:
Read Road to Valor: A True Story of WWII Italy, the Nazis, and the Cyclist Who Inspired a Nation -Aili McConnon and Andres McConnon, 2012.