Gino Bartali: The man who helped save Italy’s Jews

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Story highlights

Gino Bartali helped save over 800 Jews during the Holocaust

Bartali was one of the most revered cyclists in the world

Italian won two Tour de France titles during illustrious career

New film documents Bartali's role during World War Two

CNN  — 

“He never asked nor accepted any reward, because he was good and simple and did not think that one did good for a reward.” (Primo Levi, If This Is A Man)

Gino Bartali wanted to keep it to himself.

How could a man, so famous and so revered, keep it a secret for so long?

“Good is something you do, not something you talk about,” Bartali once explained. “Some medals are pinned to your soul, not to your jacket.”

He was Italy’s very own version of Babe Ruth – a man whose personality, character and success transcended sport.

In the 1930s, Bartali, a son of Tuscany, was one of the leading cyclists in the world, a man admired by all.

He had won three Giro d’Italia titles – one of the three major European cycling events – in addition to his triumph at the 1938 Tour de France and was very much the country’s poster boy.

And yet for a man who lived in his life in the full glare of the public, a new film, My Italian Secret reveals a very different side to Bartali’s remarkable life.

Directed by Oren Jacoby, the film shows how Bartali was part of a secret Italian resistance movement which helped hide the country’s Jews during the Nazi invasion of 1943.

Using the handlebars on his bike to hide counterfeit identity papers, Bartali would ride to Jews in hiding and deliver their exit visas which allowed them to escape transportation to the death camps – he is credited with saving the lives of 800 people.

“He never talked about what he did during World War II,” said Jacoby. People loved him, they adored him. Italy was so proud of him.

“He risked his life to save others and it’s a story which Italy is now embracing.”

Wheels of fortune

Born in Florence in 1914, Bartali was a devout Catholic whose parents were married by the local Cardinal, Elia Angelo Dalla Costa.

It was Dalla Costa who recruited Bartali into his secret network at a time where much of Italy had been ceded to the Nazis.

In 1938, Italy’s Fascist regime, led by Benito Mussolini, enacted a series of anti-Semtiic laws which prevented Jews from working within government or education, banned intermarriage and removed them from positions in the media.

While some of the country’s Jews fled the country before the outbreak of World War II, those who stayed behind remained largely unscathed until the Germans began deportations in 1943.

It was at this time that Dalla Costa, working with Rabbi Nathan Cassuto, created a system which involved convents, monasteries and members of the general public hiding Jews in all kinds of ingenious ways.

Even after Cassuto was arrested by the Germans, deported and sent to his death, the secret network continued to operate.

Using the guise of long-distance training, Bartali would ride for hundreds of miles delivering documents while the Fascist secret police simply let him pass given their admiration for the cyclist.

Whenever he was stopped, he would simply ask that his bike not be touched since the technical set up was arranged to achieve maximum speed.

Eventually, Bartali was forced to go into hiding in the town of Citta Di Castello in Umbria, where he hid the Goldenberg family.

In the book, Road to Valour written by siblings Aili and Andres McConnon, Giorgio Goldenberg recalls how Bartali’s actions helped save his life and the lives of his family.

“There is no doubt whatsoever for me that he saved our lives,” said Goldenberg, who hid in Bartali’s cellar until the liberation of Florence in 1944.

“He not only saved our lives but he helped save the lives of hundreds of people. He put his own life and his family’s in danger in order to do so.

“In my opinion, he was a hero and he is entitled to be called a hero of the Italian people during World War II.”

It was not just the rescued who were grateful to Bartali, those who were involved in creating the counterfeit papers in Assisi also took courage from the cyclist’s fearlessness.

Worked in the counterfeiting business, Trento Brizi explained how Bartali’s influence gave him courage at a time where the Nazis began to get suspicious.

In the book, Road to Valor, Brizi said: “The idea of taking part in an organization that could boast of a champion like Gino Bartali among its ranks, filled me with such pride that my fear took a back seat.”

According to Yad Vashem, the Holocaust museum in Jerusalem, 7,680 out of 44,500 Italian Jews were killed by the Nazis.