Back in the 1930s when Mussolini’s Fascists ruled Italy, Gino Bartali’s dad gave him some fatherly advice: steer clear of politics.
As advice goes, it was probably redundant. Bartali’s passion was cycling, not politics, and he was really good at it. A national champion on several occasions, in 1938, he won his first Tour de France, the race considered by many the most gruelling endurance test for an athlete. In a cycling-mad culture like Italy’s, he became a national hero, sort of the Rocket Richard of his era.
Though Bartoli did not go looking for politics, like the Rocket, politics came looking for him.
Before and during World War II, he declined to serve as a propaganda vehicle for the Fascists and got himself in their bad books. Then, during the darkest days of World War II, when Italy complied with German demands to turn over its Jews, Bartali again defied authority. He used his fame and his iconic stature to evade scrutiny by police and ferry false documents to an underground organization that was attempting to hide Jews. He also turned over his private residences, purchased with his cycling winnings, to Jews fleeing officials.
Bartali’s amazing and little-known story is told in Road to Valour, a recent publication authored by the brother and sister team of Aili and Andres McConnon.
Bartali hid phony documents in the stem of his bicycle, below his seat, as part of a church-run operation, they say.
Written like a novel, the book tells the story of Italy during the war, the role of the Nazis and how Bartali responded to the barbarism around him.
In effect, he risked his life to save Jews. The McConnons estimate Bartali’s efforts helped 330 Jews in Tuscany and another 300 in Umbria evade capture.
“He had a strong ethical sense that he did not agree with what was going on, particularly during the Nazi occupation,” Andres said.
“He was also known as being stubborn and strong.”
Another factor influencing his actions was the role of the Catholic Church. Cardinal Elia Dalla Costa approached him in late 1943, after the Nazis occupied Italy, to help a clandestine network that hid Jews, Aili said.
Bartali was brought up a Catholic, and “he respected him and he listened,” Aili said. “He loved Italy and racing for Italy, but he was distraught that Italy had turned into a nightmare place with fascist policies.”
Risking his life – he would have been considered a traitor and his family might have been in jeopardy if he had been caught – Bartali agreed to help.
He passed through police checkpoints fairly easily, under the pretext that he was training. Usually, his fame made it easy to do so, but once, near the end of the war, “he had a close call,” Aili said. “He was arrested by a bloodthirsty police chief” who was known for using electric shocks to torture his victims.
Bartali was held for three days on suspicion of smuggling food, His alibi was that he was doing relief work for the church.
He was released only because a guard, who was also a fan, stood up for him, Aili said.
Bartali’s humanitarian efforts were known within the Italian Jewish community after the war, “but it was not widely known at all,” she said.
Bartali did not want to talk about it – his first cousin had been “taken away,” Andres said, and his experience was “too raw,” Aili added.
But at least one first-hand witness was available to tell his part of the story.
Giorgio Goldenberg was a youngster when the war broke out. He now lives in Tel Aviv. “He knew Bartali” and adored him as a cycling champ, Andres said.
In 1941, before the Nazi occupation, he was living in a village outside Florence. Bartali came for a visit that brought out the whole town to see him. It turned out that Bartali had known Goldenberg’s father, and to the amazement of all present, he gave Giorgio a small bike and a signed publicity photo, addressed to “Goldenberg Giorgio.”
Goldenberg so revered Bartali that he kept the precious souvenir throughout the war, even while being hidden in a Catholic orphanage under the Italian name “Goldini.”
“At that time, everyone was hiding their Jewish identity,” Andres said. “He kept the picture… showing his real name and not his gentile alias.”
After the war, Bartali put his wartime activities behind him. “He focused on returning to his cycling glory. He wanted his legacy in Italy to be as a cyclist,” Andres said.
Ten years after he won his first Tour de France, the chain-smoking, wine-drinking cyclist won his second at age 34. It cemented his position as a cycling legend, and the 10-year span is still the record for most time between victories.
Andres, a cycling fan, was intrigued by Bartali when, standing on the sidelines at the Tour de France, people were amazed that Lance Armstrong was able to win the event in his 30s.
A historical researcher, Andres began examining Bartali’s life, and Aili, a journalist who was helping put together an anthology that examined the Holocaust, agreed to help him.
Their book is the first that looks beyond Bartali’s sporting exploits and considers the personal heroism he displayed in risking his life to save others.
After the war, he made a comeback, and during the 1948 Tour de France, an assassination attempt in Rome led to political protests and riots. Bartali persevered in the race and won in a way that inspired people back home.
“Cycling was seen as transcending politics and uniting the country,” Aili said.
Just as Bartali’s father would have wanted.