Florence, the venue of this year’s road cycling world championships, is famous for its art and its architecture. In cycling, it’s famous as the hometown of Gino Bartali, the great pre-war rider who has recently been honoured for his work saving Jews from the Holocaust during the Second World War.
Earlier this week, almost three years since he was nominated, Bartali was award the honour of Righteous Among The Nations by the state of Israel. The title is bestowed on those who risked their lives during the Holocaust to save the lives of Jews. Others to have been recognised in this way include the Swedish diplomat, Raoul Wallenberg, and the German businessman, Oskar Schindler.
Recipients of the honour are awarded a medal, and a tree is planted in their honour in the Garden of the Righteous at the Yad Vashem Holocaust Memorial in Jerusalem.
Bartali and the resistance
Bartali was a devout Catholic, and the most renowned Italian cyclist before the Second World War, having won the Giro d'Italia twice times (1936, 1937) and the Tour de France in 1938. He won the Giro again in 1946 and his 1948 Tour de France victory gives him the longest break between Tour wins.
When Germany occupied Italy in September 1943 Bartali worked as a courier for the resistance. His work included transporting forged identity documents for Jews escaping persecution.
While undertaking extremely long training rides Bartali would conceal documents inside the handlebar and seat of his bicycle. When Bartali was stopped and searched, he specifically asked that his bicycle not be touched, telling the police and German soldiers that the different parts were very carefully calibrated to achieve maximum speed.
He also hid the Goldenberg family in the cellar of his own house from some time in 1943 until Florence was liberated in August 1944.
Entrance to the Garden of the Righteous (picture credit EdoM:Wikimedia Commons)
Saving the Goldenbergs
“The cellar was very small,” recalled Giorgio Goldenberg. “A door gave way onto a courtyard, but I couldn’t go out because that would run the risk of me being seen by the tenants of the nearby apartment buildings. The four of us slept on a double bed. My father never went out, while my mother often went out with two flasks to get water from some well.”
Mrs Goldenberg was the only member of the family who could risk venturing out because Bartali had obtained forged papers for her.
After the war, Bartali refused to discuss his activities, telling his son Andrea, “One does these things and then that's that.”
The story emerges
Bartali's heroism only began to come to light in 2000 when Giorgio Nissim died and his sons inherited his diaries. Nissim had been a member of DELASEM, the Jewish resistance organization that worked in Italy between 1939 and 1947.
Nissim’s diaries told how he and the Oblati Friars of Lucca forged documents for those they were helping. Bartali would leave Florence in the morning, pretending to train, ride to a convent in which the Jews were hiding, collect their photographs and ride back to Nissim.
In 2003, three years after Bartali’s death, an Italian professional cyclist and political science student, Paolo Alberati, met Bartali’s mechanic, Ivo Faltoni, one of the few people who knew of his clandestine wartime activities.
That meeting led Alberati to research Bartali’s activities for his dissertation, during the course of which he undertook research in the archives of the State Police and the Ministry of the Interior, which revealed just how real were the dangers to which Bartali exposed himself.
“There,” said Alberati, “I found files dedicated to Gino Bartali by police officers who had infiltrated the world of cycling and sports journalism, who spied on the champion and couldn’t explain the motive for those training rides that were hundreds of kilometres long.”
A genuine hero
Yad Vashem says of Bartali, “many of his courageous endeavors remain unknown”. He did however speak to Sara Corcos of the Center of Contemporary Jewish Documentation in Milan after the war. Bartali only agreed to be interviewed by Corcos when he learned she was related to Rabbi Nathan Cassuto, a leader of the DELASEM network. Cassuto was murdered by the Nazis at Gross Rosen in February 1945 after being deported from Italy. A deeply moved Bartali nevertheless asked that his words not be recorded.
The word ‘hero’ is often overused to describe sportsmen and women. The emergence of Gino Bartali’s wartime activities makes him the rare athlete who truly deserves the title.
Our official grumpy Northerner, John has been riding bikes for over 30 years since discovering as an uncoordinated teen that a sport could be fun if it didn't require you to catch a ball or get in the way of a hulking prop forward.
Road touring was followed by mountain biking and a career racing in the mud that was as brief as it was unsuccessful.
Somewhere along the line came the discovery that he could string a few words together, followed by the even more remarkable discovery that people were mug enough to pay for this rather than expecting him to do an honest day's work. He's pretty certain he's worked for even more bike publications than Mat Brett.
The inevitable 30-something MAMIL transition saw him shift to skinny tyres and these days he lives in Cambridge where the lack of hills is more than made up for by the headwinds.