On August 11, 2013, during the celebrations of the 69th anniversary of the Allied liberation of Florence, Rabbi Joseph Levi announced that he hoped the late Gino Bartali, one of Italy’s most famous and popular cycling champions from the early 1930s to the mid 1950s, would soon be nominated as one of the Righteous Among the Nations, the recognition given by the Yad Vashem Memorial in Israel to non-Jews who risked their lives during the Holocaust to save Jews from extermination by the Nazis.
Born in then rural Ponte a Ema on the outskirts of Florence on July 18, 1914, Bartali was the third of four children. Small for his age and bullied at school, at 13 he began working in a bicycle shop so he could maintain the much-loved second-hand bike his parents had given him. Obsessed from the beginning with cycling, which during that epoch was the major form of transport for the Italian working class, he began racing at 13. In 1935, at 21, he turned professional, beginning an exceptional 20-year career. During those two decades, he won 100 road races and 22 circuit races out of the 836 races he entered. These included three victories in the Giro d’Italia (1936, 1937 and 1946), two in the Tour de France (1938 and 1948), four wins of the Milan–Sanremo, three in the Giro di Lombardia and two in the Tour de Suisse. He was also a four-time road champion of Italy. A great climber, he took the mountains’ jerseys an unbeaten seven times in the Giro d’Italia. His last victory was in the 1953 Giro di Toscana, a race he had already won on four other occasions. In all, it is estimated he pedalled more than 150,000 kilometres whilst competing. In 1954, after a bad car accident, he retired aged 40.
Yet, Bartali is probably best remembered for his rivalry with fellow cyclist superstar Fausto Coppi (see http://tinyurl.com/prg7txx), which began in 1940, when the younger Coppi started to race for Legnano, the same team Bartali was riding for. The two men could not have been more different: Bartali was stocky, gregarious, with the face (and broken nose) of a boxer; Coppi was tall, deceptively fragile, wiry and reserved. Support for one or the other of the archrivals divided the nation. A conservative and fervent Roman Catholic (so much so he was nicknamed ‘Gino the Pious’), Bartali was the idol of the poorer agrarian south, whilst Coppi represented the secular, industrial north, which was gearing up to embark on Italy’s first economic miracle after years of dictatorship and humiliating warfare.
During his prime as an athlete, from his mid 20s until his early 30s, Bartali was forced to stop competitive riding because of World War II. He had won his first Tour de France in 1938 at 24, but had to wait another 10 years before he could repeat this feat. And what a legendary feat it was, not merely because it was a record for the longest gap between victories by the same rider in the race but also for unexpected political reasons. While the Tour was still in course, on July 14, 1948, the powerful leader of the Italian Communist Party, Palmiro Togliatti, was shot three times outside Parliament. With Togliatti’s life hanging by a thread, a dire political crisis arose, and there was a real danger that a major uprising would take place when workers took to the streets and occupied factories. In these circumstances, the prime minister at the time, Alcide De Gasperi, telephoned Bartali exhorting him to win the Tour for Italy. When he did, on that same day, Togliatti awoke from a coma in hospital, immediately enquired how the Tour had gone and asked his followers to remain calm. The whole country celebrated Bartali’s triumph, easing tensions and helping to avert any possibility of civil war.
It was, however, a different kind of victory that prompted Rabbi Levi’s recent remarks. Risking his life, between 1943 and 1944 Bartali became a courier for the Delegazione per l’Assistenza degli Emigranti Ebrei, an underground network set up by Giorgio Nissim, a Jewish accountant from Pisa. Using a clandestine printing press to produce false documents, the organisation, helped by the Oblati Friars of Lucca, saved at least 800 Jews from deportation.
Capitalising on his fame to deflect suspicion, Bartali claimed to be on training rides, often between Florence and Assisi. He was actually delivering false documents, photographs, money and messages hidden in the saddle or frame of his bicycle to convents that harboured persecuted refugees. Bartali also hid a Jewish family in his cellar, which, according to one of the survivors, saved their lives. Towards the end of 1943, having come to the attention of the German political police and the fascist militia, he was imprisoned for 45 days in the notorious Villa Triste prison on via Bolognese, but was eventually released without trial. After the war, Bartali rarely spoke about his heroic actions, merely commenting that ‘good is something you do, not something you talk about. Some medals are pinned on your soul, not on your jacket.’
On May 5, 2000, Bartali, aged 85, died of a heart attack after bypass surgery in Florence. He was survived by his wife of more than 60 years, Adriana, and his three children, one of whom, Andrea Bartali, is president of the Fondazione Gino Bartali, created in his father’s memory.
For more information about Gino Bartali’s heroism during World War II, see Road To Valor: A True Story of WWII Italy, the Nazis, and the Cyclist Who Inspired a Nation by Aili and Andres McConnon (Crown, 2012).