Twenty years ago today, media in Italy reported that one of the national sports icons had died of a heart attack, aged 85 years. Gino Bartali was a three-time winner of the Giro d’Italia cycle race (1936, 1937 and 1946) and twice winner of the Tour de France (1938 and 1948) but what was unknown in May 2000 until a few years later was that the champion cyclist was undergoing secret life.
Icon in Italy, Gino Bartali is hailed as a hero in Israel. He was recognized as Righteous Among the Nations in 2013. This award was given to non-Jews who endangered their lives to save Jews during the Holocaust in the Second World War and was given by the Yad Vashem memorial museum.
Bartali’s fame as a successful racing cyclist allowed him to travel largely unhindered in wartime Italy, and “training vehicles” from his home city of Florence, according to some historians, a trick for smuggling. He claimed the fake identity cards he hid in his bicycle saved the lives of hundreds of Jews who were able to avoid capture by the Nazis.
Bartali did not talk about these actions, but when he died in 2000, his son Andrea began collecting his father’s exploits during the war and finally understood why his father told him: “You did a good deed, you didn’t talk about it.”
A bicycle-based boarding school was opened in honor of Bartali last year. Thanks to fundraising encouragement, students – mostly Jews, but also with some Israeli Arabs – were recently given static training bikes so they did not lose fitness while locked.
The 180-year mass participation cycle tour from Florence to Assisi, tracing Bartali’s cum-smuggling training route mid-1940s, was scheduled to be held in June but was canceled due to a pandemic.
More than that later – for now, let’s go back to 1948, and the famous Bartali – and athletically impossible – victory of the Tour de France.
On the day before the ascent that held him back, Bartali was staying at the Carlton Hotel in Cannes when he was called by the future leader of the Italian Christian Democratic Party and said he had to win one or two stages because it would prevent bloodshed outbreaks. following the assassination attempt of a Communist politician.
“I will do better than that,” Bartali promised. “I’ll win the whole tour!”
That Bartali’s victory against all odds that might prevent the Italian civil war would be an extraordinary claim to fame, but the secret that virtuous Catholics maintain the day of his death is the reason why Bartali is now so respected.
The pious Gino, because he was nicknamed by contemporary newspapers, is famous in Italy for his fierce competition with fellow Italian Fausto Coppi, another winner of several Tours.
Then, and even today, many Italians are identified as supporters of Coppi or Bartali; there is no middle ground and there is no love lost between the factions.
Since his secret disclosures from 2010 or so, there have been non-sporting reasons for choosing Bartali as the more historically important of the two, but Gino the Pious has never talked about his wartime exploits.
“He didn’t say anything with [my father and mother]”Gioia Bartali, Gino’s granddaughter, told me.
“Because if you do good to others, you take it in his heart.”
We talked last year on the 180 Bartali trip, the first of an annual trip.
The 2019 trip was the launching pad for the religious Bartali Youth Leadership School, a new boarding school focused on cycling that opened its doors in September last year. Students and teachers from the school are on their way to 2019, as is Aili McConnon, co-author The Path to Courage, a 2013 book that tells of Bartali’s wartime exploitation.
“The reason why he helped [to rescue so many Jews was explained] by his widow, Adrianna Bartali, who was still alive when we researched the book, “McConnon remembers.
“He said that he was aware of the great contribution that so many Italians had made – many had been tortured, many had been killed – and he thought he [had to do] its part. ”
At great risk for his own life, and his young family, Bartali used his fame, and, of course, his bicycle, to smuggle documents that might save as many as 630 Italian Jews from the gas chambers.
However, despite being one of the most famous sports figures in Italy, the subject of countless newspaper and magazine articles, and in the following years, an expert on Italian TV, Bartali never spoke of his war heroism, even with his family.
“He likes to be known for his compliments of cycling, but he won’t [to be made out as a] great war heroes, “said McConnon, who wrote The Path to Courage with his brother, Andres.
“Some medals are made to hang on the soul, not the jacket,” Bartali said, albeit in a different context.
His claim was that Bartali was asked to smuggle a false identity document between Assisi and Florence by Cardinal Florence, Archbishop Elia Dalla Costa. The Fascist Italian Mussolini was anti-Semitic but, unlike Nazi Germany, was not so killing. The Jews felt relatively safe in the country until 1943 when the Nazis began operations in northern Italy and demanded that the Jews be handed over to be sent to concentration camps in Eastern Europe.
Some church leaders – including Dalla Costa – organized an underground rescue network to smuggle Jews abroad, and for this they needed fake identity documents.
Italians need identity cards to move into the city and also to rent rooms and get ration cards to buy food.
It is said that Bartali joined Dalla Costa’s “Assisi network” and took forged documents on a printing press operated by bric-a-brac shop owner Luigi Brizi – the printing press is now placed in an Assisi museum dedicated to the smuggling network.
Using remote training tricks, Bartali can go up hundreds of miles to deliver these documents. The story goes that Bartali hid a fake identity card in his bicycle frame, and every time he was challenged by the police, he would argue that his bicycle settings were so precise that he could not be tampered with.
Such was his fame – he was on par with Babe Ruth – so that his non-fiddling request was always granted.
Athletes in Fascist Italy were given high status. They are “blue ambassadors,” praised for displaying “glorious acts in the sports struggle against the strongest representatives of other races in the world.”
Before the Tour de France victory in 1938, an Italian magazine wrote that Bartali and the Italian cycling team had crossed the border to win “on behalf of Mussolini.”
Bartali is not just an athlete, the magazine claims, but a warrior who “uses his bicycle as a weapon.”
The victory of sports celebrates Italy and Fascism; then it makes sense that Bartali could use his elevated status to prevent officers from handling his bicycle.
“In Florence and its surroundings, around 330 Jews have been saved by the efforts of Cardinal Dalla Costa and his colleagues,” claims The Path to Courage.
“It is estimated that three hundred other Jews have been saved in Assisi and Perugia.”
But not everyone is sold with the Bartali-as-war-time smuggling story. The claim was first put forward in 1978 by Alexander Ramati, a Polish-American journalist who became a reporter during World War II. He published the history of Nazi occupation in Assisi and the Jewish hideout, Underground Assisi: Priests who saved Jews.
Ramati’s study of the Nazi occupation in Assisi centered on claims made by Father Rufino Niccacci, a member of the Assisi underground network. According to the Ramati-Niccacci account, it was Dalla Costa who asked the help of his friend Bartali (the cardinal had been officially at Bartali’s wedding).
Ramati claimed that Bartali was handed over “a photo and then [returned] with an identity card one or two days later. ”
Bartali, continued Ramati, “pulled the handle from the handlebars and opened his chair to take out the photographs and papers hidden in the bicycle frame.”
This is Ramati’s book – and the next book by McConnon’s siblings – which is largely responsible for the Bartali-as-war-hero version today, but some academics refute the narrative.
Writing in 2017 at Tablet, a US online Jewish news magazine, Italian historian Michele Sarfatti claims that “Bartali’s role as a courier” has been “created,” perhaps to revive the film’s script.
“Bartali never claimed to be a savior, and neither did the organizer of the Italian rescue network mention it,” wrote Sarfatti, a expert on Jews in Italy Mussolini.
“So far there are no scholars in the field who support it. In the absence of reliable research, curators and institutions that present Bartali’s portrayal as a savior of the Jews in front of their audience do not depend much except on the enthusiasm of the press and the support of colleagues. ”
Sarfatti may be skeptical – especially because there are no documents to back up claims for Bartali – but the defense appoints Bartali hiding his childhood friend, Giacomo Goldenberg, and Bartali’s family, an act of defiance that could result in Bartali’s death. Goldenberg was hidden in one of Bartali’s apartments in Florence.
In 2009, Ivo Faltoni, one of Bartali’s former bicycle mechanics, launched an annual program ciclopelegrinaggio, or pilgrimage cycling, tracing parts of Bartali’s training between Florence and Assisi. This 180 kilometer pilgrimage now is Bartali 180, which was held as a fundraiser for Bartali Youth Leadership School, based in the Ben Shemen Youth Village, southeast of Tel Aviv. This offers children between the ages of 14-17 the opportunity to ride a bicycle as part of their school work.
Bartali’s family welcomed the school. Gioia Bartali said the new initiative “makes us proud.”
In a statement released ahead of the opening of the school in September 2019, he added:
“The values that guide my beloved grandfather are the values of good intentions, perseverance, politeness, and helping those in need. I hope his story and his outstanding personal example can truly serve as an inspiration for students at school for years to come. ”
Students get mountain bikes on the first day of the semester, and before, during and after their academic studies, they ride together in the Ben Shemen forest close to the school, which has a 32 kilometer mountain bike line that snakes between its trees.
The plan is for students to use cycling as a way to bridge cultural differences and celebrate diversity, absorb life skills such as self-discipline and teamwork.
That Youth Village founded in 1927 by Dr. Siegfried Lehman, an immigrant from Europe.
“We are an agricultural farm, and we have Jewish and non-Jewish students,” the village’s director general Dr. Ilana Tischler told me last year at the end of the 180 Bartali trip.
“We have very good students, and we have students with learning disabilities, so we accept every child as long as we can give him the right place to succeed.”
The first students admitted to the Bartali Youth Leadership School included “three Arab and Druze children and three Jewish children,” Dr. Tischler.
The founder of the school is former professional cyclist Ran Margaliot, who is also the co-creator of the Israel Cycling Academy. The Pro Continental team took over the Katusha-Alpecin professional squad last year.
“We started a program that focused on excellence,” Margaliot said, “but that not only creates racers, we want to use cycling to change lives.”
He added: “It was a natural decision to name the program after Gino Bartali.”
For Margaliot, “Bartali is a hero I can relate to because we are both bicycle riders.”
But Bartali’s wartime exploitation meant that his heroism was also now an important part of his story:
“Will I [have done] the same thing with Bartali? “asked Margaliot.
“Am I willing to get out of my comfort zone to help someone, to do the right thing? Will I risk my life for someone I don’t even know who has nothing to do with me? ”
The Bartali Youth Leadership School aims to foster the spirit of this community.
“This [project] very special for me, “added Margaliot.
“Bartali is driving alone, giving a fake ID. It is important for us that we are [students come to] understand the great risk he takes to do what he does and why he does it: not because he has something to achieve, but because it is the right thing to do. “