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Italy’s wartime hero used cycling fame to save Jews

13 August 2012 No Comment

GINO Bartali was born dirt poor, and the odds in Italy at the time said he should have stayed that way.

His school results were so bad his teachers struggled to say something positive on his report cards. They settled for the only attribute they could find: ”Good personal hygiene”.

The social order of the day also said Bartali should have remained more or less where he was at about 14: a part-time apprentice to a man who fixed bicycles.

But Bartali chose instead a career as a cyclist that would make him as famous as a rock star, winning gruelling races such as the Giro d’Italia and the Tour de France.

He was the ultimate endurance athlete, like a goat on wheels in the Tuscan hills. He was 24 when he won his first Tour de France and, in an extraordinary comeback, he won the race again 10 years later – a record that still stands.

But Bartali also kept a dangerous secret: he was, according to a book just published in Australia, a wartime resistance hero who saved many lives.

Bartali the cyclist inspired a nation. He was mobbed when recognised on the streets. He was married by a cardinal and on his honeymoon in Rome, he met Pope Pius XII, who was a fan.

He also ran some terrible risks in an explosive political environment that did not tolerate dissent. Bartali disliked Mussolini’s Fascists. And they made him pay by hindering his opportunities to race.

During a decade of research on the first book in English about the legendary cyclist, Road to Valour, Canadian authors Aili and Andres McConnon say they have uncovered new details of Bartali’s wartime exploits, for which he would probably have been executed had Italy’s Nazi occupiers or the Fascists found him out. Bartali not only hid Jewish friends but also used his fame and his bicycle to smuggle forged documents, mostly between Tuscany and Umbria, to enable Jews – hidden in monasteries, convents, private homes and on farms – to escape the Nazi death camps.

The network was set up by the Archbishop of Florence, Cardinal Elia Della Costa, who recruited Bartali, an atheist printer, priests, nuns and citizens to forge and smuggle documents and find hiding places for the Jews. In conjunction with a significant Jewish underground, they saved an unknown number of lives.

As a national hero, Bartali could travel the country on his bicycle unmolested, claiming he was training for a race. Along the way, he would pick up forged documents and photographs from the Jews in their hiding places, take them to forgers – such as the Assisi-based printers Luigi Brizi and his son, Trento – and then bring them back, hidden in the hollow frame of his bicycle.

He would cycle deep into the countryside to meet with priests and others who had contacts with smugglers willing to take Jews into Allied territory. He cycled the escape routes to uncover the locations of German and Fascist checkpoints, and he negotiated fees with smugglers willing to help the Jews escape.

The Fascists had their suspicions of Bartali. He was once interrogated for three days before being released, but survived undetected. By the end of the war he was so traumatised by the danger that he could no longer sleep.

When it was all over Italy was in chaos. Bartali’s money was gone. He cycled in rural races where the prizes were chickens, pigs or furniture and, if he was lucky, a small amount of cash. He needed to win the 1948 Tour de France.

He was 34 and everyone had an opinion about his chances. His detractors called him ”the old man” and said he could never win.

The McConnons tell of his young son’s question: ”Papa, what gave you the idea to go do the Tour de France? You’re too old now. You’re going to be beaten.” Yet Bartali raced and won.

The 1948 Tour raised his legend to even greater heights, but in the following years his strength and skills waned. He went into business, with mixed success. He remained an Italian and European cycling legend.

On May 5, 2000, after what Road to Valour reckons at almost 600,000 kilometres of cycling, including three victories in the Giro d’Italia and the Tour de France in 1938 and 1948, Gino Bartali died at his home.

He did not speak about his wartime activities and was interested only in his sport. As Italy mourned, many thought Pope John Paul II got it right when he eulogised the cyclist simply as a ”great sportsman”.


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