There are plenty of sporting heroes — people who have scored vital last-minute goals, run world records or taken a hatful of wickets. However, Italian cyclist Gino Bartali truly deserves the accolade.
Bartali’s claim to sporting greatness was that he won the Tour de France twice, with 10 years and a world war separating the two triumphs. But it is what he did during the Second World War which made him a genuine hero — risking his life to save the Jews of his native Florence.
His life story, with hitherto unknown details about his wartime activities, has just been published. The authors, Canadian siblings Aili and Andres McConnon, feel that Bartali, who died in 2000 but is still a famous name in Italy, deserves recognition internationally for his deeds. Andres says: “Although Bartali is still very well-known in his home country — a bit like the George Best of Italy — he didn’t speak about his war life for several decades because he didn’t want to aggrandise what he had done and he didn’t want to overshadow those who he worked with.” Aili adds: “It really is an irresistible combination of sports comeback story and the tale of a humanitarian who helped the Jewish community.”
Bartali was born in rural Tuscany, just outside Florence, and grew up in a poor, isolated village. When he was able to afford an antiquated second-hand bike, he and his friends rode endlessly through the hills. Bartali, who quickly became obsessed with cycling, showed great talent for the sport, easily matching fully grown cyclists with far better equipment. By his early 20s, he had turned professional and was winning races at home and abroad.
Even at this point he was showing bravery by keeping the Mussolini’s fascist authorities at arm’s length. Aili says “There was another prominent cyclist who had been vocal in his criticism of the fascists. He was found dead on the side of the road one day — there was never conclusive evidence but it seems he was murdered. Bartali made an eloquent statement by what he did not say. After his victory in the 1938 Tour de France, he would have been expected to dedicate his win to Mussolini. Instead, he thanked his fans and the next day he was photographed bringing his victory bouquet to a church in Paris.”
Bartali’s affiliation with the Catholic Church was a key factor in his decision to help the Jews of Florence after the German occupation in the autumn of 1943. During his time as an apprentice, at a Florence bicycle mechanic, Bartali had become friendly with a local Jewish man, Giacomo Goldenberg. Once anti-Jewish measures were introduced by the fascists, Bartali reacquainted himself with the Goldenberg family and ultimately hid them at his apartment and later, when this became dangerous, in a nearby basement.
If this were not risky enough, Bartali also undertook work for the Cardinal of Florence, Elia Dalla Costa, who had become a close friend. The Cardinal had shown his anti-fascist credentials by making himself visibly absent during Hitler’s pre-war visit to the city. And when the Jews were in danger from the Nazis, he offered them protection. Bartali was asked by the Cardinal to do a job which he was well qualified for — to transport counterfeit identity documents between Florence and Assisi where they were printed covertly.
Aili explains: “Bartali was uniquely positioned to help because he was able to move between these cities at a time when it was almost impossible to travel as a civilian. He rode with the documents hidden inside the frame of his bike. As a champion cyclist he had trained on these roads so a lot of the soldiers manning the checkpoints would have been fans of his. He could easily have claimed that he was on a training ride. Added to that, earlier in the war he had been drafted as a military messenger, so he had a double alibi.”
In hiding a Jewish family and transporting these vital documents, Bartali was risking imprisonment and even death. He was committed to his work but there was no doubt that he was consumed by fear. Aili says: “What makes the humanitarian work he did in this period more striking is that we know he was scared. He lived with very real danger in his everyday life and the knowledge that the work he was doing was not only potentially endangering himself but also his wife and young son.”
The Goldenbergs survived and their son, Giorgio, who now lives in Israel, was interviewed by the McConnons for the book, shedding new light on Bartali’s heroism.
Once the war ended, Bartali was keen to get back to his cycling. However, the stress of the work — he was at one point interrogated by the fascist police — took a great toll on his mind, and the food shortages and wartime deprivations had a negative effect on his physique. When he began to compete again, he became known as Il Vecchio (the old one), partly because he was now considerably older than the new crop of cyclists and partly because he looked some 10 years older than his actual age.
When he came to compete in the 1948 Tour de France, even his team-mates and coach were sceptical of his chances.
Always mercurial (Bartali at one point dismounted mid-race to punch a fan who was jeering him), he began to rail against those who doubted him.
“He was a very complex character. He was known for being very pious but he also had a tempestuous side. He was not afraid to unload, to speak his mind and when appropriate to hit people,” says Andres.
The old talent was still there, however. As the riders ascended into the Pyrenees through an unseasonal snowstorm, Bartali unleashed a surge of power which destroyed his French rivals. Much to the surprise of most pundits and the delight of fans back in Italy, he stretched his lead to emerge victorious against much younger riders, a full decade after his only other triumph — a record which stands to this day.
Now, 64 years after his famous win, Bartali is still recognised as a cycling great by the sport’s aficionados. However, the McConnons feel happy that by recognising his wartime contribution they have managed to publicise the story of a heroic campaign to save the Jews of Florence. Aili says: “Most people, even in Italy, don’t know much about how the Florence Jewish community experienced the war. We were very pleased to able to use Bartali’s life as a lens to focus on this story.”