The cycling hero who saved Italian Jews from the Holocaust

Tour de France champion Gino Bartali's secret missions have now been set to music in London's West End


In the 1940s, the cyclist Gino Bartali was probably the second most famous person in Italy. The most famous was, of course, the country’s fascist leader, Benito Mussolini.

Ethically, the two men could not have been more different.

While Mussolini passed anti-Jewish racial laws that, following the Nazi occupation of Rome, Naples and northern Italy in 1943, led to Jews being sent to the death camps, Bartali cycled thousands of miles across Italy to save his fellow countrymen.

For two years, the twice Tour de France and three times Giro d’Italia winner rode back and forth across the golden hills of Tuscany with counterfeit identity documents stashed inside the frame of his bicycle, delivering them to Jews hiding in churches, convents and orphanages so they could escape Il Duce’s Italy.

“His cycling career was the perfect cover,” says playwright and composer Victoria Buchholz, whose musical Glory Ride about Bartali’s wartime heroism, co-written with her father, the novelist Todd Buchholz, has just opened in London’s West End.

“Every morning he’d leave his house in Florence in biking shorts and a top with his name emblazoned on the back, dressed on the face of it for the training rides for which he was so famous.

"Because of who he was, Bartali was essentially above suspicion, and so rarely stopped on his cycling trips. On the occasions when he was searched by Mussolini’s henchmen, he’d ask that his bike not be touched, saying its various parts were carefully calibrated to achieve maximum speed,” she says.

She first learned about the secret life of one of Europe’s most famous athletes while travelling in Tuscany in 2013, the same year Bartali was recognised by Yad Vashem as Righteous Among the Nations.

“Victoria rang me from a train and shouted ‘Pater!’ — it’s what she calls me instead of Dad — ‘I’ve found it!’ My first reaction was, wait, what? Did she lose her passport, her luggage?” says Todd.

His excited daughter quickly filled him in. She had found the perfect story for the musical they had been planning to write together. The next day they began researching Bartali’s life and on the flight back to New York’s JFK airport, Victoria started composing the score. In January 2015, the show had its first reading in New York.

Neither Todd nor his daughter are Jewish and it’s fair to say their involvement in Jewish affairs has until now been limited. For Todd — the author of eight books, who has also served as an economic adviser to the White House — it boils down to some advice he once gave to the former Israeli prime minister and president Shimon Peres.

“After the White House, I worked at a consultancy firm where my partner was a close adviser to Peres.

"He was due to give a speech in America in which he criticised fundamentalist Islam. I told my partner he should remove the word ‘fundamentalist’ — America’s fundamentalist Christians, so loyal and important to Israel, might have interpreted the word as an attack on them. It’s advice I’m very glad to have given.”

For her part, Victoria, whose play Lockdown has been performed at theatres in California and New York, says the Jewish history of Broadway has been a big influence in her life, as have the Jews she met while studying at Cambridge and at Stanford Law School.

In addition to several Jewish children, one of the main characters in their show, Giorgio Nissim, is also Jewish. He was the brains behind the secret printing press that produced counterfeit passports pedalled to safety by Bartali.

“I don’t want to say too much about him before JC readers have seen the show, but I will say it felt important to write lines and compose songs for a Jewish character who was able to save his fellow Jews during those darkest of times,” says Victoria.

Gino the Pious, as he has become known, insisted that his work saving Jews remain a secret. In fact, it was only in 2000, when Bartali died, that his heroism came to light.

It was revealed by Giorgio Goldenberg, who Bartali had hid as a boy with his parents and sister, in the basement of an apartment he owned in Florence. In so doing, the cyclist risked not only his life, but his whole family’s.

“Bartali was a devout Catholic who felt that by saving other souls, he could save his own,” says Todd.

“Cycling to save others was his road to redemption.

“He was loyal to the church.”

And bravely disloyal to Mussolini. The fascist leader saw athletics as part of his racial project, saying he wanted to turn Italy from a nation of mandolin players into one of warriors.

But when Bartali won the Tour de France in 1938, he did not, as was expected, dedicate his win to Il Duce. Instead, he went to church the following day and laid his victory wreath at the feet of the Madonna.


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