(Photo Mauro Berti)
Bartali was the most renowned – and most beloved – Italian cyclist prior to World War II, having won the Giro d’Italia in both 1936 and 1937, followed by the Tour de France in 1938. Post war-years, Bartali won the Tour de France in 1946 and the Giro d’Iialia again in 1948. Affectionately called “Ginettaccio,” he was known as “The Mountain Giant” for his extraordinary and legendary cycling conquests on the Alps and Pyrenees.
His greatest conquest? Not first place in a cycle race but his successful efforts to assist the Bishop of Florence in saving hundreds of Jews – about 800 – during World War II – at risk of his own life and the lives of all his family.
Using his cycling training as his cover, he cycled thousands of kilometers all over central Italy, transporting messages, false ID cards, and various other documents he’d hidden into the frame of his bicycle. On some runs, Bartali was accompanied by his training companions, each one blithely unaware of Bartali’s activities. Bartali cycled perhaps thousands of kilometers, his designated routes taking in Florence, Lucca, Genoa, Assisi, and the Vatican in Rome.
He always wore his racing jersey emblazoned with his name.
His fame as a cyclist assisted him in rescuing Jewish refugees. For example, pretending to be in training, he he’d Florence early in the morning and cycle to Assisi to collect documents or photographs of the hidden refugees (needed for ID’s) and then ride back to Tuscany.
At checkpoint stops, Bartali chatted amiably with the guards about cycling. He asked that his bike not be touched as the different parts were very carefully calibrated to achieve maximum speeed
One time on a trek to Genoa, a German platoon stopped him – but to ask his autograph. A Wehrmacht official then decided best to check his bike but Bartali begged, “Please don’t take it apart! It’s all set up for my next race – and I have to train for the Giro d’Italia.” So they let him go – and certainly, neither the Fascist police nor the German military wished to risk discontent by arresting the famous cyclist.
By coincidence, shortly after he started his underground activity, Bartali was asked to hide a Jewish family whom he knew well. Giorgio Goldenberg, his wife, and their son hid in Bartali’s cellar until Florence was liberated.
On that same May, 2018 day that the cyclists in the Giro d’Italia were in Assisi in honor of their grandfather, Gino, Gioia and Stella Bartali, too, were in Assisi. And in honor of their grandfather. Joining them was the Ambassador of Israel as that same year, Bartali had been declared honorary citizen of Israel.
Mario Vegni, President of the Giro d’Italia, flanked the Bartali sisters for this photo in the Cappellina (“Little Chapel”) dedicated to St. Therese Lisieux which is now in Assisi’s Museo della Memoria:
Gioia and Stella had decided to donate this chapel of Gino Bartali to Assisi’s Museo della Memoria, that tells the story of 300 Jewish refugees rescued thanks to the efforts of Franciscan religious communities, the Bishop, priests, two printers…and Gino Bartali.
Gioia said, “My sister and I decided that the Cappellina (‘small chapel’) of our grandfather – given to our father, Andrea – should be conserved in a special place such as Assisi where, in the Museo della Memoria, Assisi, 1943- 1944, we remember the important operation for the salvation of the Jews during the years of racial persecution…(in) which my grandfather had participated.”
Mass was celebrated in the small chapel – and Mass had last been celebrated in that chapel on May 5, 2000 the day of the death of Gino Bartali. Very devout, Bartali had become a Third Order Carmelite…
…and in 1937, had wanted this chapel – dedicated to St. Therese Lisieux (Carmelite) – made in memory of his younger brother, Giulio, who had died the previous year in an accident. The Bishop of Florence (later to become Cardinal), Elia Della Costa, had consecrated it. (He, too, had been very involved in the salvation of Jewish refugees in Florence and in Assisi and had requested assistance from Bartali in the transportation of documents and other missives).
Just a few days after the 20th anniversary of Bartali’s death, Gioia Bartali – in Assisi, where her grandfather had often come by bicycle to deliver messages – said, “Twenty years have passed since his death but it is marvelous to think that our grandfather is still remembered with such great participation and affection. A great cyclist, but above all, a great man, testimony of faith and humility.”
One of Bartali’s phrases is famous: “Il bene si fa ma non si dice – certe medaglie si appendono all’anima non alla giacca.” (“One does good but does not talk about it. – some medals are hung on the soul, not on the jacket”).
Gioia was with her father, Andrea, Gino’s son, in October, 2013 when Bartali was recognized at Yad Veshemi in Israel as a Righteous Among Nations. Standing under his son’s name, Andrea quoted his father, Gino, henceforth to be remembered as Giusto tra le nazioni:
“I am a cyclist, a lover of sports. The others are heroes, those who have suffered…I only made available the skills that I have…I don’t wish to be a hero. Why? For riding a bike? Riding a bike was my job. I put my job at the service of others in need…”
Here’s a photo of young Andrea with his father, Gino:
In a long telephone conversation recently, Gioia Bartali – Andrea’s daughter – shared her memories of her grandfather with me. One of her memories struck me in particular. She had been riding in the car with her grandfather one day, chatting idly about this and that. Bartali said suddenly to her: “You know, people will talk much more about me after I am gone.”
I asked Gioia what she thought he meant. She replied, “I think that he was suddenly fully conscious of all that he had done, all that he had accomplished.”
Read about Don Aldo Brunacci of Assisi, another Righteous Gentile
Read about the thanks to Assisi of San Francisco’s Jewish community at the time of the 1997
Click here to see the video of Don Aldo’s testimony
Read about Graziella Viterbi, hidden in Assisi 1943- 1944 and the Museo della Memoria
Read about events for the Day of Memory in Assisi
Read about events for Assisi students for the Day of Memory
Click here to read about Assisi’ Righteous Gentiles
Read about the Poor Clares’ ties to the Jewish refugees hidden in Assisi
Read about the Brizi printers who falsified documents to hide the Jewish refugees
Read more here about the Brizi printing press – and a related Assisi commemoration event
Click here to read about a northern Italy Jewish family hidden in Assisi
Read about Yad Vashem and the Righteous Among the Nations
Read about Bishop Placido Nicolini who directed the successful sheltering of 300 Jewish refugees
Read about the cloistered Poor Clares who gave shelter to the Jewish refugees
Read about the Assisi Good Friday procession – with stops at a convent where refugees were hidden
Visit Assisi’s Museo della Memoria
Read about Colonel Valentin Muller, German commander in Assisi – and protector of the town