Gino Bartali was one of the most beloved of Italian cyclists. He won the Tour de France in 1938 and 1948. His cycling achievements on the Alps and Pyrenees were legendary and earned him the nickname of “Giant of the Mountains.” Yet until recently, few knew that he risked his own life and his family's lives by helping to save hundreds of Jews during World War II.
With his cycling career as a cover, Bartali cycled perhaps thousands of kilometers between cities as far apart as Florence, Lucca, Genoa, Assisi, and the Vatican in Rome. Hidden in the frame of his bike were falsified identity cards and other secret documents.
His efforts helped save hundreds of Jews seeking refuge from other European countries
In 2013, Yad Vashem recognized Gino Bartali as Righteous Among the Nations for his rescue activities.
Gino Bartali was born on July 18, 1914, in Ponte a Ema, a small village south of Florence, Italy. His father, Torello, was a day laborer. His mother helped support the family by working in the fields and embroidering lace. Gino had two older sisters, Anita and Natalina, and a younger brother, Giulio, who shared his passion for cycling and racing. Gino began to work at a young age, laboring on a farm and helping his mother with embroidery work.
At the age of 11, in order to attend middle school in Florence, Gino needed transportation. With his own earnings and with help from his father and sisters, he purchased his first bicycle. While riding the hilly roads of the region, Bartali started to develop and refine his racing skills. In 1931, at the age of 17, he won his first race.
Bartali became a professional racer in 1935. He won his first Giro d'Italia the next year, in 1936. The Italian Cycling Federation then compelled him to compete in the Tour de France in order to increase Italy's cycling reputation abroad. Italian Fascist leader Benito Mussolini had risen to power in 1922 and had taken control of public and private institutions. Italian Fascists hoped that a victory in the Tour de France would demonstrate the superiority of the Fascism and the “Italian race.”
Bartali did, in fact, win the Tour de France in 1938. However, Bartali had no sympathies for the regime. He never dedicated his win to Italian Fascist leader Benito Mussolini, as tradition dictated. Consequently, he received no honors upon his return to Italy.
1938 also brought a dramatic change for Italian Jews as the Fascist Grand Council approved anti-Jewish measures based on Germany's Nuremberg Laws. These laws excluded Jews from most aspects of Italian life and would facilitate future deportations. They also marked the tightening of the alliance with Hitler's Germany.
On June 10, 1940, Italy declared war on France and Great Britain. In October, Bartali was called to active duty. Because of an irregular heartbeat, he was assigned to be an army messenger. Allowed to use his bicycle for his missions, Bartali was able to continue training and racing for the next three years.
During the German occupation
The summer of 1943 was a pivotal moment for Italy. Mussolini was overthrown in July. In September, the new government signed an armistice with the Allies. Germany invaded the northern regions of the country, including Tuscany. With the German occupation, conditions for the Jewish population grew much worse.
Also in September 1943, Italian Cardinal Elia Dalla Costa asked to meet Bartali. Dalla Costa had been secretly aiding thousands of Jews seeking refuge from other European countries. The fugitives needed falsified identity cards. Dalla Costa shared his plan with Bartali. Under the cover of his long training rides, Bartali could carry counterfeit documents and photos in the hollow frame of his bike. The plan was a nearly perfect one as Bartali knew those roads well and his need to train provided an ideal alibi.
Despite the risks, Bartali accepted. For the following year, he rode while hiding the vital materials in the frame of his bicycle. Sometimes Bartali was accompanied by his training companions, who were unaware of his activities. When stopped at checkpoints, Bartali engaged the guards in conversation about cycling. He asked guards not to touch his bicycle, telling them that all the parts were adjusted in a special way to suit his racing style.
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.
As the war progressed and cycling races were cancelled, Bartali's cover began to appear less credible. In July 1944, Bartali was interrogated at Villa Triste (Sorrow House) in Florence, where local Fascist officials imprisoned and tortured their prisoners. Fortunately, one of Bartali's interrogators happened to be his one-time army commander, who convinced the other interrogators that Bartali was innocent of any charges.
Liberation and after
Florence was liberated on August 11, 1944. Drained by the events of the war and by his underground activities, Bartali had to struggle to regain his mastery of cycling. He went on to win the Giro d'Italia in 1946. With a stunning performance in the mountains of France, he won the 1948 Tour de France (10 years after his first Tour de France victory).
Righteous among the Nations
For many years after the war, Bartali did not speak about his role in saving hundreds of people, sharing just a few details with his son Andrea. It was only after his death that Bartali's rescue activities came to light. In 2013, Yad Vashem recognized Gino Bartali with the honor of Righteous Among the Nations.