A Cycling Legend’s Secret War Mission: Saving Italy’s Jews
Under the seat of the bikes he rode to two Tour de France titles, one humble superstar quietly carried the papers that spared hundreds from the Holocaust.
Italy and bicycles—the first thing they bring to mind is likely the neo-realist masterpiece The Bicycle Thieves, which will soon celebrate its 75th anniversary. But there’s another story that’s even more powerful and all the more remarkable for being true: the tale of Gino Bartali, Italy’s wartime cycling champ and—unbeknownst to all but a few—secret agent for the Italian Resistance who saved hundreds of Jews from the Holocaust.
Gino Bartali was born in 1914, the son of a laborer and an embroiderer, in Ponte a Ema, a village along the Arno River a few miles outside Florence. When he turned 11, Bartali had to commute to school and bought a used bicycle to make the trip. As he rode, he discovered an unusual talent for cycling: He regularly blew past other riders, despite his poor equipment. “At first, even I was astounded and embarrassed by this discovery,” Bartali wrote in his memoirs. When he took a part-time job as a bike mechanic in town, his ability was spotted by his boss, who convinced Bartali’s reluctant parents to let him pursue the sport competitively. By the time he was 17, he had won his first race; he turned pro at 21, catching a wave of intense interest in cycling among Italian sports fans who followed the champions and their lives in the greatest of detail. In 1936, Bartali won the Giro d’Italia—Italy’s version of the Tour de France—and became a national hero. Even the pope became a bartalini, as his fans were called.
His victory brought him to the attention of Benito Mussolini, who had made physical fitness and sports a centerpiece of his political program. “I don’t want a nation of mandolin players,” Il Duce famously quipped. “I want a population of fighters.” Italians had claimed the heavyweight boxing championship, the World Cup, and second place in the medal count at the Los Angeles Olympics. Now Mussolini wanted a victory in the Tour de France—to prove the racial superiority of the Italian people. Bartali would represent his nation at the 2,740-mile race across the Pyrenees and Alps in 1938. In an epic performance in which he displayed what he viewed as critical to a cyclist’s success—a profound “capacity for suffering”; at one point he began coughing up blood—Bartali wore the race-leader yellow jersey through the streets of Paris to victory at the Parc des Princes velodrome.
With the win, Bartali became the most celebrated athlete in Europe. The international press swarmed him. Triumphant Italians were expected to dedicate their victory to Il Duce, as boxer Primo Carnera had done. But Bartali was a devout Catholic—and the church was the only force strong enough to counter the Fascists, who were militantly anti-religious. Bartali was an active member of Catholic Action, an association of laypeople with such powerful support that Mussolini, who had shut down the YMCA and the Boy Scouts, could never seriously attack it.
Bartali refused to be used for Fascist propaganda, and so thanked only his fans for their support and then laid his victory wreath before a Madonna at the Notre-Dame-des-Victoires. The snub to Mussolini did not go unnoticed. Plans for him to present Bartali with a medal were canceled, and newspapers were instructed to ignore his homecoming. One French journalist was stunned: “Not a cat at the train station. No organized reception. Nothing. I don’t understand.” And the risk of isolation and ostracism was not the only one Bartali faced for his bravery. The only other Italian to win the Tour, Ottavio Bottecchia, had also spoken out against the regime. He had died nine years earlier under mysterious circumstances during a training run.
The year 1938 was also a dark turning point for the Jews of Italy. Their community in Rome was the oldest in the world and Jews had been well-integrated into Italian society for centuries. But seeking to move closer to Nazi Germany, Mussolini played host to Hitler and enacted anti-Semitic laws, banning Jews from certain professions, from schools, and depriving them of key rights, such as the right to own property. Foreign-born Jews were stripped of their citizenship and placed in internment camps.
Although most Italian Jews were physically unharmed, the persecution continued until the Allied invasion of Italy in the summer of 1943 toppled Mussolini and an armistice was declared. Within days, however, German forces occupied the north of the country and reinstated Il Duce, dividing Italy in two as fierce fighting continued. The threat became dire as the Nazis took immediate action more deadly than the legalization of discrimination under Mussolini. The Germans and their Fascist allies began arresting Jews and sending them east to death camps. On Oct. 16, 1943, even the Jews of Rome were rounded up.
This black event pushed another prominent anti-Fascist into action. The cardinal of Florence, Elia Angelo della Costa—who had pointedly refused to participate in festivities held for Hitler’s visit—summoned Bartali to the city’s storied Duomo. Della Costa, in collaboration with a local rabbi and the underground Jewish Desalem agency, was developing a network of hiding places in convents, monasteries, and other church properties, including the basilica of St. Francis at Assisi, where the bishop protected some 300 Jews seeking to escape the Nazis. The 71-year-old cardinal was a spiritual mentor of Bartali’s and had presided over his wedding and baptized his son. Now he had a special mission for him.
When Italy had declared war on France and Britain three years earlier, Bartali had been drafted but spared front-line duty due to an irregular heartbeat. Instead, he was assigned to be a messenger for the army, a stroke of luck that allowed him to continue to use his bicycle and to race. Della Costa’s clandestine network was working to help Jews escape to safety in the south or into neutral countries. Crucial to its success was the ability to get forged identity papers and other false documents to the terrified refugees in hiding. As one of the only men in Italy with a legitimate excuse to bike long distances and official permission to do so, Bartali would—Della Costa said—be the perfect courier. The cyclist accepted the assignment.
Clad in his national racing uniform, Bartali hid forged visas underneath his seat in his bicycle frame, often unbeknownst to his training partners. He rode thousands of miles from Rome to Venice to Genoa, delivering his lifesaving contraband, often without meeting its ultimate recipient. On his rides, Bartali was also able to obtain forward intelligence and coordinate with smugglers working to move Jews across the border. At police checkpoints, the conversation inevitably turned to cycling and Bartali would ask the guards not to touch his bike, explaining that all the parts had been adjusted precisely to maximize his speed. Had his cargo been discovered, Bartali could have been executed on the spot.
In an even more dramatic ploy, Bartali would sometimes arrive in his national racing colors at the train station at Terantola, a major transit point. Without fail, a large crowd of admirers would notice the champion and surround him, distracting the police, who headed into the mix to maintain order. In a well-coordinated action, underground partisans would simultaneously move Jews to a different train with lightning speed, sending them south to freedom instead of north to concentration camps. And Bartali not only delivered documents and created diversions. He once personally brought a group of refugees to safety in the Swiss Alps by concealing them in a wagon behind his bicycle–under the pretense that it was an endurance-training technique.
Bartali also did his part in hiding his Jewish neighbors. When he was a young mechanic in Florence, he had met a a Jewish lumber importer from Moldova named Giacomo Goldenberg, who was a friend of his cousin. After the passage of the anti-Jewish laws, Goldenberg had quietly lived with his family in a villa in the hills above Florence. The cousin had visited him often and Bartali had on one occasion even brought Goldenberg’s son Giorgio a blue bicycle. Following the Nazi occupation, Bartali hid Goldenberg and his family in an apartment he owned in the city, soon moving them to a hidden basement where they sheltered until the liberation the next year. “He not only saved our lives but he saved the lives of hundreds of people,” recalled Giorgio Goldenberg. “He put his own life and his family’s in danger in order to do so.”
By 1944, with the Second World War raging, sporting events were largely canceled, and Bartali’s cover began to look suspicious. He was hauled in for interrogation at the infamous Villa Triste—the “House of Sorrow”— in Florence where Major Mario Carita, sadistic head of Mussolini’s feared Department of Special Services, tortured prisoners and extracted confessions to real or imagined crimes (often with Neopolitan music playing on a piano). Carita was convinced Bartali was helping the Vatican in anti-Fascist activities despite his denials. By coincidence, one his questioners, Olesindo Salmi, had been his commanding officer during Bartali’s wartime service. Salmi was the cycling fan who had allowed Bartali to ride a bicycle instead of a scooter to stay in condition. Now, the interrogator vouched for the prisoner: “He doesn’t lie,” Salmi declared. Carita let Bartali go without further investigation.
After the war, an exhausted Bartali returned to competition. The “Iron Man of Tuscany” went on to win the Tour de France again in 1948, becoming the oldest man to do so—dramatically surging ahead of the pack at the Catholic pilgrimage town of Lourdes. His victory, occurring during a period of dangerous civil strife in post-war Italy, united Italians and helped diffuse somewhat a political powder keg.
Bartali rarely talked about his work during the war, sharing stories with his son Andrea—but swearing him to secrecy. On occasion, he would visit paintings by Giotto at a monastery at Assisi, one of the focal points of the Underground, for a quiet moment of reflection. “Do good, but don’t talk about it,” he told his son. “I don’t want to talk about it, or act like a hero. Heroes are those who died, who were injured, who spent many months in prison.” When Bartali died, his obituary mentioned the unifying effect of his Tour de France victory in 1948 and in passing his work with the partisans. It made no mention of his aid to his Jewish countrymen. His headstone does not even mention his athletic achievements. “He was very modest about it,” noted another friend. “He held a profound sense that so many had suffered in much greater capacity than he had. He didn’t want to be in the spotlight or diminish the contributions of others.”
It is estimated that Bartali was responsible for saving 800 people and that the network he was a part of rescued 9,000. In 2013, 14 years after his passing, Bartali was given the honor of being named Righteous Among the Nations by Yad Vashem, the Holocaust memorial in Israel. His son spoke at the ceremony. “I want to be remembered for my sporting achievements,” Andrea Bartali recalled his father telling him. “Real heroes are others, those who have suffered in their soul, in their heart, in their spirit, in their mind, for their loved ones. Those are the real heroes. I’m just a cyclist.”
This May, for the first time, the Giro d’Italia will start outside of Europe. The race will begin in Jerusalem and the first three stages will be held throughout Israel before moving on to Italy. Bartali, no doubt, would have been proud that a race that defined his life and gave him the opportunity to save so many would bring its message of peace to the Holy Land that united him and those he rescued.
At a time when so many in the world are turning on each other in anger, Bartali’s actions deserve to be recognized. “Good is something you do, not something you talk about,” he said. “Some medals are pinned to your soul, not to your jacket.”