Shoah: how Bartali helped the escaping Jews

New biography documents heroism shown by 'Ginettaccio'

12 June, 16:57

(ANSAmed) - TEL AVIV, JUNE 12 - For Italians, the image of Gino Bartali is that of the cyclist caught in the act of passing (or receiving, who knows) a water flask to his eternal rival, Fausto Coppi. But that hand, and those legs, are probably owed much more: the help of a ''righteous man'' towards hundreds of Jews during the dark years of Nazi persecution.

New information documents the undercover activities conducted during the Second World War by Bartali in order to save the lives of numerous Jews in Italy and which are now contained in a new biography (''Road to Valour'', Crown, 318 pages) published in these days in the USA by journalist Aili McConnon and historical researcher Andres McConnon. The book, the first of its kind in English dedicated to the champ from Ponte a Ema (Florence) - offers a view on Bartali's troubled life from the early days of his sporting glory, a period in which the passion for cycling was rapidly becoming a mass phenomenon. But the other side of fame gained by the amazing victories (as in the case of the Tour de France in 1938) was represented by the attempt of the fascist regime to use these as propaganda, while the infamous racial laws loomed over Italy.

The McConnons point out that in Paris, at the end of the Tour, Bartali intentionally abstained from paying homage to the Duce, Benito Mussolini. One of his agents reported his disappointment in a secret note saying that the champion had only just ''muttered'' something. And on his return to Florence, the regime as a reprisal made sure that ''absolutely nobody was waiting for his arrival at the station.'' Influenced by the principles of justice taught to him by his father, Torello Bartali, ''Ginettaccio'' also got his inspiration from the human teachings of cardinal-archbishop Elia Dalla Costa, who had himself refused a few months before to participate in the welcoming ceremonies in Florence organized in honour of Adolf Hitler. It was the cardinal himself, the McConnons write, to convince Bartali in the autumn of 1943, to enter an undercover network organized between Tuscany and Umbria to save the Jews from persection. Unfortunately, the authors point out how Bartali never left a first-hand account of that decisive encounter which in the meantime has been reconstructed thanks to the memoirs of other witnesses other than Bartali's own family.

One of the main accounts is the detailed story told by Giorgio Goldenberg (today an ageing Jew resident in Israel) of how his parents hid along with him and his sister for a long period in a basement made available by Bartali and his cousin Armando Sizzi, under a courtyard in Via del Bandino in Florence.

On the basis of stories by witnesses and survivors, the McConnons confirm that Bartali often went back and forth between Assisi, hiding in his bike false documents which were to save the lives of the persecuted. According to their calculations, that undercover network helped to save at least 330 Jews in Tuscany and a further 300 in Umbria. Others claim the overall numbers to be around 800.

This undercover activity conducted on the razor's edge also brought him face to face in July 1944 with well-known Major Mario Carita', who according to the American biographers ''was trying to be the Italian equivalent of Heinrich Himmler'', head of Gestapo. The McConnons presume that Bartali feared the real nature of his cycling to Assisi or the assistance given to the Goldenbergs might indeed be uncovered. He managed to save himself by the skin of his teeth. ''The road towards valour is made out of many adversities'', the authors conclude at the end of this enticing account.

It is a biography from which Bartali often emerges as a nearly legendary character: not only because of his incredible sporting qualities, but even more because of his efforts with a silent heroism in defence of universal human values. (ANSAmed).

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