The students had been very interested in a lecture series I gave called Heroes of World War Two. My subjects were amazing people who risked their own life and the lives of their family, in order to save Jews from certain death at the hands of the Nazis and their collaborators in World War Two. All the best known heroes were included – Irena Sendler, Nicholas Winton, Varian Fry, Oskar Schindler and others.
This year a book has been published that combined a quiet hero of World War Two and the current passion for events Olympian and sporty. One of my students read the book Road To Valour by Aili and Andres McConnon and thought I would be very interested. I was.
The publishers of the book (Crown 2012) wrote that Gino Bartali (1914-2000) was best known as an Italian cycling legend: the man who not only won the Tour de France twice, but also held the record for the longest time span between victories. During the ten years that separated his hard-won triumphs, his actions on and off the racecourse ensured him a permanent place in Italian hearts and minds.
The McConnons started with Bartali’s journey, from his religious and impoverished boyhood in rural Tuscany to the age of 24, when he stunned the sporting world by winning the Tour de France. Mussolini’s Fascists tried to hijack his victory for propaganda purposes, derailing Bartali’s career. And as the Nazis occupied Italy, Bartali undertook secret and dangerous activities to help those Jews being targeted. He personally sheltered a family of Jews in an apartment he financed with his cycling winnings, and was able to smuggle fake identity documents hidden in his bicycle past Fascist and Nazi checkpoints because the soldiers recognised him as a national sporting hero.
After the gruelling war years, Bartali fought to rebuild his career as Italy emerged from the rubble. In 1948, despite numerous setbacks and a legendary snowstorm in the Alps, the chain-smoking, Chianti-loving, 34-year-old underdog came back and again won the most difficult endurance competition on earth, The Tour de France. [He was a great climber who also won the the Giro d’Italia three times, the Milan-San Remo four times, the Tour of Lombardy three times and the Championship of Zurich twice].
Bartali’s inspiring performance helped unite his fractured homeland and restored pride and spirit to a country still reeling from war and despair. Road to Valour is an epic tale of courage, come-back and redemption, the untold story of one of the greatest athletes of the C20th. Bartali retired in 1954 at age 40.
But since I was more interested in an ordinary man risking his life to save Italian-Jewish citizens than I was in his winning riding events, I was delighted to see that Martin Daly (in the Sydney Morning Herald and Age discussed Bartali’s dreadful war time secret in detail.
Bartali would probably have been executed, had Italy’s own Fascists or their Nazi allies discovered his activities. He used his bike to smuggle forged documents to enable Jews, hidden in monasteries, covents, homes and farms, to escape capture. The network was set up by the Archbishop of Florence who recruited a team of volunteers to forge and smuggle documents, and to find hiding places for the Jews. Bartali met priests who had contacts with smugglers willing to take the Jews into Allied territory, and he negotiated fees to guarantee a safe escape for them.
Did the Italian and Nazi Fascists not know what he was doing? As far as the soldiers who guarded the road between Tuscany & Umbria were concerned, Bartali was just going on LONG training runs. That valuable documents were hidden inside the frame and saddle of his bicycle was never revealed at the time.
Presumably we know about the other Heroes of World War Two because they either actively tolerated publicity or shyly allowed their stories to be published, years after the war ended. But Bartali almost never spoke about his acts of bravery, even when he was a very old man. He died in 2000, aged 86. Hopefully he will be included in the Righteous Among the Nations Jerusalem, as soon as the eye witness reports are completed. The evidence so far suggests that he personally saved some 800 lives.