18 August 2012

Saving Italian Jews: Gino Bartali, hero of the Tour de France

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.

Bartali racing

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.


Andrew said...

I read about him in The Age. Long distance cycling was a very good cover. If the figure of 800 is on the mark, the remarkable hero deserves a very high honour indeed.

James Wei said...

Your article has added wisdom to my day.

It is incredible to see the true heroes who give and does not ask to be remembered. That is true giving.

I am a little surprised to see how he does the intense sport being a chain smoker? This is quite something to read.

Hels said...


My idea of exhausting sport is a vigorous game of billiards! *droop* *sweat*.

But Italians love their sporting heroes, especially their cycling champions. And Bartali got away with "suspicious" behaviour that noone else could have pulled off. It is great story.

Hels said...


If I had been stuck in Europe during the Holocaust, I would much rather have been in Italy than, say, Germany, Poland, Lithuania, Latvia etc etc. This is especially true since the Italians eventually ended the alliance with Germany.

However that made Bartali's feats no less heroic. His life was a blessing.

Dina said...

God bless him and you, too, for making known his story.

Student of History said...

I did your course on Heroes of World War Two. In miserable and dangerous times, these people restore a persons faith in humanity.

Jane and Lance Hattatt said...

Hello Hels:
We always find ourselves very moved to read accounts, such as this one, of the enormous courage and bravery of individuals such as Gino Bartali who risked so much in exceedingly dangerous times to help others.

And, as always, we are left with the troublesome question, What would we have done? Something which has exercised our minds greatly since our return from Kraków where, as we may have said, we could not face a visit to Auschwitz. Too terrible.

Hels said...


It is an amazing story, especially since Bartali came from fairly humble origins and was not well connected. But Road to Valour is a good book, and I believe more information will be found in diaries and letters...as they are located and published.

Hels said...


The course we did only lasted for one semester because there weren't so many true heroes to discuss. But occasionally another name of a truly moral inividual comes to light.

Even Oskar Schindler would not have been known, had the Australian novelist Thomas Kennearly not bumped into a survivor.

Hels said...

Jane and Lance

I agree totally. Here is a simple example WITHOUT risk to the individual. I saw two little boys on the 8th floor of a building last week, hanging on to an outside girder. I rang the police and I rang the building's management, but I couldn't get any of the other standers-by to get involved.

A young man might risk his own life, but by 1940 Bartali had parents, siblings, a wife etc. The Fascists would have executed all of them in a heartbeat.

Dr. F said...

In "Three Popes and the Jews" Pinchas Lapide, an Israeli diplomat and soldier who had served in a Jewish brigade that discovered many jews who had been sheltered from the Nazis in Italy, credited Pope Pius XII with being "instrumental in saving at least 700000, but probably as many as 860000 Jews from certain death at Nazi hands.

After the fall of Mussolini and the German takeover of Italy, the Pope's life as well as those who carried our his saving directives was always in danger.


Hels said...

thank you for that.

The Jewish population of Italy was c50,000 in 1933. And because Italian Fascism did not emphasise antisemitism until 1938, Jews didn't feel the need to leave Italy until the very last moment.

If Pope Pius was instrumental in saving 700,000-860,000 Jewish lives, they clearly must have come from countries other than Italy. The Holocaust Encyclopaedia says between 1941-3, thousands of Jews escaped from German-occupied territory to the Italian-occupied zones of France, Greece and Yugoslavia.

Pope Pius' rescue operation was indeed a heroic effort, and must have taken the quiet cooperation of thousands of caring priests and lay people.

the foto fanatic said...

Sportswriters are too keen to use the term hero - it is always inspiring to learn of real heroism.

It is also instructive to learn that Bartali wasn't a self-promoter like so many today.

An important story, this.

Hels said...

foto fanatic

agreed totally. "Hero" today means a bloke who gives up booze and sex before every game (for the good of the team) and who risks vigorous bumps from the opponents. Or who trains day and night, before each Olympic Games.

Gino Bartali was a great sporting legend, adored by every Italian in the universe, AND a true hero in the sense of moral behaviour above and beyond what a normal citizen would do.

Parnassus said...

So many people are reluctant to recount their wartime experiences, even when their actions are so much to their credit, as you demonstrate with Gino Bartali. Because of this reticence, it is vitally important to record and publicize these stories, while they are still in living memory, and while corroboration exists.

Hels said...


it is easier to thank and memorialise a hero when the rescued lives were adult, and in face to face contact with their rescuer. So Oskar Schindler's Jews knew and adored him, and financially supported him for the rest of his life.

But Irena Sendler saved hundreds and hundreds of children who would not have known how they survived the war. Ditto Gino Bartali .. his families were in hiding and would not have known who saved their lives.

There were probably many quiet heroes who we didn't find out about in the 1950s, and now there are no knowledgeable witnesses left. Now history will have to rely on previously unlocated diaries and letters.

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Hels said...

dia mirza

welcome aboard.

I am delighted to find a good story, buried in the detritus of 20th century history. And I am pleased when the story strikes a cord in other bloggers.

Emm said...

What an amazing story. I love that we find out about these people and their heroic acts. When I first began studying Rwanda, the common opinion was that there were no heroes but over time, I've come across more and more people who risked everything to help Tutsis.

Hels said...


people will take amazing, heroic risks, as long as they think they are acting in secrecy. I don't know much about Rwanda, but I bet even heroes were uncertain about the political situation and didn't trust anyone.

It is the historian's task to dig out these amazing stories.