In the worst years of the Second World War, it was not uncommon to see the great Gino Bartali cycling the roads between Florence and Assisi on a training run.
The Italian was one of the most recognized sports figures in the country and throughout Europe. He won the Tour de France in 1938 and became a sporting hero to millions in Europe and North America.
To the Fascist government that had ruled in Italy since the early 1920s, he was a slightly less appealing figure. When he won the Tour he refused to acknowledge dictator Benito Mussolini in his victory speech. He was also a devout Roman Catholic, something the Fascists detested.
Three years after the war ended, Bartali entered the 1948 tour and did what was considered impossible – winning a second time after a 10-year gap and emerging at age 34 as one of the oldest men to come in first at one of the world’s most storied sporting events.
. . . What the siblings [cycling fans Aili and Andres McConnon] discovered was a grassroots web of men and women who risked their lives – and those of their families and friends – to help those whose only crime was to be born Jewish.
The group included Cardinal Elia Angelo Dalla Costa of Florence, who was known as an anti-Fascist, the head of a monastery in Assisi and an atheist printer also in the hometown of St. Francis.
Bartali was the key. On those long training rides, he stuffed photos and materials that would be used to forge documents into the metal tubing of his bike frame. In the paranoid world of Nazi-occupied Italy, frequent travel could be looked at as suspicious – unless you were the great Bartali.
“When the Nazis occupied Italy in 1943, they worked together with the Italian Fascists and they were ferocious in their search for Jews,” said Ms. McConnon.
“If you helped the Jews [in any way], you were helping an enemy of the state so you were a traitor. You could face torture, imprisonment and execution. And you risked the life of your family. Bartali had a wife and young son.”
. . . The McConnons found Bartali himself worked to ensure little was known about his exploits. In 1978, he threatened to sue a Italian television channel that was planning to run a documentary about his wartime activities.
“I don’t want to appear to be a hero,” he reportedly said. “Heroes are those who died, who were injured, who spent many months in prison.”
Bartali died at the age of 85 in May 2000.
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