“Good is something you do, not something you talk about. Some medals are pinned to your soul, not to your jacket.” Gino Bartali
Overview of historical events in the WWII history of Fascist Italy as related to this story:
Benito Mussolini was dictator of Italy from 1925 – 1943. He was known as “Il Duce” (translated “the Leader”).
In 1938 German dictator Adolph Hitler visited Mussolini in Italy. It was after this visit that Mussolini adopted anti-Jewish laws in Italy based upon Germany’s antisemitic and racist 1935 Nuremberg Laws which excluded Jews from many aspects of daily life.
Hitler and Mussolini signed a military and political alliance on May 22, 1939, called the “Pact of Steel” (known formally as the “Pact of Friendship and Alliance”).
On September 1, 1939, WWII began with the German invasion of Poland.
Italy would join the WWII Axis countries of Germany and Japan on June 10, 1940.
Following the Allied successful invasion of Sicily in July 1943, the King of Italy, Victor Emmanuel III, had Mussolini arrested on July 25, 1943, after the Grand Council of Fascism voted a motion of “no confidence” in him. Mussolini was replaced by Marshal Pietro Badoglio.
On September 8, 1943, at 5:30 p.m. General Dwight D. Eisenhower, Commander-in-Chief of the Allied Forces, from his location in Algiers, Algeria, announced a military armistice and termination of hostilities with Italy.
With the 1943 surrender of Italy, Hitler moved increasing numbers of German troops into Italy to seize control of the country and to fight the Allies. With German occupation of the country Italian and refugee Jews received increased scrutiny and were rounded up and deported to German labor or concentration camps for likely extermination.
Between 1939 and 1947 an organization the Delegation for the Assistance of Jewish Emigrants (DELASEM), composed of Italian and Jewish resistance groups, aided refugees and foreigners who were interned in Italy and provided support and avenues of emigration for them. Their headquarters were in Genoa, Italy. Main funding came through the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee and the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society as well as monetary collections within Italy. The organization was legal in Italy until the September 8, 1943, surrender to the Allies. Although illegal after that date, it continued to operate with the support of the Catholic Church. Between 1939 and 1943, DELASEM helped 9,000 Jewish refugees of which 5,000 were helped to leave Italy.
After Mussolini’s arrest he was confined to the island of Ponza, the largest island of the Italian Pontine Islands archipelago, in the Tyrrhenian Sea. He was moved to different locations the last of which was the Hotel Campo Imperatore located on a remote mountain plateau in northern Italy. On September 12, 1943, Hitler sent a special team of German paratroopers and Waffen-SS commandos to rescue Mussolini. The rescue was known as the Grand Sasso raid. With Hitler’s support Mussolini was set up in a puppet government, the Italian Social Republic, in Salò, Italy, which existed until the German surrender in May 1945. On April 28, 1945, Mussolini and his mistress were caught trying to escape capture by the Allies and were executed by Italian partisans in the Piazzale Loreto, Milan, Italy.
WWII in Europe ended on May 8, 1945.
Gino Bartali was an integral part of an Italian network in WWII that worked to save and protect Jews and war refugees. His story is representative of the many Italian citizens, resistance and partisan members, and Catholic clergy who risked their own lives in those very dangerous times.
Gino Bartali was born July 18, 1914, in Ponte a Ema, Florence, Italy. He got a job in a bicycle shop and started bicycle racing when he was 13 years old. After racing successfully as an amateur Gino turned professional at age 21 in 1935.
In 1936 and 1937 Gino won Italy’s top bicycle race the Giro d’ Italia (Tour of Italy). In 1938 he won his first Tour de France. He was under pressure to dedicate his victory in the Tour de France to Italy’s Fascist leader Benito Mussolini. When Gino refused, Mussolini forbad any celebration of his victory in Italy.
Italy joined the WWII Axis countries of Germany and Japan on June 10, 1940. On October 9, 1940, Gino was called to active military duty. Surprisingly, because of an irregular heartbeat which he knew about, the military doctor declared him unfit for duty as a regular soldier; Gino was assigned as an Italian Army messenger, and he rode a bicycle.
Gino Bartali married Adrianna Bani in Florence on November 14, 1940. Cardinal Elia Dalla Costa, the Archbishop of Florence, celebrated the wedding mass. Cardinal Dalla Costa was also an integral member of the network in WWII to save, protect, and hide Jews and other refugees from capture, possible execution, and deportation to a concentration camp such as Auschwitz where they would meet their death.
After the September 8, 1943, surrender of Italy to the Allies, Gino and thousands of other Italian men submitted paperwork and were discharged from the Italian Army.
The hope of returning to a prewar life in Italy was not to be for two primary reasons: (1) with the end of the country’s hostilities with the Allies, the German military increased its presence in Italy and took control of the areas previously controlled by Mussolini’s Fascist Army, and (2) after the American and British invaded Calabria and Salerno in southern Italy in September 1943, intense German resistance slowed and delayed the advance of the Allies northward.
In September 1943 Cardinal Elia Dalla Costa requested a meeting with Gino. He asked Gino to become part of an underground group known as the Assisi Network. The group protected and hid Italian and non-Italian Jews, refugees, and partisans trying to escape capture by the Germans.
What Gino provided the Assisi Network was a means to transport documents and photographs for false identity cards. False identity cards were necessary for those in hiding to move around within Italy.
On October 16, 1943, the Germans occupied Rome and began rounding up Jews.
Using his fame as a sports figure in Italy and Europe, Gino Bartali cycled around Italy on his bicycle with documents stuffed inside the frame and handlebars of his racing bicycle. He wore his racing jersey with his name on it. When he was recognized or questioned by those who saw him on the roads, Gino said he was “training” for races. Government officials had even given him a special permit for his movement through the Italian countryside.
Gino would leave his home in Florence and might be gone for days at a time while he “trained.” He sometimes cycled 250 miles a day and travelled as far as Genoa and Rome delivering needed documents for those in hiding.
In Tuscany alone there were 26 Catholic monasteries and convents, some of them cloistered, that sheltered Jews and refugees. The Assisi Network was only one of the networks in Italy providing protection. The networks tried to operate independently so as not to put each other in danger should they be discovered.
The Basilica of Saint Francis of Assisi in Italy’s Umbria region played a major role in the rescue effort. It provided a hiding place for more than 300 Jews. Father Rufino Niccacci, the Father Guardian of the Franciscan Monastery of San Damiano in Assisi, organized the effort to hide Jews fleeing from the Germans and to provide them with false identity cards.
Of importance in Assisi was a print shop next to the Basilica. Luigi Brizi and his son, Trento, printed false identification papers at great danger to themselves.
Some false identification papers intentionally used the real first letters of a person’s first and last name. The reason — if asked to write their name on a document at some point, it could protect and remind them of their false identity if they nervously and automatically started to write their true name.
But not all attempts to rescue Jews and other refugees ended well. On September 1, 1944, German troops of the 16th SS Panzergrenadier Division stormed into a Carthusian monastery, the Certosa di Farneta, in Tuscany. One hundred and fifty clergy and others were arrested. Forty-nine of the prisoners were killed by firing squad. The others were sent to labor camps. Six monks and six lay brothers were shot. Among those killed was Father Gabriele Maria Costa; he was a friend of Gino Bartali.
Gino Bartali’s fame was also used in different situations. Approximately half way between Florence and Rome is a town called Terontola. The town train station was important during WWII as it provided a railway connection between north and south Italy. It was heavily guarded by the Germans. It was also an important point where Jews and refugees traveling to the liberated south of Italy would change trains. Gino knew partisans in the area, and they developed a plan. Gino would go to the railway station and boldly make it known that a “great cycling champion” was there. He attracted crowds of people who wanted to see him and get his autograph. The commotion caught the attention of the German guards who left their posts to disperse the crowd. With the distraction in place, refugees were able to transfer trains without the Germans seeing them.
[After the long and hard fought battle at Monte Cassino (January 17 – May 18, 1944), the Americans moved north and liberated Rome on June 5, 1944. The celebration of the liberation of Rome was short lived in the press since the next day, June 6, the Allies landed at Normandy, France.]
After almost a year of his secret activities and with many bicycle races being cancelled, his excuse for “training” was questioned by some people. In July 1944 Gino was interrogated at Florence’s Villa Triste (“House of Sorrow”) where Fascist agents would question and torture their prisoners. A former Italian Army commander of Gino’s vouched for his innocence, and he was released.
[On August 11, 1944, the Allies liberated Florence and moved northward. The WWII Italian Campaign ended on May 2, 1945.]
Gino Bartali is recognized for saving about 800 Jews during WWII. Four of the Jews he saved were friends hidden in the cellar of his home.
After WWII Gino Bartali resumed bicycle racing. In 1948 he won the Tour de France for the second time.
Gino Bartali died on May 5, 2000, in Florence. He didn’t talk about his exploits in WWII until later in life when he began to slowly and quietly share his WWII experiences with his son, Andrea.
On July 7, 2013, Yad Vashem, The World Holocaust Remembrance Center, in Jerusalem, Israel, recognized Gino Bartali as one of the Righteous Among the Nations for his work to save Jews in WWII.
Gino Bartali remained humble about his WWII work with the Assisi Network. If he was called a hero, he would say, “Real heroes are … 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.”
Others mentioned in this story who received recognition as Righteous Among the Nations were Cardinal Elia Dalla Costa in 2012, Father Rufino Niccacci in 1974, and Luigi and Trento Brizi in 1997.
Excellent sources for more in-depth information about the life of Gino Bartali include the book Road to Valor by Aili and Andres McConnon and the documentary My Italian Secret: The Forgotten Heroes of the Holocaust. An informative book for younger readers is Bartali’s Bicycle by Megan Hoyt and Iacopo Bruno.