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  • Heart of a Champion

    By Anthony Parente

    You must do good, but you must not talk about it. If you talk about it, you're taking advantage of others' misfortunes for your own gain. Do good, but don't talk about it. - Gino Bartali
    During Italy's darkest time a glimmer of hope came in the form of cycling champion Gino Bartali. Born in Florence on July 18, 1914 Gino grew up to become one of cycling's greatest athletes. At the young age of 13 he started to work in a bicycle shop and took up racing on the amateur level until he turned pro in 1935 at the age of 21. Just one year later in 1936, Gino won the Giro d'Italia (Italy's top cycling race). He repeated his victory in 1937 despite almost quitting due to his brother getting killed in a racing accident that same year.

    Following his success at the Giro d'Italia "Bartali received a telegram from the Fascist Party Secretary ordering him to leave at once for Paris. Mussolini wanted to show the world that Italians also belonged to the master race and a win by Bartali in the 1938 Tour de France would prove that to the world. Bartali did not disappoint and won the Tour de France prompting the Fascist party to call him their Aryan Champion. Bartali rejected the party's patronage insulting 'Il Duce'."1 During the same time Gino was winning the Tour de France Italy announced that Jews had no place in Italy. When Gino returned to Italy he like many Italians faced a moral decision. It was a decision that would have grave consequences if you went against the decree and harbored Jews.

    Gino Bartali
    As Germany was occupying parts of central and northern Italy they started to round up all Jews and sent them to concentration camps. Gino was approached by the Cardinal of Florence, who also married Gino's parents, and asked him to join a secret network that was helping Jews from being detained and sent to camps. Gino did not hesitate for a moment knowing that if he was caught he would be killed. The Jewish-Christian rescue network was put in place to hide Jews in convents, monasteries and homes of Italians who secretly were against the Nazi ideology. Bartali's role was that of a courier, which was suited for him because he could travel the countryside under the guise that he is training. With his popularity and prestige no one would question him. He would hide forged identity documents and photographs in the frame and handlebars of his bicycle taking the documents to clandestine locations so that Jews in hiding could escape being captured. His journey would take him through the cities of Florence, Assisi, Genoa, Lucca and Rome travelling thousands of kilometers. The people he helped escape never knew who the brave individual was and that is just how Bartali wanted it. His heroic efforts being a courier for the resistance was not his only role in saving Jews from persecution. At the risk again of his safety and that of his family Gino hid the family of his friend in the basement of his home. Keeping them safe until the liberation of Florence in 1944.

    World War II took its toll on Gino and it prevented him from racing during the prime of his career. Gino continued to compete and against all odds came from behind to claim his second Tour de France title in 1948. After winning the first stage Bartali found himself in trouble as he fell behind by over nine minutes. Bartali contemplated withdrawing from the race, but a phone call from the prime minister of Italy helped him regain his focus and he came back to win the tour by over 26 minutes making it the longest gap between victories. Once again his win meant more to a struggling country and helped unite Italy that was facing a period of unrest and close to a civil war. Gino finished his career winning five Grand Tour titles including the Tour de France twice (1938 & 1948) and the Giro d'Italia three times (1936, 1937 & 1946). He was the first rider to win the Tour de France overall title and mountains jersey in one year, 1938.

    Gino was a hero not just for what he accomplished in the sport of cycling, but also for his courage to help strangers at the risk of losing his own life. Gino was a humble man and never wanted any recognition for what he had done. Little by little he would tell his son Andrea what he had done, but made him promise to not tell anyone. Andrea would ask him why he could not tell his story and Gino would simply say: "You must do good, but you must not talk about it. If you talk about it you're taking advantage of others misfortunes' for your own gain." As people called him a hero for his actions Gino responded in a typical Bartali fashion: "No, no - I want to be remembered for my sporting achievements. Real heroes are others, 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." After his death in 2000 his story of his wartime activities were finally told and in 2013 Gino was posthumously awarded the title Righteous Among the Nations by Yad Vashem. This award is given to non-Jews who risked their lives to save Jews from persecution during the Holocaust.

    1 My Italian Secret: The Forgotten Heroes. Directed by Oren Jacoby, narrated by Isabella Rossellini and Robert Loggia, Storyville Films, 10 Nov. 2015, 09:58-12:34.

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