Gino Bartali the cyclist who in the middle of the war helped save lives

Gino Bartali the cyclist who in the middle of the war helped save lives

Gino Bartali went to his grave with a secret: during World War II, he saved eight hundred Jews from the Holocaust. The Italian cyclist, winner of two Tours and three Giros, never flaunted that altruistic gesture because he considered that he had simply done the right thing. One could show off the stripes of the road in the jersey, but the merits in life were something intimate that did not deserve to be showcased. Bartali was a gentleman.

History, however, is sometimes written with lines as crooked as the Lacets de Montvernier, that meandering escalation of the French round that makes even Biodramine addicts dizzy.

Thus, the Florentine corridor passed for some as a corridor of the regime, when in reality he renounced fascism and, of course, hated Nazism. He wasn't a partisan either, nor was he sympathetic to the red cause, but that didn't make him a black shirt. His only law was divine, so that condition of fervent Catholic

—perhaps the product of a conversion after the death of his younger brother, Giulio, also a cyclist, who at the age of twenty was run over by a Fiat Balilla during an amateur race— linked him to the Christian Democrats.

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The start of Nazi harassment

A year before Europe was clubbed and began to sink into the mud, in Italy the Jews could not marry Catholics, nor be employed in the administration or in the bank, nor study in public schools, nor of course teach, except in specific schools for Jewish children. How would things be, that they couldn't even practice as lawyers or journalists... As if that weren't enough, as the fascists withdrew in the north, the repression intensified, since the Nazis had already taken the reins of the matter. At first, freight trains or wagons fitted out for transporting cattle left the Roman station of Tiburtina for Auschwitz. Then, entrenched in the Republic of Saló, Hitler 's hosts continued to send those overcrowded in the Risiera di San Sabba concentration camp to Dachau, Buchenwald and Auschwitz.

In addition to the Jews, the Manifesto of the Race also prohibited Pentecostal worship and persecuted gays, although Mussolini no había condenado previamente la homosexualidad porque aseguraba que los italianos eran “demasiado viriles para ser homosexuales". En realidad, hasta entonces tampoco había excluido a los judíos de la vida pública, por lo que el viraje podría obedecer a razones estratégicas, en un intento de colmar las ansias antisemitas de Hitler, como sostienen algunos historiadores. El papa Pío XII , por su parte, mostró su rechazo en una carta enviada al Duce, aunque hay expertos que han criticado la tibieza del Vaticano con las leyes raciales. Sin embargo, la red clandestina en la que se involucró Bartali contó con la inestimable colaboración de católicos, entre los que se encontraban el arzobispo de Florencia, Elia Angelo Dalla Costa , así como monjas de clausura, frailes franciscanos y monjes oblatos. Todos ellos prestaron su ayuda a la Delegación de Asistencia a Emigrantes Judíos (Delasem), con sede central en Génova y muy implantada en la Toscana, donde estaba dirigida por el joven médico y rabino florentino Nathan Cassuto y por el sacerdote Leto Casini . The objective was to find an escape route so that the Jews could escape from the clutches of Nazism through France and Yugoslavia.

However, both were betrayed and Cassuto was sent to Auschwitz, where he died in 1944, and Casini found his bones in jail, although he continued his work when he was released. The vacuum created forced the Jew Giorgio Nissim to take over as one of the regional heads of the network, in charge of providing false documentation to those who wanted to flee, a mission in which Bartali would play a transcendental role. Nissim, who had inherited a textile factory in Pisa from his father, set himself the goal of saving as many children as possible. To do this, it created a child registry and entrusted the minors to the Delasem women's committees, scattered throughout the country. Then they looked for godparents to help them not only financially, but also emotionally, so they had to write letters to the little ones to help them cope with the situation. A system that bears a certain resemblance to what is now known as distance adoption.

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Gino Bartali war RockCycling

When the Second World War froze the Tour and the Giro, Bartali did not stop pedaling, but he did it not only to stay in shape during the war hiatus, but also to carry from one place to another the false passports that would allow eight hundred Jews to escape. These were made in clandestine printing presses set up in the basements of convents and abbeys, so their task consisted of taking papers and photos there, collecting the forged documents and transporting them to the indicated churches, where they were collected by priests sympathetic to the cause.

Bartali knew the Tuscany road map like the back of his hand. He rolled over them day and night, dodging patrols with the salute of a hero, the Flying Monk , for whom the soldiers felt true devotion. If someone objected, there was no better excuse than training. And if someone dared to approach the bicycle, he scared the curious in a bad way, lest he unbalance it, because according to him it had to be treated with delicacy because it had been adjusted to the millimeter to reach the highest possible speed. Actually, he hid the paperwork in the frame and under the saddle. "Dad risked his life to save many people," his son Andrea told the weekly Tempi one morning in September 2013, after Yad Vashem —the institution that honors Holocaust victims— granted him the title of Righteous Among the Nations.

“He was very humble and did not want to tell everything he had done for the Jews: Good is done, but it is not said, otherwise what good is that?

He always wanted to keep this story quiet,” said Andrea, who assured that when someone pried into his past, Bartali told them to shut up and even threatened journalists with reporting them if they continued to bother him.

"It is not right to speculate on the misfortunes of others," he used to say.

Gino Bartali Rock Cycling Franc Lluis i Giró believes that he did so for two reasons. First of all, out of fear: “He knew he was risking his life and wanted to isolate his family. Keeping the secret was a way to prevent his wife from getting involved and to protect his children.” Secondly, because he did not want to play with the lives of others: “He avoided selling an image of heroism through the suffering of others. He did not consider himself a hero and he did not interpret his action as something wonderful either: although he prevented many children from being confined in concentration camps, he was aware that their subsequent living conditions had been appalling; that is, he had not directed eight hundred people to a full life, but simply to survival”. Bartali had done it because it had to be done. It was the right thing. There was not an ideological reason, but a human one —or, if you prefer, a humanitarian one.

“Bartali's training sessions served as a guide to indicate to the fugitives which were the most reliable ways to escape or to reach a safe refuge”, points out the author of Plomo en los bolsos . Aili and Andrés McConnon also describe in Road to Valor an anecdote that reflects their courage: some Jews and anti-fascists fleeing by train have to change cars in a station that is full of soldiers; Bartali, to mislead them and facilitate their escape, begins to greet and sign autographs for the soldiers.

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To read the full article, go to The bike that saved the Jews from the Holocaust

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