The year was 1937. Gino Bartali (1914 – 2000) won the Giro d’Italia for the second straight year. He was Italy’s and Europe’s biggest sports idol. By this time, Benito Mussolini had ruled Italy with violence and intimidation for 15 years and he would soon lead the country into war. In 1938, Bartali won the Tour de France. Mussolini tried to use this triumph on the world stage to prove Italy’s Aryan superiority — that is, that the Italians, like the Germans, belonged to the “master race.”
Bartali rejected the Fascist party patronage. It was not the last time he defied the party. In fact, throughout the war he risked his life almost every day to protect Jews and partisans throughout Italy. Bartali’s story is the framework of the 2014 documentary, “My Italian Secret: Forgotten Heroes,” directed by Oren Jacoby and narrated by Isabella Rossellini.
Gino Bartali’s fame as a cyclist enabled him to ride his bicycle not only throughout the countryside of his native Tuscany but also to Genoa, Rome, Assisi, and beyond. He wore his bicycle uniform with his name emblazoned on the back of his shirt. He logged about 40,000 kilometers a year during the war. “I’m training,” he would say, and the Fascists and Nazis didn’t dare stop the sports idol. Little did they know that he carried secret documents in the frame of his bicycle. He didn’t want to know what these documents were in case he was stopped and tortured. Nor did the Nazis discover that he hid a Jewish family in the basement of his home. Had they discovered either, he would have been immediately shot.
He also liked to ride to Terentola, a crucial Tuscan town near Castiglione del Lago in Umbria. The train station there was a transportation crossroad between the North and the South. Jews and partisans tried to climb unseen onto the trains heading South for asylum. Hence the station was heavily guarded. But when Bartoli showed up, crowds gathered around the great cycling champion. The distracted guards would leave the trains to disperse the crowds, and the refugees would switch trains and head for liberty.
It was Assisi that was the center of underground activity. Many Jews were hidden there in the monastery and if they were endangered by visiting troops, they were taken to the underground Roman caves where they could escape to the countryside. Between Florence and Assisi, Bartali was transporting photographs and false identity cards that enabled many Jews to avoid detection and certain death and to flee.
It was also at Assisi that many years later Bartali began to tell his 30-year old son, Andrea, of his wartime activities. Bartali like to go to Assisi to see the Giotto frescoes and to relive his memories. A deeply religious man, Bartali never spoke of his deeds. He told Andrea, “It’s a world in which you must do good but not talk about it.” He made Andrea swear not to tell anyone. When his son asked, “Why are you telling me this if I can’t tell anyone?”, his father replied, “Someday you will find the right moment to talk about it.”
Even after Bartali won his second Tour de France in 1948, 10 years after his first victory there, he was silent about his contributions in the war. He believed that the heroes were those who died, were injured, or who spent endless time in prisons and camps. He believed that if you talked about your work, you would be taking advantage of others’ misfortunes. He believed that there is too much injustice in this world spurred on by blind fanaticism. In his interview in the documentary, Andrea says, “He did what he did because of his character.”
Bartali’s final resting place further reveals his humility. The grave simply says his name and the dates of his birth and death. There is no mention of his cycling championships, no mention of his wartime heroism, no mention of the many medals that he won. As he himself said, “medals are to be worn on your soul.”