Gino Bartali was an Italian cycling star and two-time winner of the Tour de France, but his greatest accomplishment was saving the lives of 800 Jews during the Holocaust.
Born in a small town near Florence in 1914, Gino grew up extremely poor. He escaped his difficult life by riding his bike from dusk until dawn around the hills of Tuscany. Building up exceptional strength and endurance, Gino started competing and winning races. Only a few years after his first race, he went professional. By the early 1930’s, Gino was a household name throughout Italy. Everywhere he went he was mobbed by fans. When he won the Tour de France in 1938, at age 24, Gino was hailed as the “King of Cycling.”
Gino wasn’t able to defend his title at the 1939 Tour because of worsening relations between Italy and France. He was drafted into the army and worked as a military bike messenger. In 1943, Germany invaded Italy and immediately began rounding up and deporting Italian Jews. A friend of Gino’s asked him to help save their Jewish brethren. Though married and with a young son, Gino did not hesitate. He immediately committed to doing whatever he could to save lives, whatever the risk.
Gino sheltered a local Jewish family in an apartment he bought with cycling money. He then embarked on a dangerous mission smuggling fake identity papers around Tuscany and Umbria, enabling Jews to assume false identities and escape deportation. Using his training routes between Florence and Assisi, Gino made 30-40 trips, saving at least 800 Italian Jews. He carried exit visas in his bicycle frame. Wherever he went, Gino was surrounded by fans, preventing German policemen from looking too closely at what he was doing. On the few occasions he was stopped and searched, Gino insisted that his specially-made bike was too delicate to be touched. A devout Catholic, Gino often traveled from Florence to Assisi and back in one day – a 200 km trip. In Assisi, Catholic clergy ran an underground railroad to hide Jews and provided them with Gino’s fake identity documents.
Gino was extremely modest and rarely spoke about his wartime heroism. He once told his son, “If you’re good at a sport, they attach the medals to your shirts and then they shine in a museum. That which is earned by doing good deeds is attached to the soul and shines elsewhere.” It wasn’t until after his death in 2000 that his family began speaking publicly about what Gino had done. In 2013, Gino was honored by Israeli Holocaust Museum Yad Vashem as “Righteous Among the Nations.”
For using his talent and fame to save hundreds of lives, we honor Gino Bartali as this week’s Thursday Hero at Accidental Talmudist.
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