The Italian cycling champion who became a Holocaust hero

by Michael Sax

Gino Bartali is a well-known cycling champion. Yet it’s only in recent times that we are beginning to reveal his truly heroic actions.

Who is Gino Bartali?

Gino was born in Italy in 1914. When he was 13 years old, Gino started working in a bike store. He then began bicycle racing, and at the age of 21, he began racing professionally. In 1936, Gino won the Giro and the Giro di Lombardia. He continued his illustrious career for many years. However, people only found out about his lifesaving career some time later.

In 2010, the word got out that Gino saved Jews who the Nazis persecuted. He even hid a Jewish family in his cellar to give them refuge from the Nazis. Additionally, Gino served as a courier for the Nazi resistance. Gino biked large distances for training purposes, and used his situation to successfully transfer forged documents from one place to another. When Nazi supporters stopped and searched Gino, he specifically asked that his bicycle not be touched since the different parts were very carefully calibrated to achieve maximum speed. Of course, this protected the crucial documents.

Roughly 80% of Italian and refugee Jews living in Italy before World War II survived, partly thanks to the efforts of Italian sympathizers.

Uncovering the Heroism

After the war, Gino never spoke of his work during the German occupation. He didn’t tell how he smuggled documents or saved Jews. Therefore, people did not know of his courageous acts.

However years later, people approached him to ask about his lifesaving efforts. Gino initially did not agree to the interview. He explained that his conscience motivated him and he did not want to have his activity documented. Gino only agreed when he learned that the interviewer was a relative of another person who helped save Jews. In 2013, Yad Vashem recognized Gino Bartali as one of the Righteous Among the Nations.

Andrea Bartali, Gino’s son, explained what his father said:

“When people were told him, ‘Gino, you’re a hero’, he replied: ‘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.”

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