How brave Italians saved their Jews

Although Yom Hashoah is now past, it is always timely to learn about long-forgotten or little-known events of that period. A fascinating article at the BBC (yes, that BBC) (via Henry) sheds light on a hugely courageous Italian man who risked his life to save Italy’s Jews.

Gino Bartali

In Gino Bartali: The cyclist who saved Jews in wartime Italy we learn the story of a hugely principled man with a very useful talent which combined together to enable him to save hundreds of Jews in wartime Italy:

“He had everything to lose. His story is one of the most dramatic examples during World War Two of an Italian willing to risk his own life to save the lives of strangers.”

Film director Oren Jacoby is describing Gino Bartali, one of the leading cyclists of his era – a three-time winner of the Giro d’Italia, who also notched up two Tour de France victories, 10 years apart, before and after the war.

[…]

It was only after his death in 2000 that details began to emerge, and Jacoby fills in some remaining gaps in a Storyville documentary film about Italy’s secret heroes, due to be premiered this year.

Bartali, a villager from a poor Tuscan family, was reaching the peak of his career as the war approached.

He won his first Giro d’Italia in 1936, retaining the title in 1937. Then – to Italy’s delight – he won the 1938 Tour de France. It was a moment the country’s fascist leader, Benito Mussolini, had been looking forward to eagerly.

[…]Bartali was invited to dedicate his win to Mussolini, but refused. It was a grave insult to il duce and a big risk to take.

[…]

Italy remained, however, a country in which Jews could take refuge, until it surrendered to the allies in 1943. The German army then occupied northern and central parts of the country and immediately started rounding up Jews and sending them to concentration camps.

At this point Bartali, a devout Catholic, was asked by the Cardinal of Florence, Archbishop Elia Dalla Costa, to join a secret network offering protection to Jews and other endangered people.

His role in the network was uniquely suited to his talents – he became a courier. On the face of it he was undertaking the long training rides for which he was renowned, but in reality he was carrying photographs and counterfeit identity documents to and from a secret printing press.

All were hidden in the frame and handlebars of his bicycle.

“We’ve seen documentation that he travelled thousands of kilometres across Italy, travelling the roads between cities as far apart as Florence, Lucca, Genoa, Assisi, and the Vatican in Rome,” says Jacoby.

By taking on this role, he put himself at huge risk. At one point he was arrested and questioned by the head of the Fascist secret police in Florence, where he lived.

For a period he went into hiding, living incognito in the town of Citta Di Castello in Umbria.

In addition to this, Bartali hid his Jewish friend Giacomo Goldenberg, and Goldenberg’s family.

“He hid us in spite of knowing that the Germans were killing everybody who was hiding Jews,” Goldenberg’s son, Giorgio, says in Jacoby’s film.

“He was risking not only his life but also his family. Gino Bartali saved my life and the life of my family. That’s clear because if he hadn’t hidden us, we had nowhere to go.”

Approximately 80% of Italian and refugee Jews living in Italy before World War Two survived, partly thanks to the efforts of Italian sympathisers.

[…]

Gino Bartali’s son Andrea visits Yad Vashem

“When I asked my father why I couldn’t tell anyone, he said, ‘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.’

According to Jacoby, Bartali’s reticence is a “defining characteristic” of many of the Italians who were willing to risk their lives in World War Two.

[…]

Last September he was posthumously awarded with the honour Righteous Among the Nations by Yad Vashem, the Holocaust memorial and education centre in Jerusalem.

“When Bartali was stopped and searched, he specifically asked that his bicycle not be touched since the different parts were very carefully calibrated to achieve maximum speed,” the citation points out.

Andrea Bartali says his father refused to view his actions as heroic.

“When people were telling him, ‘Gino, you’re a hero’, he would reply: ‘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.'”

Gino Bartali’s courage and modesty, and that of all the other Italian resistance heroes, leave me speechless. They are true tzaddikim – righteous people. What a pity that I have never heard his story before, but I am very happy that he was honoured, at least posthumously, by Yad Vashem. I would love to see the documentary when it comes out.

In a related story, occasional commenter Andrea sent me this email about his home town, La Spezia, nearly two years ago, relating to an event which occurred almost exactly 68 years ago to the day. Since Andrea is Italian, the English below is not perfect but I have only edited it lightly:

I happened to come back over these days when good news came up.

Destruction of a small quay on the shore which the port authorities managed to destroy in order to enlarge modern port will not occur.

A very stubborn guys from a cultural association named “Italia Nostra” succeeded in this attempt of saving the relatively small quay.

What was the reason for this ? Why a negligible part of shore has to be preserved ?

Believe it or not the reason is that this was and always will be “Schàar Zion” [Gateway to Zion -ed.] the very narrow door which thousand and thousand of Jews passed through to reach their home.

From this quay three ships named Fede – registered in Savona, (and renamed Dov Hoz), il motorvessel Fenice (renamed Eliyahu Golomb) and Exodus sailed: the first two in the memorable morning of 8th May 1946
– Exodus sailed if I am not wrong one year later. [see below for more info about the Exodus -Ed.]

It was a very epic moment for a very prostrated town. “Departure was not easy and all the poor people had to stay in La Spezia for a long time without food or water and clothes. So La Spezia inhabitants, even though proved by the War (La Spezia was the third most bombed town in Italy) immediately expressed their solidarity and did not hesitate to help with food and garments this even less unlucky people.”

Operation was possible – among other things – for gigantic effort by Yehuda Arazi ( doctor Paz for Italians ) Ada Sereni and Raffaele Cantoni – and Jewish International network built around my town over
1946.

Over one years maybe 1000 Jews lived in my town [and would have remained] almost without food and decent life if not for voluntary contribution from very poor peolpe – the English fleet prevented for months any units to leave the port ( do not forget Italy was almost under occupation at the time )and only after a visit of Labour MP Harold Lasky block [the blockade] ceased ( for a while ).

A small quay but a great piece of history has been saved.

Panorama of La Spezia

What a beautiful story about such brave, generous and principled people.

Andrea included a link in his email, which unfortunately doesn’t work any more, about the awarding of the Exodus Prize in 2011, but an  internet search found this article about the city of La Spezia in which the Exodus Prize is mentioned:

EXODUS
The city of La Spezia is known as the “door to Sion”, as at the end of the second World War, it became the point of departure for the survivors from the Nazi concentration camps. From the summer of 1945 to the spring of 1948 over 23,000 Jews managed to leave Italy clandestinely for Palestine. After lengthy tormented vicissitudes, the ships Fede, Fenice and Exodus managed to take away everyone from the Spezia gulf, to the point that on the Israeli geographical maps La Spezia is called «Schàar Zion», Door to Sion.

La Spezia holds the Exodus Award devoted to inter-cultural exchange every year to commemorate this important event.

I also found this Ynet article about the death of Yossi Harel, the legendary commander of the Exodus ship, in which La Spezia and the Italian people are given an honorable mention:

The commander of legendary ship Exodus, which carried Jewish refugees to Palestine a year before Israel’s establishment, passed away on Saturday after suffering cardiac arrest at the age of 90. Yossi Harel was one of the heads of the movement that aimed to circumvent British-imposed immigration limits on Jews prior to Israel’s establishment. Later he was one of the senior heads of IDF intelligence.

[…]

Harel also won Exodus’ namesake prize of 2007, awarded by the Italian government to those who promote peace and humanitarianism. The prize is awarded every year in La Spezia in Italy, which is where the Exodus was renovated in order to serve its purpose as a ma’apilim [illegal immigrants] ship.  

[…]

Sharon said her father was grateful to Italy, and in his speech upon receiving the prize thanked them for their efforts in helping the Jews in their hour of need. “I thank you for your humanitarianism and for teaching your children our history,” he said.

Harel commanded four refugee ships and sailed to Israel with 25,000 immigrants altogether during the time of the British Mandate.

The Exodus was bought by the Aliyah Bet movement in 1947 in an effort to circumvent British-imposed immigration limits on Jews. It set sail on July 11 of that year from a small harbor near Marseilles, with 4,554 German Holocaust survivors unable to get immigration permits to Israel on board.

The British Fleet followed the ship and eventually forced its passengers to return to the German camps from which they fled. In September the passengers disembarked and were returned to the German camps, while the world and the press watched.

It’s not for no reason that Britain is called “Perfidious Albion”. Italy on the other hand has so much to be proud of in its historical record regarding the Jews.

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22 Responses to How brave Italians saved their Jews

  1. cba says:

    “Gino Bartali’s courage and modesty, and that of all the other Italian resistance heroes, leave me speechless”

    They leave me speechless, too… and tearful.

    I am sure he is enjoying his rightful place in heaven.

  2. Mauretto says:

    A dear friend of mine sent me this story a few days ago. I was very proud to get to know yet another take of courage from my homeland in those dark days.
    Moving stuff and the recognition is well deserved.

  3. In France, the Italians occupied the region of Nice. Many Jews there were refugees because it was known that the Italian army itself helped protect against abuses by the French police. Thanks for your so interesting blog.
    Hanna

  4. bunuel says:

    a very touching surprise

  5. Andrea says:

    Hi Anne,
    I am really delighted to come to your blog today with such big surprise! It is always good reading about on the bravery of few in opposition to the cowardice and indifference of many compatriots. Only Nazi and some of their affiliates inhuman behavior obscured to the eyes of many the shame of persecution and annihilation of Jews in Italy and in Libya .Yet It is worth noting that common and not acculturated people were compassionate with Jews, maybe evidence of poor result of years of anti- Semitism among illiterate people historically reluctant to follow any government . This point deserves to be studied but maybe Italians were helped by their worst defect : reluctance to comply with State law, in this case the Nazi inspired one.
    Italian government actually supported Jewish immigration to Palestine maybe urged by a calculated political behavior. Desire of white washing their not immaculate record (euphemism) or possibly looking for potential alliance with a future Jewish state supposed to be very closed to the European political values ( which actually were almost useless for the Jews…) but support from public opinion was really genuine and passionate.
    Most of all terrific efficiency from Mossad – this was the most important contribution to Exodus operation.

    • mauretto says:

      Andrea, both the government and the people were not anti-Semites. Historical facts tell us that only 1 of the 19 members of the Gran Consiglio del Fascismo was openly filo-German, that Mussolini himself mocked the racist laws in Germany in a speech in Bari (this is on YouTube) , that although the Marcia su Roma was in 1919 and Fascism took power very soon thereafter, the first racial laws were introduced in 1938. This demonstrates on it’s own right that fascism per se was not anti-Semite.

      Theres a good account here
      http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Manifesto_of_Race
      The reason why anti-semitism never took hold in our history goes all the way to the Romans and how Jewish communities have been established in Italy since then. The Italian Jewish community is a very old and a very radicated community. They are full blown Italians. In Rome, my hometown, they are “the most Romans of Romans” if that makes sense.

      • anneinpt says:

        Mauretto, thank you for that additional historical background. Indeed, I learned something about this myself when I visited Rome last year and 3 years ago. They were absolutely fascinating visits and I can’t wait to go again. Our guide on both trips explained the history of the Jews in Rome (as you say, it goes back thousands of years, to when the Temple in Jerusalem still stood!). And despite the fact that it was Rome who destroyed the Temple, their relationship to the Jews living in Rome was usually good.

        Also in Venice the story is similar. Altogether Italy is a fascinating country and I want to visit again soon!

      • Andrea says:

        Piacere di conoscerla Signor Mauro and thank you for your note.
        Fascism and Jews were not an oxymoron; actually many Jews supported Fascism until Racial Laws.
        Jew and Roman at the same time : this is something not Italian Jews hardly beleive but it is true. Jews preserved the original dialect in Rome ( and not the one from Tuscany now badly spoken in our streets) and since presumely intermarring after Constantine they also claim to have an Ancient Roman heritage. Surely they have also a good kitchen at Portico d’Ottavia ….
        Indeed this not prevent them from suffering deportation and worse…. but this is not something we could blame the Romans for.
        Saluti

    • anneinpt says:

      Hi Andrea, I was hoping you’d arrive here to see this article. Otherwise I was going to email you. After I received the item about Bartali, I remembered our email correspondence and couldn’t remember if I’d ever written anything about it. After searching my blog I decided I’d never written about La Spezia, so this was the perfect opportunity to combine the 2 similar items. Thank you for your original email, otherwise I would never have heard of La Spezia.

      We’ve had this conversation before about the role Italy played in the Shoah, and it was generally agreed that Italy had one of the best records in looking after and protecting its Jewish population from the Nazis. Whatever their motivations were, the end result was that many more Jews survived in Italy than in almost any other European country.

      In the end it doesn’t matter whether the general population were motivated by love of Jews, anti-fascism or just general anti-establishment, the results are what count, and Italy can be proud of its record.

      • Andrea says:

        Anne,

        Thank you for attention you gave to my small contribution. Over the last months I have been developing my interest toward the relationship between Italy and Zionist movement , with a special focus on the” Revisionist” wing. As I had the chance to write in the past Jabotinsky spent his formative years in Italian universities and was very familiar with Italian culture. It is not surprising he was able to receive a strong support from Mussolini over the thirties. It is well known that the first Jewish Naval training school was established in Italy in Civitavecchia in 1934 and this episode is still topic of strong disputes also among Israeli historians some of them claiming an ideological “ liason” between Fascism and Revisonism.

        Well coming to the present time you know I have never fallen in love with your government and what is called the “right” wing of Israel. I am probably the only Socialist in your blog 🙂 . This does not prevent me from being disillusioned and frustrated about the lack of project of Israeli ”left”. To not mention the other side of scenario, your neighbors now joining under the same roof where corruption, nepotism and superstition rule. I also suffered for outcome of Egyptian half –democracy. I never liked Morsi but do not love uniforms either when they come to politics ( oh, sorry Ehud Barak – at least you were elected and most important complied with democracy rules ).
        In this sadness religion makes no or little contribution to a better world apart from some noticeable exceptions.
        Finally there are always beaches around Tel Aviv cramming with beautiful people – hope they are still there.

        Wishing you all the best

        • anneinpt says:

          Andrea, you write that ” among Israeli historians some of them claiming an ideological “ liason” between Fascism and Revisonism.”
          It is well known that many Israeli historians are leftists, even extreme leftists, and are revisionists themselves, i.e. they try to revise or rewrite history to suit their own politics. Anyone who supported nationalism was labeled a Fascist in order to discredit him. This is what they did to Jabotinsky and also to Menachem Begin and other Revisionists, Herut members and others. Nowadays these labels are beginning to be removed and the true character of the Revisionists is “allowed” to be revealed.

          Also, you may think you’re the only socialist on my blog, but allow me to introduce you to Brian Goldfarb who as far as I know is a retired professor of social studies and calls himself ‘a sane leftist’. I think you’d get on very well together. 🙂

          I agree with you about the disarray of the left in Israel today, and of course the utter chaos surrounding Israel in our neigbours around the Middle East. Outside of Israel religion only makes matters worse, mainly because it’s mixed with politics.

          And yeah, our beaches are still here. Waiting for you. 🙂

          • Brian Goldfarb says:

            There have been 12 different Israeli Prime Minister’s (a number of whom have been PM on different occasions. Of these, 4 have been high-ranking soldiers before becoming politicians through the usual route – being elected on a free, secret ballot. These are Ehud Barak, as Andrea notes, but also Yigal Allon, Yitzhak Rabin and Ariel Sharon (we shouldn’t forget Moshe Dayan who became the Minister of Defence and was there at the time of the 1967 6 Day War.

            But as you note, none of them staged a coup d’etat. Given that 80%+ of the male population have done National Service (plus a lot of women), there would soon be a counter-coup to restore democracy.

            We have to remember that Jews everywhere thrive, essentially, only where there is a genuine parliamentary democracy, one that respects the rights of minorities. Why should we change that for Israel?

          • Andrea says:

            Great!
            So I am not the only Socialist but I know Brian whom I happened to read on Simply Jews.
            Actually many of smart Neocon comes from Socialist organization and are also Jews.
            Trotzky was surely the first source of inspiration of these guys.Everytime I read Elder or Simply Jews I usually recognize an old disillusioned Socialist of MAPAM/Mapai legacy , if not Hashomer Hatzair followers.
            I can understand their disillusion ….but this is so complicated issue

  6. Brian Goldfarb says:

    It is indeed clear that Italian Fascism was not, per se, antisemitic. Sure, there were antisemitic Italian fascists, but most Italians, fascists or otherwise, could not understand why (even if they disliked Jews, for whatever reason) the Nazis wanted to kill them. That was just crazy.

    There is more than one book devoted to this topic, but one of the most interesting is Jonathan Steinberg “All or Nothing” (http://www.amazon.co.uk/All-Nothing-Axis-Holocaust-1941-43/dp/0415290694/ref=sr_1_5?s=books&ie=UTF8&qid=1399932237&sr=1-5&keywords=jonathan+steinberg) (sadly still quite pricy, despite the time since it was published). He writes about the Italian army in the Balkans (former Yugoslavia), in particular. He notes that many of the officers would receive orders to hand over Jews and partisans to the Croatians (the Ustace) – if not actual Nazis, then crypto-Nazis. Knowing what the fate of those handed over would be, these officers would send back insisting on their willingness to obey orders, but, sadly, they needed clarification of some aspects of those orders.

    By the time the clarification arrived, sadly, the prisoners in question were no longer in the hands of the unit(s) in question. This game could go on for months, until the higher power lost interest. Steinberg even documents at least one instance in which Italian troops opened fire on their erstwhile allies, rather than hand over prisoners (Jews and partisans) to certain death.

    Andrea and Mauretto, you have a lot to be proud of in your country’s history during that period: indeed, truth to be told, many more “Righteous Gentiles” are to found among Italians than have actually been honoured.

    BTW, that story of Gina Bartali is paralleled by a similar case in France, also a professional cyclist: the detail is in the French-made film “Le Chagrin et le Pitie” (“The Sorrow and the Pity”) by Marcel Ophuls.

    While there was horror aplenty, we tend to forget that there were many unsung heroes who risked their lives (and sometimes lost them), just because it was the right thing to do, and, again, there are numerous books on this: just google this whole topic, and see what a trove of books, etc, turns up.

    • anneinpt says:

      Thanks for that informative comment Brian. I hadn’t heard of the French cyclist or the film. I did hear though of the way the Italian soldiers would use delaying tactics to avoid handing the Jews over to the Nazis. (Maybe I heard the story from you? Or from Andrea? I can’t remember).

      As you say, there were a lot more righteous Gentiles than have ever been given credit for.

  7. peteca1 says:

    GOOD for Gino Bartali – I love those stories. They are some of the best examples of human courage and strong principles!!

    On a completely separate note – there is talk that N. Korea may be getting ready to explode another nuclear device. Certainly, the South Koreans have said so. You have to wonder if this next bomb … is really a prototype Iranian bomb? I bet that issue is something that is causing the people at Mossad to work overtime to find out.

    This is all personal speculation from me. Who really knows??

    all the best,
    Pete, USA

  8. Brian Goldfarb says:

    There I was, saying nice things about Italy and Italians (which I stick to), when the following happens. We (my wife and I) have been away for a short break to Florence, and a beautiful city it is too, with so much to see and admire: wonderful buildings, great art, and so-on. But (there had to be a but, didn’t there?): there we were, walking across the Piazza della Repubblica when we came across a demonstration for…Palestine, Palestinian Authority flags and all.

    Now that’s okay. I commented once elsewhere that we’re all for “Justice for Palestinians” (whether we’re Jews or not). It’s a bit like being against sin: a very good idea. It’s how the idea is worked out that creates problems (such as legislating against sexual offences in a way that creates more problems than it solves, such as creating prostitution, and then criminalising it). The problem here was the demand for boycott, etc., probably by people who have been no nearer Israel and Palestine than the east coast of Italy, if that close. Or who have read nothing on the I/P situation beyond the latest propaganda by the local BDS group, whoever that is, probably extreme left-wingers (i.e., Noga’s Rancid Left).

    We tiptoed quietly past and got on with our vacation.

    • anneinpt says:

      The fact that the Italians helped the Jews during the Shoah does not detract from the existence of modern antisemitism masquerading as anti-Israelism or pro-Palestinianism – though I doubt Italy is any worse, and is probably better, than most other European countries.

      This kind of BDS demo is prevalent all over Europe, and on American campuses. It is very hard to counteract because these people do not want to be confused by facts.

      I reckon you did the right thing by walking away. You’d have just wasted your precious holiday without changing their closed minds.

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