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.
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.
“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
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.
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:
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.