Legendary Italian cyclist Gino Bartali could be set for one Israel’s highest honours after evidence has come to light that he helped to save the lives of hundreds of Jews during the Second World War.
According to the International Cycling Union (UCI), Bartali could be made one of the “Righteous Among the Nations” — a term used by Israel to describe non-Jews who risked their lives during the Holocaust to save Jews from extermination by the Nazis.
Almost 70 years after the events, and 12 years after his death, evidence is finally coming to light of Bartali’s hitherto unknown actions, which helped to save the lives of 800 Jews.
Details about Bartali’s actions began to emerge just two or three years ago, thanks to a university research project that collected testimony from a nun, Holocaust survivors and their descendants.
Andrea Bartali, his son, has continued this research with the support of the Jewish community in Tuscany and the journalist Laura Guerra.
As a result, the Yad Vashem Memorial in Israel is currently studying the evidence with a view to granting Bartali the posthumous distinction.
In 1943 Bartali, already a Tour de France champion and two-time winner of the Giro d’Italia, was assigned to the traffic police by the fascist regime, before leaving the job on September 8.
He then went underground, choosing to help persecuted Jews by smuggling identity photos to a convent that produced counterfeit papers.
As far as the soldiers who guarded the road between Florence and San Quirico, near Assisi, were concerned, Bartali was merely on a 380km training run. In fact, valuable documents were hidden inside the frame and saddle of his bicycle.
Right up to his death, Bartali rarely spoke about these acts of bravery, keeping them secret even from his wife.
One day he said, simply: “Good is something you do, not something you talk about. Some medals are pinned to your soul, not to your jacket.”
Towards the end of 1943 he was thrown into prison for 45 days, officially because of his support for the Vatican, which opposed the fascist regime. By chance he was never required to appear before the special war tribunal and was set free without trial.
On his release he resumed his career and won a third Giro d’Italia and a second Tour de France, while the Italian fans went mad for his legendary rivalry with Fausto Coppi.