Once Italy was allied with Germany at the onset of the Second World War, German troops came to the peninsula after 1940 ostensibly as friends to ward off attacks by Allied forces. In reality, German national socialists came as invaders and occupiers to spread their racist hatred against the ancient Jewish community that had arisen in Italy for more than 2000 years.
Italians, despite the dictator Benito Mussolini's Fascist government, never proved to be as cooperative as the French, in cooperating with the Final Solution that meant the extermination of the Jewish people and thus a Satanic plan to eliminate the traces of God's providence in the form of a Chosen People.
In a nation whose Jewish roots are millennial and whose its Christian roots go back to the very beginning of the Faith and where saints Peter and Paul were martyred, it could be expected that there remained Jews and Christians with enough faith and courage to flout the Teutonic anti-God invaders. Italians conspired to produce false travel and identity documents for Jews so that they could elude capture and certain death either directly at the hands of Adolf Hitler's fanatical SS troops or to be sent on cattle cars to death camps. There they would be transported in trucks built courtesy of Fiat or General Motor's Opel division, enumerated and managed by the computers courtesy of IBM, gassed to death courtesy of I.G. Farben: all of which happened under the watchful guard of weapons provided by BMW, Krupp, and Oerlikon.
But there were indeed Italians, faithful, resourceful, and wily enough, to find the way to save if but a few of their comrades who were Children of Israel. Among them were Pope Pius XII, who secreted Jews, dissidents, and Allied personnel, within the walls of the Vatican and his Castel Gandolfo summer residence, as well as priests and nuns, albeit too few.
Cardinal Archbishop Pietro Boetto, 1945.
Ingenious Italians found a way to distribute the essential identity documents needed for the safe passage of Jews and members of the Italian resistance. Getting these past the watchful eyes of Nazi troops in Italy’s cities and at roadblocks especially after 1943 when Germany formed a rump state it controlled in the northern portion of the peninsula became a problem. It was a problem that found an elegant solution.
Born in 1914, Gino Bartali was already a hero in Italy for his feats of athletic prowess at several of the world’s top cycling contests. Bartali won the grueling Giro d’Italian three times before the war, as well as the Tour de France in 1938. The powerfully built Bartali, who had a face only a mother could love, had starting racing at the age of 13. By the age of 21, he went professional and became the Italian champion in 1936. He was so celebrated that it was Italian cardinal Della Costa who celebrated the nuptial Mass and blessed Bartali’s marriage to Adriana Bani in Florence. Pope Pius XII donated a bicycle. From then on, Bartali was known as ‘Bartalli the Pious’ because of his deep Catholic faith.
It was during the war that Bartali used the fame and goodwill he had earned by winning the Tour de France by helping the Resistance to elude Nazi persecution. He cycled through Tuscany, Umbria, and the Le Marche, and sometimes went as far as Rome, having concealed precious documents inside the seat post and frame of his bicycle. Because he wore his iconic racing jersey emblazoned with his name, neither the Nazis nor Fascists risked public discontent by stopping him.
A Jewish accountant of Pisa, Giorgio Nissim, was a member of the Delegation for the Assistance of Jewish Emigrants (DELASEM), which was founded by the Union of Israelite Communities of Italy to help Jews escape Nazi and Fascist persecution. Tragically, the network was uncovered in 1943. All of its members, with the exception of Nissim, were sent to perish in concentration camps.
Bartali met Pope Pius XII and, with the help of the Cardinal Archbishop of Genoa Pietro Boetto, Franciscan friars, and others, he helped to reorganize DELASEM and helped 800 Jews escape.
When Bartali died in 2000, his sons found entries in his diaries that showed that he had used his fame and renown to give Jews a hand to freedom. In cooperation with the Franciscan Oblate Friars of Lucca and DELASEM, Nissim forged the required documents and photographs for those fleeing certain death. Then, using the pretext of going on training rides, Bartali left Florence regularly in the morning on his bicycle and headed for a convent where Jews were hiding. There, he collected their photographs and rode back to Florence where Nissim was waiting to receive them. In addition, Bartali also learned about raids on other safe houses.
Bartali was eventually taken in for questioning at the Villa Triste in Florence. There he was interrogated by the Sicherheitsdienst intelligence wing of the Nazi SS, as well as the Italian intelligence service. When RSS officer Mario Carità questioned Bartali and threatened the famed cyclist’s life, Bartali responded bravely: "I do what I feel [in my heart]".
But carrying messages was not the limit of Bartali’s heroism.
Bartali continued with the Assisi Underground. In 1943, he led Jewish refugees to the Swiss Alps himself. Sometimes, he pulled behind his bicycle a small wagon that had a secret compartment, telling men at roadblocks and on patrol that it was all just part of his training regime. Later, Bartali told his son Andrea: "One does these things and then that's that."
A book recounting Bartali’s exploits, “Road to Valor”, was published by Aili and Andres McConnon. And in 2013, the Yad Vashem monument in Israel recognized Bartali as Righteous Among the Gentiles. He is also an important character in the 2014 documentary My Italian Secret: The Forgotten Heroes.
In addition to recognition from the Jewish people, Bartali was decorated by the Italian Republic with the distinction of Cavaliere di Gran Croce OMRI. Among Italians, he was known simply as “Ginettaccio.” Of such honors, Bartali was stoic: “Good is something you do, not something you talk about. Some medals are pinned to your soul, not to your jacket."