JERUSALEM, Sept 23, 2013 (AFP) – An Italian cyclist who helped rescue Jews
during World War II by smuggling documents on his bicycle while pretending to
train received a posthumous honor from Israel on Monday.
Yad Vashem, the Holocaust memorial authority in Jerusalem, awarded late
cycling champion Gino Bartali the honour of “Righteous Among The Nations,”
which is given to non-Jews who stood up to the Nazi genocide during World War
“During the German occupation of Italy, Bartali, a devout Catholic, was
part of a rescue network spearheaded by Rabbi Nathan Cassuto of Florence
together with the Archbishop of Florence Cardinal Elia Angelo Dalla Costa,”
Yad Vashem said in a statement.
“This Jewish-Christian network, set up following the German occupation of
Italy and the onset of deportation of Jews, saved hundreds of local Jews and
Jewish refugees from territories which had previously been under Italian
control, mostly in France and Yugoslavia,” it said.
“Bartali acted as a courier for the network, secreting forged documents and
papers in his bicycle and transporting them between cities, all under the
guise of training.
“Knowingly risking his life to rescue Jews, Bartali transferred falsified
documents to various contacts, among them Rabbi Cassuto.”
In 2009 — almost 70 years after the events, and nine years after his death
– evidence began to emerge of Bartali’s hitherto unknown actions, which
helped to save the lives of 800 Jews.
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 380-kilometre
(240-mile) 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.
“Good is something you do, not something you talk about. Some medals are
pinned to your soul, not to your jacket,” he once said.
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 Italian fans eagerly followed his legendary
rivalry with Fausto Coppi.
The Righteous Among The Nations title has been awarded to some 24,000
people in 44 countries since it was set up in 1963.
Honorees receive medals, and their names are inscribed on a dedicated wall
near the Yad Vashem Holocaust memorial in Jerusalem.