Skip to main content

Yom HaShoah

In our never-ending pursuit of health and fitness we enter cycling races, triathlons and masters swim meets. Even our weekend golf games become fierce competitions as we bet on the winners of each hole. For many, and in particular middle-aged men, even the healthiest of exercise regimens can turn into such competitions. Marathons have become so popular that gaining a spot in New York City’s has become increasingly difficult. Participation in triathlons has increased ten fold, surpassing two million competitors this past year.

Training for such endurance sports, or perfecting one’s golf game, or playing just about any sport these days, requires time, commitment and investment. Despite my well-known passion for cycling and its events, I sometimes forget the primary purpose of my life. Simply put that purpose is to bring a measure of goodness to an increasingly fractured world.

On the days that I forget this command I remember the story of Gino Bartali, an Italian cycling legend. One might think that I admire him for his extraordinary cycling accomplishments. He won the Tour de France in 1938 and 1948 and the Giro d’Italia in 1936, 1937 and 1946. In addition he won the Giro’s mountain stages a record seven times and stood on the winner’s podium over 170 times. He accomplished these feats despite the fact that he could not compete during the most promising years of his career.

Yet it was precisely because of what he did during those years, during the years of World War II, that he is my hero. It was during those years that he helped to save hundreds of Jews from the Nazis. Yad VaShem is still researching the details of his story in order to determine whether Bartali merits the designation of Righteous among the Nations, the highest honor given to those non-Jews who risked their lives to save Jews. I first learned of Gino’s story from a fellow cyclist. Here are the details of that story.

Gino Bartali began working for the underground in September 1943 after the Germans occupied much of Italy. During this time over 10,000 Italian Jews were deported to concentration camps.  7,000 died there. His clandestine job was to smuggle documents to a convent that produced false papers for persecuted Jews. And so Bartali rode from his home to the convent, from Florence to the outskirts of Assisi and back again, with these smuggled papers hidden in the frame of his bicycle. He convinced the soldiers guarding the road that he was on a 235-mile training ride. He rode this route at least 40 times. On other occasions he also rode to Genoa (145 miles from Florence), where he would pick up money to distribute to Jewish families.

Florence was liberated in August 1944 so in one year’s time he rode over 10,000 miles. His efforts helped to save some 800 Jews. Only yesterday it was also revealed that Bartali hid a Jewish family in his cellar during that painful year of the German occupation.

Giorgio, then a young boy, still remembers the day the British entered Florence and he was able to leave Gino Bartali’s basement and walk the city’s streets. “I went out and saw a British soldier with the word ‘Palestine’ and the Star of David embroidered on his shoulders. [The soldier was a member of the British Army’s Jewish Brigade.] I went up to him and started to hum the Hatikvah. He heard me and spoke to me in English. I understood that we were free, thanks to Gino…”

Bartali remained humble and even secretive about his clandestine, and dangerous, wartime efforts. On one occasion, however, he offered a few words about his remarkable deeds. Bartali said, “Good is something you do, not something you talk about. Some medals are pinned to your soul, not to your jacket."

Let that be a temper to my competitive spirit and my efforts to ride faster and farther. We must always remember that refining the soul is always better, and far more important, than polishing any trophy.

One of the greatest and most successful professional cyclists understood this. Let his example be my inspiration!

One might wonder how the details of Bartali's heroics came to light.  Here is that convoluted story.

Despite the fact that he was secretive about his wartime efforts, he did share a number of details with his son Andrea. As they would ride their bicycles together Bartali would sometimes point out where he had hid in a ravine, but always insisted that his clandestine efforts never be revealed. It was his son, who after his father’s death in May 2000, began sharing what he knew.  Even he did not know all of the remarkable details.  The son only broke his pledge of silence because of an unusual circumstance. Paola Alberati, an Italian professional cyclist and political science student, met Bartali’s mechanic, Ivo Faltoni, who was one of the only people who knew of Bartali’s clandestine wartime efforts.  I imagine that the mechanic helped him hide the documents in his bicycle frame.  And so Faltoni began researching the details of the Italian cyclist’s heroics. The political science student uncovered police records detailing their suspicions about Bartali and revealing the dangers that he faced.  Newspaper stories followed and witnesses emerged.  One Jewish survivor said to Andrea, “I wouldn’t have been born if your father hadn’t helped and protected my parents.”  And that is why we are only now learning of Gino Bartali's greatest achievements.