Gino Bartali – The Cycling Champion Who Helped Hundreds Of Jewish People Escape From Italy In WWII

One of the most prominent sports figures of the pre-WWII period and the man who elevated cycling into becoming a national sport in Italy was most certainly and unanimously Gino Bartali. Having won the Giro d’Italia twice (1936, 1937) and the Tour de France in 1938, Bartali was adored by the Italian public and celebrated by its statesmen.

In the years before the Second World War, Bartoli’s triumphs were exploited by the fascist government of Benito Mussolini regarding national pride, even though the cyclist never cared much for politics. In 1943, Italy almost fell prey to the Allied invasion, but total defeat was postponed with the help of German intervention and the proclamation of the Italian Social Republic.

Gino Bartali, c. 1945.
Gino Bartali, c. 1945.

As Italian internal politics became dependant on the German presence, the Jews who were left in the country were faced with a wave of deportations. Although anti-semitism was not so explicit in Italy, as it was in Germany, racial laws introduced in the period between 1938 and 1943 did comply with the Final Solution.

Bartali held a celebrity status during the war but was secretly opposed to the regime. The Italian resistance movement was gaining strength after the Allied invasion and Bartali decided to help by hiding and smuggling Jews.

Führer Adolf Hitler and Il Duce Benito Mussolini photographed in Germany. By Haamujenmurskaaja CC BY-SA 4.0
Führer Adolf Hitler and Il Duce Benito Mussolini photographed in Germany. By Haamujenmurskaaja CC BY-SA 4.0

This segment of Bartali’s life was largely unknown until it was uncovered in 2010, ten years after the cyclist passed away. According to one of the Jewish survivors, Bartoli hid him and his family in his cellar, and by doing so undoubtedly saved their lives.

Using training as an excuse, Bartoli carried messages for the resistance. Due to his popularity, he was safe from police abuse which was a constant threat during the fascists’ rule. Bartoli roamed on his bike all over northern Italy and delivered crucial information, orders or warnings to members of the resistance, contributing to the defeat of Mussolini’s regime.

Gino Bartali in training
Gino Bartali in training

Dressed in a recognizable jersey with his name on it, he cycled tirelessly from Florence through Tuscany, Umbria, and Marche, sometimes reaching as far as Rome. He was never stopped by the police or the Germans, who did not want to provoke discontent by potentially harassing the sports legend.

It gave him the opportunity to exercise his freedom to undermine the anti-Semitic regime. During those dire times, the Jewish minority relied on the help of a network called Delegation for the Assistance of Jewish Emigrants, DELASEM for short.

German Tiger I tank in front of the Altare della Patria in Rome in 1944. Photo: Bundesarchiv, Bild 101I-310-0880-38 / Engel / CC-BY-SA 3.0
German Tiger I tank in front of the Altare della Patria in Rome in 1944. Photo: Bundesarchiv, Bild 101I-310-0880-38 / Engel / CC-BY-SA 3.0

The man behind the organization was Giorgio Nissim, an accountant from Pisa, who dedicated his life to helping Jews escape persecution and deportation to concentration camps. The fascists discovered the organization’s activities in Tuscany in 1943. Most of their escape channels were shut down, while almost everyone involved in the operation was arrested and deported.

Nissim managed to avoid capture, but he was unable to re-establish the organization in the same capacity. After the war, it was revealed that Bartali had played a significant role in DELASEM.

Gino Bartali with Orson Welles. Photo: ANeFo / CC-BY-SA 3.0
Gino Bartali with Orson Welles. Photo: ANeFo / CC-BY-SA 3.0

Nissim was producing a large number of fake documents to assist the persecuted Jews to get out of the country. He needed photographs of the people whose papers he was forging, but most of them were hidden in various convents around Florence. Someone had to serve as a link between the convents and Nissim.

More than half a century later it was discovered the photos had been collected and distributed by no other than the champion cyclist of both Italy and France – Gino Bartali. The DELASEM organization was responsible for saving the lives of more than 800 people, and Bartali’s role was crucial, given the circumstances.

The 4-speed bicycle Bartali rode to victory in the general classification of the 1938 Tour de France. Nicola – CC-BY SA 3.0
The 4-speed bicycle Bartali rode to victory in the general classification of the 1938 Tour de France. Nicola – CC-BY SA 3.0

However, he did not stop at using his position only for courier assignments. Bartali smuggled some of the unfortunate Jews himself. He pulled a wagon attached to his bike, in which was a man-sized secret compartment and pedaled his way to the Swiss border. When questioned, Bartoli answered that the wagon was part of his training, to improve his cycling skills by making it harder for him to ride. The patrols miraculously believed him and let him pass on several different occasions.

Although he was continually risking his life and the life of his family, Bartali never doubted his duties. Once he was asked by his son to explain his determination to help people he barely knew, despite all the danger. He simply replied:

“One does these things, and then that’s that.”

Bartali never bragged about his role in saving the lives of innocents, nor did he ever mention it in public. That is why his bravery and compassion was unrecognized throughout his life.

Even though he always looked back on his actions with a great deal of modesty, the state of Israel recognized his efforts and in 2013, Gino Bartali was awarded the honor Righteous Among the Nations.