Today’s Italian A Day was a special submission from Jonathan of Team Gino Bartali, in honor of Holocaust Remembrance Day (or Giorno della Memoria), which began last night and continues until tonight at sundown.
Gino Bartali (1914-2000) was an incredibly popular, Italian champion road cyclist who saved a number of Jews from Nazi persecution at great personal risk during World War II.
Born in Ponte a Ema, Florence, Italy, Bartali was the son of modest farmers. He began working in a bicycle shop when he was only 13 years old and began racing soon afterwards. By the age of 21, he was already riding and competing professionally; just a year later, in 1936, he won the Giro d’Italia. He would go on to win the Giro d’Italia a total of three times, as well as a number of individual stage wins. He also won multiple individual stages at the Tour de France, and won the Tour de France’s yellow jersey twice – most famously in 1948. He was also the rival of Fausto Coppi, another Italian biking legend.
However, Bartali also became revered for his actions during World War II. Not only did he hide a Jewish family in his cellar from Nazi occupiers, putting himself and his family at great risk, he also became a courier for the Italian Resistance movement via bicycle.
He was so popular with the Italian people that neither the Fascist nor the German troops dared to act on their suspicions and arrest him, for fear of the Italian people’s reaction. Bartali, pretending to be training on these rides that were over thousands of miles long, saved numerous Jews in hiding by tipping them off about raids on safehouses.
He would later assist in getting Jews out of Italy and into Switzerland by cycling with an attached wagon that had a secret compartment in which he would hide people. When stopped by authorities, he simply stated that it was part of his training. Bartali’s work saved hundreds of lives, but he never spoke of it.
His son recounts that when people called Bartali a hero, he would say, “No, no – I want to be remembered for my sporting achievements. Real heroes are others, those who have suffered in their soul, in their heart, in their spirit, in their mind, for their loved ones. Those are the real heroes. I’m just a cyclist.”
Bartali retired from cycling in 1954 and passed away in 2000.
In honor of Holocaust Remembrance Day, please consult the following resources and events:
IIC Los Angeles is streaming I Only Wanted To Live (Volevo solo vivere | 2006) by Mimmo Calopresti, available for online streaming from January 27 – 31. Register here.
The Italian Academy at Columbia University published an exclusive interview with with Liliana Segre, a survivor of Auschwitz who was named a lifetime member of Italy’s Senate in 2018.
Casa Italiana Zerilli-Marimò at New York University is live-streaming a series of clips from past programs here.