An Italian Champion

italicsBy Daniela Gross

Gino Bartali was the most famous and beloved Italian cyclist before World War II. His athletic victories are renowned: he won the Giro d’Italia three times, and the Tour de France twice. Until some years ago, however, the big effort he put in helping Jews against racial persecutions was less known. The movie “My Italian Secret: The Forgotten Heroes,” directed by Oren Jacoby and now in theaters in the US, tells his touching story, alongside the stories of other gentiles who helped Jews during that awful period.

As Ben Kenigsberg wrote in the New York Times, the movie is especially focused on the period following the occupation by German troops, and “…periodically returns to the deeds of Gino Bartali (…), a Tour del France champion regarded as an inspiration by the Fascist government. As his son Andrea explains, Mr. Bartali also secretly helped to save lives by transporting fake identification papers in his bicycle frame”. Bartali never talked about his commitment to Jews. His role emerged recently, when a witness told Pagine Ebraiche that he was hidden, along with his family, in Bartali’s cellar. Thanks to this and other testimonies, Gino Bartali in 2013 was finally recognized by Yad Vashem Righteous among Nation.

His story, notes Kenigsberg, “provides a reasonable primer on Italy’s complicated history with the Holocaust and the Italian resistance.” Italian Jews’ history is really complicated, for it its continuous balancing between identity, roots, citizenship and assimilation. But the story of the champion Gino Bartali is an excellent place to start to know it.