On the outskirts of Florence, in an unprepossessing building close the motorway, is a small museum. It is dedicated to the memory of Gino Bartali, a man with a remarkable story that has only recently come to light.
Gino Bartali is a star of world class cycling, and an inspiration to many. Paolo Conte sang a wonderful song about the cyclist and the many miles he travelled; we now know he wasn’t just training.
During the second world war Bartali was already a well known figure, having won the Giro d’Italia twice, in 1936 and 37, and the Tour de France in 1938. During the war he continued to go on training rides, dressed with his cycling gear, with his name emblazoned on it. Neither the fascist police nor the German soldiers would challenge him. What they didn’t know was that he was carrying fake documents and money to help Jews escape the country, hidden in the tubes of his bike frame.
It wasn’t the only thing he would do to help the Jewish community. He hid an entire Jewish family in his cellar for a year. When fleeing Jews were due to arrive in Florence from Assisi by train, he timed his arrival at the station to distract the fascist police and the German soldiers, attracting a crowd by signing autographs. The Jewish refugees went unnoticed by the authorities and could catch their connections to Switzerland.
But things didn’t always go smoothly and one day Bartali was asked to report to the “Villa Triste” (Sad House), the headquarters of the fascist police. This was terrifying; the “Villa Triste” was a place many never returned from, or came back broken. The cellars were used to torture prisoners and to elicit ‘confessions’. But Gino Bartali had a young child – and the police knew exactly where he lived, escape wasn’t an option.
He arrived at the house and was questioned by Mario Carità, the commander. The fascists had intercepted some letters from the Vatican thanking Bartali for his help. “What was this help? ” asked Commander Carità? Bartali claimed he was merely carrying coffee, sugar and flour to those in need. The commander didn’t believe him and had him thrown into the cells for a couple of days. On the third day they interrogated him again, threatening violence. Only the presence of a soldier who knew Bartali personally saved the cyclist. The soldier vouched for him, saying he knew Bartali, and he was not a man who would lie.
Bartali continued to help the Jews, eventually even riding to Switzerland with people hidden in a wagon he was trailing. When stopped by patrols he simply told them it was part of his training.
Remarkably, nothing of this story was known. Bartali never told anybody, telling his son that their are certain medals one pins to ones soul, not to ones sleeve. It was the death of Giorgio Nissim, a member of the organisation that Bartali had worked with to help Jews escape Italy, that brought these stories into public knowledge. His records showed how many trips Bartali had undertaken, many of them to Florence to a convent where Jews were hiding. Here he would collect their photographs and details which he would hide in the bicycles frame. The photos and documents would then be used to create travel documents for the Jews and help them escape.
My Italian Secret
A film with Isabella Rossellini about Bartali’s story.