Israel posthumously honors Italian cyclist who saved Jews in the Holocaust

Yad Vashem posthumously honored champion Italian cyclist Gino Bartali  for helping to save Jews during the Holocaust. 

By: World Israel News Staff

Israel on Wednesday honored late Giro d’Italia cyclist Gino Bartali for saving Jews during the Holocaust.

Yad Vashem, the World Holocaust Remembrance Center, held a ceremony in Jerusalem and bestowed Commemorative Citizenship of the State of Israel on Bartali. Gioia Bartali, his granddaughter, represented him.

Italian Ambassador to Israel Gianluigi Benedetti and Sylvan Adams, honorary president of Giro d’Italia’s “Big Start Israel,” were also in attendance.

As part of the events leading up to the Big Start this year, members of the Israel Cycling Academy and the leadership of the Giro d’ Italia cycling race were also in attendance.

Cyclists from the Giro d’Italia participated in a “Memorial Ride” through Yad Vashem’s campus, concluding in the Garden of the Righteous Among the Nations.

Life-saving actions under the guise of sports

Bartali, born in Florence in 1914, was a champion road cyclist who won the Italian Giro d’Italia multistage race three times – in 1936, 1937 and 1946 – and the Tour de France twice. Following his remarkable accomplishments in sports, he became a popular and widely admired national hero.

Bartali was a devout Catholic. According to his son, Andrea, Archbishop Elia Angelo Dalla Costa, also recognized as Righteous Among the Nations in 2012, had performed his parents’ marriage ceremony and maintained a close relationship with his father.

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Following the German occupation of Italy in September 1943, Bartali, a courier for the Resistance, came to play a role in the rescue of Jews within the framework of the network initiated by Rabbi Nathan Cassuto, who was later joined by Archbishop Dalla Costa.

Bartali was known to cover large distances with his bicycle for training purposes, and he transferred forged documents from one place to another. His activity spanned a wide area. He also distributed forged documents produced by the Assisi network, another rescue operation initiated by clergy in that town.

Holocaust survivor Giulia Baquis told Yad Vashem that during the German occupation, she was in hiding with her family at the home of two sisters in Lido di Camaiore in Tuscany. One day, a cyclist arrived at the door with a package and enquired about her family. The older sister was away; the other feared that the stranger was a collaborator and therefore denied any knowledge of the Jewish family. The courier left without delivering the package. After liberation, the Resistance member who had arranged the hiding place for them told Baquis’ parents that the messenger was Gino Bartali.

Another witness, Renzo Ventura, heard his mother, Marcella Frankenthal-Ventura, say that she, together with her parents and her sister, received false papers that were brought to them by Bartali on behalf of the Dalla Costa network.

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The Goldenberg family met Bartali in 1941 in Fiesole. Shlomo Goldenberg-Paz, who was nine years old at the time, told Yad Vashem that he remembers a meeting with Bartali and his relative Armando Sizzi, a close family friend. The two sat with Shlomo’s father and had “an adult discussion.” He recalls the event well because the renowned cyclist gave him a bicycle and a photo with a dedication, which Goldbenberg-Paz has kept. During 1941, the conversation with Bartali could not have dealt with illegal papers, but meeting his childhood hero became engraved in Goldenberg’s memory.

When, following the German occupation in 1943, the Goldenbergs went into hiding, Shlomo was first sent to a convent but then joined his parents, who were hiding in an apartment in Florence that belonged to Bartali. The apartment was also occupied by Sizzi, but Goldenberg later learned from his parents that throughout the time they spent in the apartment, Bartali helped and supported them.

Goldenberg’s cousin, Auerlio Klein, also fled to Florence because he heard that one could obtain forged papers there. He stayed in the apartment with the Goldenberg family for a short while before escaping to Switzerland with the help of forged documents.

Klein told Yad Vashem that Shlomo Goldenberg’s mother had received forged papers from Bartali and that consequently, she was the only one in the family who dared set foot outside the apartment to go shopping.

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Motivated by his conscience

After the war, Bartali never spoke of his underground work during World War II, and therefore many of his courageous endeavors remain unknown.

Sara Corcos, who worked for the CDEC (Centro di Documentazione Ebraica Contemporanea, Jewish Contemporary Documentation Center) in Milan, told her niece, Shoshana Evron, daughter of Rabbi Nathan Cassuto, that she met Bartali after the war. He emphatically refused to be interviewed, saying his was motivated by his conscience and did not want his activities documented. Only when Corcos told him that she was related to the family of Rabbi Cassuto did a deeply moved Bartali agree to speak, on condition that she would not record him. In the conversation that followed, Bartali told Corcos about the forged documents and his role in distributing them.

Yad Vashem posthumously recognized the former Giro d’Italia star as Righteous Among the Nations in 2013 for his courageous actions in rescuing Jews during the Holocaust. Bartali’s name is engraved on the Wall of Honor in the Garden of the Righteous Among the Nations on the Mount of Remembrance.

To date, Yad Vashem has recognized some 27,000 individuals from over 50 countries as Righteous Among the Nations.