Gino Bartali: Italian Cyclist Who Helped Saved Lives

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Thursday, June 20, 2019
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Bartali's win of the Tour of France in 1938, right before the start of the war, made him a heroe in his native Italy, fame he used to carry messages and documents to the Italian Resistance during the war as a humanitarian act to save many Jewish people from death.  Bartali cycled from Florence through Tuscany, Umbria, and Marche, sometimes traveling as far afield as Rome, all the while wearing the racing jersey emblazoned with his name. Neither the Fascist police nor the German troops risked discontent by arresting him. His second and last win of the Tour de France victory after the war in 1948 gave him the largest gap between victories in the race.

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Giorgio Nissim, a Jewish accountant from Pisa, was a member of DELASEM, founded by the Union of the Israeli Communities to help Jewish Italians escape persecution. DELASEM (Delegazione per l'Assistenza degli Emigranti Ebrei) was a Jewish resistance organization that worked in Italy between 1939 and 1947. It is estimated that during World War II, DELASEM was able to distribute more than $1,200,000 dollars in aid, of which nearly $900,000 came from outside Italy.The network in Tuscany was discovered in autumn 1943 and all members except Nissim sent to concentration camps.

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Gino Bartali met Pope Pius XII and, with the help of the Archbishop of Genoa, the Franciscan Friars and others he reorganized DELASEM and helped 800 Jews escape. Nissim died in 2000. His sons found from his diaries that Bartali had used his fame to help.

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Nissim and the Oblati Friars of Lucca forged documents and needed photographs of those they were helping. Bartali used to leave Florence in the morning, pretending to train, rode to a convent in which the Jews were hiding, collected their photographs and rode back to Nissim. Bartali used his position to learn about raids on safehouses.

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Bartali was eventually taken to Villa Triste in Florence where he was questioned by the Italian RSS office where they threatened his life, but his fame was too strong for the Social Republic to further investigate. Bartali simply answered "I do what I feel in my heart". He continued with the Assisi Underground and in 1943 led Jewish refugees towards the Swiss Alps. He cycled pulling a wagon with a secret compartment, telling patrols it was just part of his training. Bartali told his son Andrea that "One does these things and then that's that".

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Bartali stopped racing when he was 40, after being injured in a road accident. At the age of 85 he had a heart bypass operation and then died of a heart attack, having received the last rites 10 days earlier. He left his wife, Adriana, two sons and a daughter.The then prime ministerof Italy, Giuliano Amato, sent condolences. Romano Prodi, president of the European Commission, called him "a symbol of the most noble sportsmanship." The Italian National Olympic Committee (CONI) called two days of mourning and silences were observed before sports events. A mini-series based on his life was produced in 2006 for Italian television titled: "Gino Bartali L'intramontabile," before his humanitarian work had been revealed. 

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