Long overdue honor for righteous Christian Italian cycling great Bartali

Sinai Says: Yad Vashem honored the athlete for being part of a network in Florence in Italy that saved Jews during the Holocaust.

Gino Bartali 370 (photo credit: Courtesy Yad Vashem righteous among the nations de)
Gino Bartali 370
(photo credit: Courtesy Yad Vashem righteous among the nations de)
Hero is undoubtedly one of the most overused words in sports.
It seems that in this day and age, you just need to score a game-winning goal or touchdown and you are immediately worshiped across the globe.
There are, however, a few inspiring rarities in the world of sport who truly deserve a heroic status.
Widely regarded as one of the greatest cyclists of all time, Gino Bartali, who passed away at the age of 85 more than 13 years ago, is one of those incredible role models whose story had been overlooked for far too many decades.
Bartali shoulders much of the responsibility for that, never speaking of his acts of courageousness during World War II, which just two weeks ago earned him recognition as one of the Righteous Among the Nations at the Yad Vashem Holocaust Center in Jerusalem.
According to Yad Vashem, “Bartali, a devout Catholic, was part of a rescue network spearheaded by Rabbi Nathan Cassuto of Florence together with the Archbishop of Florence Cardinal Elia Angelo Dalla Costa.”
The Jewish-Christian network is believed to have saved hundreds of local Jews and Jewish refugees, with Bartali playing a crucial role as a courier for the resistance.
Born in Florence in 1914, Bartali won the first of his three Giro d’Italia titles at the age of 22 (1936), but considered calling it quits after his brother Giulio died in a racing accident during June of that year.
He went on to defend his Giro title, before winning it again after the war in 1946.
He also twice triumphed in the Tour de France (1938 and 1948), cementing his position as a national hero in Italy.
In addition to his success in the Grand Tours, Gino was also a force in one-day events. He won the Milan-San Remo four times, the Tour of Lombardy three times, and the Championship of Zurich twice.
He retired in 1954 at the age of 40 after picking up more than 170 professional victories.
But it was what Bartali achieved during the war due to the standing he had acquired in the sporting arena that makes him worthy of all accolades.
Bartali was allowed to cycle for hundreds of kilometers for training purposes (often completing the 176-kilometer route between Florence and Assisi) and he took advantage of that to transfer forged documents that were hidden in the frame and seat of his bicycle.
According to his son, Andrea, Bartali would also go on training rides to Genoa, where he would collect money that a Jewish lawyer had withdrawn from a Swiss bank account in Geneva and take it to Florence where he would distribute it among Jewish families in hiding.
He played a significant part in the rescue of Jews within the network set up by Dalla Costa and Rabbi Nathan Cassuto, while also distributing forged documents that were produced by the Assisi network, which afforded hundreds of Jews a safe haven in churches, monasteries and convents.
Despite his status, Bartali was still stopped and searched, but he avoided being caught by keeping his bicycle off limits, specifically asking that it not be touched as it had been carefully calibrated for racing purposes.
Among the many Jews who owe their lives to Bartali is the family of Renzo Ventura, with his mother, Marcella Frankenthal-Ventura, telling him that she and her parents and sister had received false papers from the cyclist.
Bartali also helped hide Jews during the war, with Shlomo Goldenberg- Paz telling Yad Vashem that he and his parents had taken shelter in an apartment belonging to the cyclist in Florence.
Until his death, Bartali adamantly refused to talk about his war time endeavors, adding humility to a long list of traits.
A champion in life, as well as in sports, Bartali demonstrated moral endurance when almost all others turned a blind eye.
He risked his life to save people he never met because he felt that was the right thing to do.
Finally Bartali is being recognized internationally for his deeds, with the honorary acknowledgment from Yad Vashem coming a year after the publishing of a book recounting his life story named “Road to Valor: A True Story of WWII Italy, the Nazis, and the Cyclist Who Inspired a Nation” by Aili McConnon and Andres McConnon.
In the book, he is quoted as telling son Andrea: “If you’re good at a sport, they attach the medals to your shirts and then they shine in some museum. That which is earned by doing good deeds is attached to the soul and shines elsewhere.”
Even in the darkest of times, Bartali’s virtue continued to glow.
Hero just doesn’t do him justice.