Gino Bartali, the legendary Tuscan Italian cyclist who died in 2000 and is acclaimed in his home country of Italy, but less well known internationally, is a heroic figure, not only in his sport, but even more outside of it, as documented in a recent biography.
Bartali's greatest sporting feats as a cyclist were to win the Tour de France twice, in 1938 at the age of 24, and in 1948, and the Giro d'Italia three times. His skill as a cyclist was widely admired, especially for his winning three consecutive mountain stages of the Tour in 1948, a feat that remained unequalled until Mario Cipollini's four consecutive sprints in 1999.
However Bartali is even more worthy of admiration for his heroic wartime activity. More deadly than the Italian cycling rivalry between Bartali and Fausto Coppini -- with the country divided into "bartalini" and "coppini" adherents -- was the wartime division between fascists and partisans. Bartoli, an active member of Catholic Action and a Tertiary of the Carmelites, kept his distance from Fascist authorities and refused to dedicate his cycling triumphs to Mussolini as the Duce expected.
Bartali was a modest man who helped save 800 Italian Jews from death. After Nazi Germany had occupied Italy in the fall of 1943, Bartali was asked by the Archbishop of Florence, Cardinal Elia Dalla Costa, to help supply local Jews with food, shelter, and false identity papers. Bartali's Jewish friend Giacomo Goldenberg, just outside Florence, in Fiesole, informed him about the Holocaust that was under way, and the danger to the Jewish community. The Nazis at the time were deporting 10,000 Italian Jews to death camps.
Bartoli, though aware of the danger; with a wife and two year old son, and as a member of the Assissi underground resistance, distributed funds to Jewish families hiding in Florence, and helped Jewish refugees escape through the Swiss Alps.
Wearing his racing jacket with his name on it, he made over 40 cycling trips between Florence and Assisi -- a trip of 110 miles – and carried false documents in the tube of his cycle as far as Rome. He took photos and paper to the Resistance's clandestine printing presses, which produced the forged documents by which Jews could conceal their identity. It was revealed only in December 2010 that Bartoli had also saved the lives of a Jewish family by hiding them in a cellar in Florence.
Although Bartali was often stopped on his trips by the Fascist police force, he managed for some time to avoid arrest. At last he was questioned by the notorious and brutal Major Mario Carita, head of the Florentine secret police who, with his gang o 200 fascists, pursued Jews and anti-fascists, imprisoned for over a month, but was never tried and was later released.
For his deeds and courage as a man who dedicated himself to saving others, Bartali has been honored by a tree planted in his name in his hometown of Florence, and has been nominated as one of the Righteous among Nations at the Yad Vashem Holocaust Memorial in Jerusalem.
By contrast, a man who has no claim to be honored is Jacques Goddet, the French sports journalist and director of the Tour de France from 1936 to 1986, years in which Bartali won twice. At best, Goddet's record during the Vichy regime in World War II can be viewed as ambiguous. He protected the Tour de France from collaboration with the Nazis; President Jacques Chirac called him one of the inventors of French sport. At worst, however, he can be seen as a personal collaborator in the most despicable event in France.
As a journalist, Goddet, at least in the first years of Vichy, expressed strong support for Marshal Petain. The Marshal, he wrote, was giving France a purifying bath. Goddet, more of a right wing traditionalist rather than a Nazi or Fascist, claimed to be upholding the true patriotic intentions of the old soldier.
Goddet will, however, always be infamous for having handed over the keys to the Velodrome d'Hiver ( "Vel d'hiv"), the Parisian cycling stadium, when the Nazis wanted to intern thousands of Jews there. Goddet never clearly explained his behavior on this occasion. This concession can be regarded as the single most appalling even in the story of Vichy. On July 16, 1942 the French police, together with French fascists and the Nazi SS, arrested 13,000 Jews in Paris. About 8,000 of them were confined to the Vel d'hiv before being sent, via Drancy, to Auschwitz and other camps.
After the war Goddet was charged with collaboration, but through the intervention of friends, especially Emilien Amaury, he was not punished. The bitter end of this story is that on July 16, 2012, the Amaury Sports Organization (ASO), which now runs the Tour de France, refused to commemorate the event which had discredited France seventy years earlier at the Vel d'hiv, the stadium which was torn down in 1959.
It is good to remember, therefore, that other people displayed such surpassing courage, such as the hero, Gino Bartali.
Michael Curtis is author of Should Israel Exist? A Sovereign Nation under Attack by the International Community.