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Catholic cycling champion who saved Jews during World War II honored in Assisi

Gino Bartali (1914-2000) competing in the 1938 Tour de France. Gino Bartali (1914-2000) competing in the 1938 Tour de France./ Public domain

A cycling champion and devout Catholic who helped to save more than 800 Jews from Nazi persecution during World War II was remembered in Assisi Wednesday on the 21st anniversary of his death.

Bishop Domenico Sorrentino of Assisi led the singing of the Marian antiphon “Regina Coeli” at 12pm local time on May 5 in Gino Bartali’s personal chapel, now housed in the Memorial Museum, Assisi 1943 -1944, to remember the man declared “Righteous Among the Nations” by Yad Vashem in 2013.

“Bartali was a great witness, [whose example] helps us to become more Christian, more human…” Sorrentino said. Even in the difficulties of the present time, “Bartali gives us a hand, with his example, his courage, and his faith.”

During World War II, Gino Bartali used his position as a famous road cycling champion to support the Italian Resistance and help, with others, to save the lives of more than 800 Italian Jews.

Using cycling training as a cover, Bartali transported photographs and forged documents between Florence and Franciscan convents in the surrounding regions where Jews were hidden. He also carried messages and documents for the Italian Resistance.

Bartali also assisted the Assisi Network, an underground network of Catholic clergy who hid Jews in convents and monasteries during World War II, by taking Jews from the hiding places to the Swiss Alps in a wagon with a secret compartment attached to his bicycle. If he was stopped, he said that the wagon was for training.

The cyclist, who twice won the Tour de France, also personally hid a Jewish family in his cellar, saving their lives, according to one survivor.

Gino Bartali with his son Andrea. / Courtesy of the Bartali family.
Gino Bartali with his son Andrea. / Courtesy of the Bartali family.

His reputation and popularity as Italy’s top cyclist before the war meant that he was mostly left undisturbed by the Fascist police and German troops, who did not want to risk upsetting his large fan base by arresting him.

Nevertheless, he was once taken in for questioning by the Nazi intelligence agency and the Italian RSS, and his life was threatened. Bartali never revealed what he had done. Even after the war, he spoke little about his accomplishments.

The cyclist used to say, “Good is done, but not said. And certain medals hang on the soul, not on the jacket.”

Bartali married in 1940 and was the father of three children. He died in 2000 at the age of 85 after suffering a heart attack following a heart bypass operation. He had received the last rites 10 days prior.

In an obituary for the Guardian newspaper, Tim Hilton wrote: “Bartali was a genuinely religious man, making his devotions public and, in return, becoming the Vatican’s favorite sportsman -- he was personally blessed by three popes.”

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“He would set up shrines in his hotel bedrooms when he rode the Giro [d’Italia] and the Tour de France, and, on some mountains, children from summer camps sang canticles as he pedaled past, a priest conducting their infant worship.”

When he was not traveling to compete, Bartali lived in Florence. But he was very attached to the city of Assisi, which is just over 100 miles to the southeast in the region of Umbria.

Gino Bartali’s personal chapel, housed in the Memorial Museum, Assisi 1943-1944, in Assisi, Italy. / Diocese of Assisi-Nocera Umbra-Gualdo Tadino.
Gino Bartali’s personal chapel, housed in the Memorial Museum, Assisi 1943-1944, in Assisi, Italy. / Diocese of Assisi-Nocera Umbra-Gualdo Tadino.

In 1937, Bartali became a Carmelite Tertiary. He built a private chapel in honor of his brother who had died in a racing accident the year before. The chapel was consecrated by Cardinal Elia Dalla Costa, the archbishop of Florence.

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That chapel is now part of Assisi’s Memorial Museum. Bartali’s granddaughter, Gioia Bartali, said that this chapel “has always represented an indelible memory of our family.”

“In 1937, my grandfather Gino took his vows as a Carmelite Tertiary following the untimely death of his beloved brother Giulio, who died in an accident during a cycling race,” she told CNA’s Italian-language partner agency ACI Stampa.

“Following that tragic event he decided to stop racing,” she noted, “and it was only thanks to the comfort of his faith and the love of my grandmother Adriana that he decided to get back in the saddle, to win again, thus dedicating his victories to the Virgin Mary.”

Gino Bartali with his granddaughters Gioia and Stella. / Courtesy of the Bartali family
Gino Bartali with his granddaughters Gioia and Stella. / Courtesy of the Bartali family

She said the chapel was created that year, with a few simple objects placed in a small room in Bartali’s house.

“An altar consecrated to St. Thérèse of the Child Jesus, which allowed him to have Mass celebrated [at home], thus managing to practice his faith with devotion and humility,” she said.

Bartali left the chapel to Gioia’s father, Andrea, in his will. At the request of Andrea, Gioia and her sister, Stella, donated the chapel to the bishop of Assisi.

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Speaking about Assisi, she said that “no place more than the seraphic city could have celebrated the heroic deeds of a great sportsman and man of faith, who became a protagonist in the dark years of the war, saving hundreds of Jews in total silence and without asking for anything in return.”

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