Cycling for Human Rights in the Face of Fascism

During World War II, there were many courageous people that risked their lives, and in some cases gave their lives, to save the Jewish people from the brutality of the Nazi regime. Gino Bartali was one of these heroes, he was a widely known and well-respected Italian cyclist, his golden age was before World War II, winning the Giro d’Italia twice as well as the Tour de France. Bartali was a champion on the field and off the field, and cycling was his key.

As a teenager, Gino Bartali attened high school in Florence, though to travel to school he needed a bicycle. With the help of his parents and siblings, he was able to purchase the vehicle that would lead him through life. During the 1930s, Gino Bartali started cycling professionally, winning his first race at the age of seventeen. By 1936, the young superstar had made a name for himself, winning multiple Giro d’Italias, Italy’s annual multi-stage bicycle race. His early success caused the Italian Cycling Federation to persuade Bartali to compete in the Tour de France, to show that the Italians also had a strong cycling tradition; Bartali took home the title in 1938.

Since 1922, Italy has been under Italian Fascist leader Benito Mussolini. While Italian Fascists had power over Italy’s governmental and private institutions, Gino Bartali’s success was a great feat for the fasicsts until they realized that Bartali did not share their political philosophy. Bartali never dedicated his victories to Italian political leaders, and he was never honored at home for his achievements.

In 1938, Italy replicated Nazi Germany’s Nuremberg Laws against Italian Jews. These new measures would exclude and isolate the Jewish people in Italian society and eventually allow the mass deportation of Jews to Nazi death camps. As World War II broke out, Bartali was called up for the Italian army and assigned to be a messenger, this position allowed him to continue training on bike for his assignments.

Just after Bartali left the army, Mussolini was overthrown. While many Italians fell inline with the Nazi Germany’s fascist views, Bartali did not comply and instead did much to try to help the Italian Resistance. From 1943-1945, Gino Bartali would use his fame to carry messages, documents, and other materials to the Italian Resistance and to the Jews of Italy. He did this all throughout the country, the Italian police nor the German troops could arrest a man of this caliber. Bartali did not just stop there, it was revealed in December 2010 that Bartali had hidden a Jewish family in his family home, according to one of the survivors, this act had truly saved their lives.

This coming Giro d’Italia will be hosting by the State of Israel for the first time May 4th with Israeli participating for the first time as well. The race’s path will start in Jerusalem, continue on Israel’s coast line from Haifa to Tel Aviv, and the last track will be in the Negev desert from Beersheva to Eilat and the Red Sea.

In September 2013, thirteen years after Bartali’s death, he was recognized as a “Righteous Among the Nations” by Yad Vashem for his work in aiding Jews during World War II. We at the Friends of Zion Museum are very grateful not just for Gino Bartali risking his life to help save the Jewish people during World War II, but also for his dedication to human rights in the face of fascism.