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July 18: The Cyclist Who Saved Jews

Lawrence Bush
July 17, 2016
_74728032_bartali-tourGino Bartali, a champion Italian cyclist who during World War II saved a family of Jews in his cellar and carried messages and documents by bicycle to the Italian Resistance, was born in Florence on this date in 1914. He began racing at age 13, was the Italian national champion by 22, and won the Tour de France in 1948 (shown in photo at right). As a courier for the Resistance, Bartali cycled through Tuscany, Umbria, Marche, and even to Rome, wearing his professional racing jersey, emblazoned with his name, to deter both the Italian fascists and the Nazis from arresting him. In 1943, he dragged Jewish refugees towards the Swiss Alps by bicycle, pulling a wagon with a secret compartment and telling the authorities that he was in training (he was most famous for bicycling in mountainous terrain). When he ran documents, he hid them in the tubing of his bicycle. “When Bartali was stopped and searched, he specifically asked that his bicycle not be touched since the different parts were very carefully calibrated to achieve maximum speed,” notes Yad Vashem, which recognized him as a RIghteous Gentile in 2014, fourteen years after his death. “When I asked my father why I couldn’t tell anyone, he said, ‘You must do good, but you must not talk about it. If you talk about it you’re taking advantage of others misfortunes’ for your own gain.’ ”--Andrea Bartali (Bartali’s son)

​​​​Lawrence Bush edited Jewish Currents from 2003 until 2018. He is the author of Bessie: A Novel of Love and Revolution and Waiting for God: The Spiritual Explorations of a Reluctant Atheist, among other books. His new volume of illustrated Torah commentaries, American Torah Toons 2, is scheduled for publication this year.