Italian cyclist Gino Bartali saved Jews during WWII by shuffling papers hidden in his bike

Gino Bartali rarely spoke about this for all these years.

During World War II, the champion cyclist — winner of the 1938 and 1948 Tour de France — helped rescue Jews in his native Italy by hiding forged documents and papers in the tubes and seat of his bike.

Bartali died in 2000. Now, son Andrea Bartali is leading an effort to gain recognition for what his father did.

"It's very moving for me to be here now to talk about my father, a man who covered (nearly 500,000 miles) with his bicycle, many of which during the war, to help people in need and, above all, Jews," Andrea Bartali told The Associated Press.

On Thursday, Gino Bartali was honored at the Jerusalem Holocaust memorial Yad Vashem. He was inducted into the Garden of the Righteous Among the Nations for his work during the German occupation of Italy. He aided the Jewish-Christian rescue network in his hometown of Florence and the surrounding area.

"Why did he do it?" Andrea Bartali said. "He was a great sportsman and his idea was that sport, and mainly cycling, if it's not a life lesson and solidarity then it is totally useless,"

Two Holocaust survivors Bartali helped, Giulia Baquis and Giorgio Goldenberg, attended Thursday's ceremony. The honor recognizes non-Jews who risked their lives to save Jews during the Holocaust.

Baquis told Yad Vashem that during the German occupation she was in hiding with her family at the home of two sisters in the Tuscan town of Lido di Camaiore. One day, a cyclist arrived at the door with a package and inquired about her family.

The courier was turned away because the sisters thought he might be a collaborator. After the liberation, the resistance member who had arranged the hiding place told Baquis' parents that the messenger had been Gino Bartali.

"I considered him a hero," Baquis said. "I've always considered him a hero, but I never saw him. I only saw him on TV sometimes. I never met him in person. I never talked to him. But in my heart he was a hero for me."

The Jewish-Christian rescue network in Florence was led by Rabbi Nathan Cassuto and Cardinal Elia Angelo Dalla Costa, the archbishop of Florence, who was previously recognized as Righteous Among the Nations. Even after Rabbi Cassuto was arrested by the Germans, deported and sent to his death, the network continued functioning.

Goldenberg was a child when his entire family was hidden by Bartali, who was a friend of his father's.

"I'm alive because Bartali hid us in a cellar," the 81-year-old Goldenberg, who now lives in Israel, told the Italian Jewish monthly Pagine Ebraiche.

Oscar-nominated director Oren Jacoby just finished editing a film called "Don't Talk About It: Italy's Secret Heroes." It's a documentary that tells the story of Bartali and other Italians who helped Jews during the Holocaust.

"Of course, there were bad stories, and we show in the film that there were Italians who were sent to Auschwitz and there were times when there were Italians who didn't do the right thing," Jacoby said by phone. "But there were so many remarkable instances. And Bartali's was just a wonderful paradigm for what so many people did."

Eighty percent of the Jews in Italy survived the war, according to the Italy and the Holocaust Foundation. Still, more than 7,000 Jews were deported under Benito Mussolini's regime, and nearly 6,000 of them were killed.

Oct. 16 marks the 70th anniversary of the rounding up of Jews in Rome, home to Judaism's largest community in Italy.

Before the war, Bartali had won the 1938 Tour de France and the Giro d'Italia in 1936 and '37, making him one of the country's biggest stars. He also won the 1946 Giro and 1948 Tour after the war.

"He was sort of like Babe Ruth and Clark Gable rolled into one, in Europe," Jacoby said. "He had everything to lose."

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, according to Yad Vashem.

"He's so representative of so many people who did the right thing," said Vincent Marmorale, the president of the Italy and the Holocaust Foundation. "It's a beautiful story."

Jacoby's film is a feature-length documentary narrated by Italian actress Isabella Rossellini. The director said he hopes to have it released by July on the 100th anniversary of Bartali's birth.

"When people were telling him 'Gino, you're a hero,'" Andrea Bartali said, "he would reply, 'No, no. I want to be remembered for my sporting achievements. Real heroes are others, those who have suffered in their soul, in their heart, in their spirit, in their mind, for their loved ones. Those are the real heroes. I'm just a cyclist.'"


Associated Press Television News reporters Moshe Edri and Yaniv Zohar in Jerusalem contributed