Racing for His Life—and His County’s: Conversation with Aili McConnon | HistoryNet MENU

Racing for His Life—and His County’s: Conversation with Aili McConnon

By Gene Santoro
7/25/2017 • World War II Magazine

IN 1938, GINO BARTALI won the Tour de France, becoming an Italian idol. Ten years later, the 34-year-old Tuscan beat long odds to do it again—a triumph that helped heal his divided nation. In between, he was a courier for a resistance network that forged papers to help Jews escape Nazis who were hunting them. “If Gino could have avoided politics, he would have,” says Aili McConnon, coauthor with her brother Andres of a fine Bartali biography, Road to Valor (Crown, 2012). “But when he was 11, two incidents planted seeds that bloomed later.”

What happened that year?

Fascists murdered his father’s boss, who was part of an anti Fascist movement. Gino’s father, also in the movement, explained what had happened, telling Gino to steer clear of politics. And Gino met Giacomo Goldenberg in his cousin’s bike shop. Like many Jews, the Goldenbergs had fled to Florence from Eastern Europe’s ghettos and pogroms; in Italy, Jews were integrated into daily life. Giacomo was 16 years older than Gino, educated, spoke several languages, had traveled widely. They became friends. Then Giacomo moved north, and Gino became a star cyclist.

How did the champion cyclist feel about the National Fascist Party?

He was very frustrated with their attempts to control his prewar career and when the party made his 1938 Tour de France victory into a Fascist triumph. He was a strong willed, independent guy who saw they didn’t really care about the athletes or events. But he was very aware that if he spoke out, the party could end his career, and all the fame and prosperity he had acquired despite his humble background.

What role did Gino’s Catholicism play?

In 1936 his brother Giulio, 19, died in a cycling accident. Gino felt guilty about that; he became very devout. The church celebrated him as a Christian athlete, an alternative to the macho Fascists; Fascist newspapers mocked his faith, but he won races, and celebrity helped protect him. He joined the group Catholic Action.

Why was Catholic Action important?

Its members included the anti-Fascist political leader Alcide De Gasperi and Elia Dalla Costa, the cardinal of Florence. In May 1938, Hitler and Mussolini visited Florence. When they came to the cathedral, Dalla Costa locked the Duomo’s main doors, forcing them to enter through a side door. After that, the Fascists kept Cardinal Dalla Costa under close surveillance.

Hitler’s visit heralded big changes for Italian Jews.

After his visit, racial laws were suddenly introduced. Jewish children were banned from state schools, and Jews were restricted in almost every facet of their lives. Jews who had been born elsewhere, like Giacomo Goldenberg, were stripped of Italian citizen ship. It was worst in northern Italy, where Giacomo lived. In 1940, cousins who shared the Goldenbergs’ house were arrested and sent to an internment camp. The next morning, the Goldenbergs left for Florence and found a small house in Fiesole, a village nearby. They were identified as Jews, but Giacomo wasn’t sent to a camp; he was forbidden to go to Florence, and had to check in weekly with the local police.

Why wasn’t Giacomo interned?

The regime was inconsistent. Italian camps were nothing like German camps. They were set up hastily in hospices, cinemas, villas, and they were undersupplied and overcrowded. Jews weren’t singled out for unusual cruelty; they could start synagogues and schools, and weren’t turned over for deportation, despite Nazi pressure. DELASEM, a Jewish organization, could work openly to coordinate services for Jewish refugees. Giacomo lived quietly, reconnecting with friends like Gino’s cousin, who brought Gino to see Giacomo just before Gino was drafted.

What did Gino do in the military?

He was a bike messenger, and he raced. Cycling was so important to Italians that Mussolini allowed some races like the Giro d’Italia to go on. But Gino began to realize he was part of a charade.

How did Italy’s surrender to the Allies affect Jews there?

The Germans began deporting Jews to concentration camps. DELASEM was forced underground. In September 1943, the organization approached Dalla Costa. He sheltered Jews in his residence and told priests and monasteries in his archdiocese to do the same. And he became the leader of a powerful network that included a Franciscan friar and the bishop of Assisi. This network helped Jews escape to the Allied lines or Switzerland by providing fake documents. The friar, Father Niccacci, suggested making Assisi a counterfeiting center. He found a father-son team of printers who, with Jewish refugees hiding in a convent there, could forge papers.

How did Gino get involved?

The network had to move ID materials 125 miles between Assisi and Florence. Dalla Costa, who married Gino and his wife and baptized their son, summoned the cyclist. Gino had two excuses to be on the roads: everyone knew he was always training, and he was a military messenger. Dalla Costa asked for his help, but also explained that Gino could be imprisoned, executed, or sent to a death camp. At the same time, Giacomo Goldenberg asked Gino’s cousin to contact Gino, who owned property in Florence, for help hiding his family.

How did Gino deal with all this?

Gino felt completely overwhelmed. He wanted to help, but he was terribly afraid for his wife and young son. He went to the cemetery and prayed by Giulio’s grave. He finally decided he would not be able to stand by while Jews were being arrested and murdered or deported, so he agreed to help his friend Giacomo’s family and to participate in Cardinal Dalla Costa’s network.

How did Gino help the Goldenbergs?

He put them in an apartment he owned. When things got more dangerous he moved the family to a cellar. One of the children recalls listening to bombers overhead and hearing jackboots on the street.

What did Gino do in the network?

He was mainly a courier. He would pick up pictures for fake IDs from the cardi nal’s representatives, roll up the photos, and hide them in his bike’s frame. He’d often stop in Terontola and wait near the station where Jewish refugees had to switch trains. When a train pulled in, he did too. He was famous enough to draw attention away from the refugees. After delivering the photos to Father Niccacci he’d return to Florence carrying finished IDs.

How successful was the network?

The network saved about 500 Jews.

In July 1944 the war came to Florence.

The violence and tightening military checkpoints made everyday life much more dangerous for Italians. Besides the Germans, Major Mario Carità, a hardcore Fascist, was leading a gang of 200 thugs who were arresting and torturing people. The Americans repeatedly bombed Florence’s rail yards but instead often hit the market, which was nearby. When the Germans retreated, they dynamited every bridge over the Arno River except the Ponte Vecchio. They poured gas on train tracks, they blew up factories—even pasta factories. Most people suffered badly. Gino was well off, but the war changed him.

How?

He couldn’t sleep. He had survivor’s guilt. His country was in ruins. A bicycle was the only way to get around; it was often the key to getting work. Bicycles were essential, but racing wasn’t. He knew the war had stolen his best years as a cyclist. For Gino to resume his career meant rebuilding Italy, so he and a few others decided to rebuild their world, which was cycling. Early races were haphazard; prizes were anything from a chicken to gas pipes. He had a hard job convincing people—especially young bucks—that he wasn’t too old.

After such setbacks, how was Gino’s return to the Tour de France in 1948?

He was written off as a joke, even by his coach. At the 13th stage of the tour he was 21 minutes behind the leader—a nearly unbridgeable gap. That evening Gino received a phone call from De Gasperi, who was now Italy’s prime minister: Palmiro Togliatti, head of the Communist Party and the second most powerful person in Italy, had been shot. He was in a coma. There were fights in parliament, riots, strikes. Hostages were being taken. Could Gino win the tour and give his people a victory to rally behind? Thanks to superhuman effort, despite the worst conditions on the tour, he did. When Togliatti awoke, the first thing he asked was, “How did Bartali do?”

 

Originally published in the October 2012 issue of World War II. To subscribe, click here.

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