In honor of Holocaust Remembrance Day, which is observed on January 27, the Dante Alighieri Society of Michigan organizes activities commemorating those Italians who suffered persecution under the Nazi occupation during World War II and as a result of the Racial Laws imposed by the Fascist government.
This year the Dante, in collaboration with the Italian Cultural Institute of Chicago and under the auspices of the Consulate of Italy in Detroit, presented the documentary film My Italian Secret: The Forgotten Heroes, by Oren Jacoby. The film tells a heroic story that was all but lost to history. The film describes how WWII bicycling idol Gino Bartali, physician Giovanni Borromeo and other Italians risked their lives by defying the Nazis to save thousands of Italy’s Jews, working with Jewish leaders and high-ranking officials of the Catholic Church. The event took place on January 26 at the Birmingham Bloomfield Art Center.
Gino Bartali was a three-time Giro d’Italia winner and two-time Tour de France winner who helped save the lives of 800 Jews. His granddaughter Gioia Bartali flew in from Italy to talk about her grandfather’s life. A humble man who did not speak about his heroic actions until his latter years, he used to remind her “Gioia, ricordati che nella vita devi essere umile” (Gioia, remember that in life you must be humble.)
Bartali won his first Giro d’Italia in 1936. The Fascist government ordered him to participate in the Tour de France in 1938 to showcase Italy’s athletic superiority. He won but since he did not support the Facist regime and did not dedicate his win to Benito Mussolini, he did not receive any honors when he returned to Italy.
In September 1943, the archbishop of Florence Elia Dalla Costa asked to meet Bartali. Dalla Costa had been secretly helping thousands of Jews seeking refuge from other European countries who needed falsified identity cards. Dalla Costa’s plan was for Bartali to carry counterfeit documents and photos in the hollow frame of his bike under the guise of his long training rides. The plan was almost foolproof because of Bartali’s knowledge of the roads well and his need to train, which was a perfect alibi. Bartali accepted in spite of the risks. He rode for the following year, while hiding the important materials in the frame of his bicycle.
Soon after he started his clandestine activity, Bartali was asked to hide a Jewish family whom he knew well. Once again Bartali agreed, hiding Giorgio Goldenberg, his wife, and their son in his cellar until Florence was liberated. “He hid us in spite of knowing that the Germans were killing everybody who was hiding Jews,” Goldenberg’s son, Giorgio, says in Jacoby’s film. “He was risking not only his life but also his family. Gino Bartali saved my life and the life of my family. That’s clear because if he hadn’t hidden us, we had nowhere to go.”
Bartali’s cover began to appear less believable as the war went on and cycling races were cancelled. The Facists interrogated Bartali in July 1944 in Florence. Luckily one of Bartali’s interrogators was his former army commander, who convinced the other interrogators that Bartali was innocent of any charges. (Bartali had served in the army as a messenger for three years because of an irregular heartbeat.)
After Florence was liberated on August 11, 1944 Bartali found himself exhausted by the events of the war and by his underground activities. He struggled to regain his mastery of cycling and went on to win the Giro d’Italia in 1946 and the Tour de France in 1948, 10 years after his first Tour de France victory.
Before passing away in 2000, Bartali finally shared just a few details with his son Andrea, but told him he should not tell anyone. “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.'” He wanted to be remembered as a champion, not a hero. Yad Vashem recognized Gino Bartali with the honor of Righteous Among the Nations in 2013. Since her father Andrea’s death, Gioia has made it her mission to make sure the world knows about her grandfather’s heroism.
Dante Alighieri Cultural Committee Chair Daniela D’Amico Henderson served as translator for the evening, and her husband Mitch was the moderator. During the question and answer session, a few members of the audience recounted connections to Gino Bartali. Daniela’s grandfather Tullio D’Amico rode in the Tour de France with Bartali. When President of the Italian Club of Livonia Charitable Foundation Maria Harris was a child, her father Renato Capicchioni, who was also a cyclist, would take her to cheer for Bartali when the Giro d’Italia came through San Marino. Nick DiLorenzo, father of Dr. Luisa DiLorenzo, was a friend of Bartali.
By Sandra Tornberg