In the shadow of a cattle car that once transported Jews to the concentration camps, Israel on Wednesday bestowed honorary citizenship on the late Gino Bartali, a cycling hero who helped ferry forged documents to Jews during the Holocaust.
Six cyclists from the Israel Cycling Academy took a memorial ride through the Yad Vashem campus in honor of Bartali, part of the celebrations of the Giro D’Italia cycling race that will start in Israel on Friday.
Bartali was a world-class cyclist and part of the underground resistance during World War II.
During his life, Bartali refused to talk about his courier work during the war, saying famously, “Good is something you do, not something you talk about.” On Wednesday, dozens of supporters wore shirts emblazoned with those words as the Giro D’Italia organizers honored Bartali’s contribution to both the sport of cycling and the rescue of dozens of Jews.
The memorial ride concluded in the Garden of the Righteous Among the Nations, where Yad Vashem chairman Avner Shalev presented the certificate of Commemorative Citizenship to Bartali’s granddaughter, Gioia Bartali.
“The greatest victory that Bartali ever brought home was the victory against evil,” said Italian ambassador to Israel Gianluigi Benedetti.
A tearful Gioia Bartali said the day was a “testimony to his humanity and goodness,” adding that “he was a champion of the sport, but today we are remembering him as a champion of life.”
Bartali, born in Florence in 1914, was one of Italy’s most famous road cyclists. He won the Giro d’Italia race three times (in 1936, 1937 and 1946) and the Tour de France twice (in 1938 and 1948). The favored “iron son of Tuscany” used the excuse of long training rides to ferry photographs to an underground network of rabbis, priests, nuns and activists who created forged papers to help Jews escape Italy during the war.
Bartali hid the documents and photographs in the frame of his bicycle, waving gaily to Nazi soldiers as he passed by Italy’s windy country roads. Bartali also hid a Jewish family in his apartment.
Bartali died in 2000, and Yad Vashem recognized Bartali as a Righteous Among the Nations in 2013. On Thursday, the Jewish National Fund/Keren Kayemet L’Yisrael will dedicate a bike path in the Jerusalem Forest in honor of Bartali.
The 2018 Giro D’Italia, second most prestigious bike race after the Tour de France, is honoring Bartali along the entire race course. The first three days of the 21-day race will be held in Israel, consisting of a 10-kilometer time trial in Jerusalem, a 167-kilometer race from Haifa to Tel Aviv, and a 226-kilometer race from Beersheba to Eilat. Afterwards, the 176 riders from 22 teams will fly to Italy to ride the remaining 18 stages of the race, finishing in Rome.
It is the first time in the 101-year history of the Giro D’Italia that the race will start outside of Europe. Roads and highways along the race route in Israel, including Route 2 and Route 90, will be closed during portions of the race.
Sylvan Adams, the visionary behind the Giro D’Italia’s start in Israel, who also funded most of the NIS 120 million ($33 million) cost for the Israel stages of the race, noted that honoring Bartali was especially emotional for him because his parents are Holocaust survivors. His father escaped Romania during WWII, came to Palestine before creation of state, and fought in the War of Independence. His mother hid in Bucharest during the war and came to Palestine in 1947. She spent six months in an internment camp in Cyprus before coming to Israel. Both of his parents eventually moved to Canada and met and married there.
Adams met his wife while volunteering on a kibbutz 30 years ago, and two years ago, he and his wife decided to move back to Israel.
“Both of my parents came here and participated in building of fledgling Israeli state, so for me to come back here is very natural, both because my wife and I met here, and because parents were saved by this country,” Adams said in April at a Giro press conference. “For me, it’s a full circle coming back and beginning the next chapter of our lives in our home of Israel.”
“Bartali was the greatest rider of his time,” Adams said at the Yad Vashem ceremony. “But as great of a rider as he was, he was an even greater human being.”