I bring you a book that made me think about my father quite a lot. I hope you find it as interesting as I did (and as I am sure he would have).
A Champion Cyclist Against the Nazis: The Incredible Life of Gino Bartali by Alberto Toscano
Italy,1943. Although allied with Hitler, there were those who refused to accept the fascist policies of racial discrimination and deportation. Among them was Gino Bartali.
A champion cyclist, he won the Giro d’Italia (Tour of Italy) three times and the Tour de France twice. But these weren’t his only achievements. Deeply religious, Bartali never spoke about what he did during those dark years, when he agreed to work with the Resistance and pass messages from one end of the country to the other. Despite the dangers, Bartali used his training as a pretext to criss-cross Italy, hiding documents in the handlebars and saddle of his bicycle, all the while hoping that each time he was searched they wouldn’t think to disassemble his machine.
As a result of his bravery, 800 Jews — including numerous children — were saved from deportation. He died in Florence in 2000 and was recognized as one of the ‘Righteous Among the Nations’ in 2013. In this book, Alberto Toscano shares the incredible story of this great sportsman and recalls the dramatic moments in Italy and Europe in the twentieth century.
About the author:
Alberto Toscano was born in Novara, Piedmont, and graduated in political science from the Università Statale in Milan, Italy, in 1973 with a thesis on the war in Indochina. From 1974 to 1982, he worked as a researcher at the Istituto degli Studi di Politica Internazionale (ISPI) in Milan and served as the editor of the ISPI weekly review Relazioni Internazionali. In 1977 and 1978 he received journalism training from the CFJ journalism school in Paris, France. Appointed International Bureau chief of the Italian weekly Rinascita in 1982-1983, he was then editor and special correspondent of the daily newspaper L’Unità until 1986, when he became the Paris correspondent of the daily economic magazine ItaliaOggi.
He is the author of over 5000 articles on France, published by Italian newspapers of several political tendencies: ItaliaOggi, L’Indipendente, Il Giornale.
He works as a journalist and political commentator for several media outlets — in Italy with the press agency Agenzia Giornali Associati (AGI), the RAI public radio and the private television group Mediaset, and in France with Nouvel Observateur, RFI, France Culture, France Inter and TV5. It also collaborates with the daily La Croix and served as president of the Foreign Press Association in France in 1996-1997, and currently serves as the president of the European Press Club since 2000 and President of the cultural association Piero Piazzano di Novara since 2001. Finally, since 2008, he is a member of the Board of Directors of the French Section of the Union of Francophone Press (UPF).
He is visiting professor in Political Science at Sciences-Po in Bordeaux. He is a member of the Training and Research Unit of Italian Language and Literature at the Sorbonne University in Paris.
He was received into the French National Order of Merit.
I received an early hardback copy of this non-fiction book from Rosie Croft, from Pen & Sword, which I freely chose to review.
My father loved cycling, both watching it and jumping on a bike, and he belonged to a local cycling club. He could talk about cycling and bicycles for hours on end, and he inspired others to take it up as well (not me, I must hasten to add, but several of his brothers and nephews). That was partly the reason why I was attracted to this book in the first place, although I had never heard about Gino Bartali. But let me reassure you: you don’t need to be a fan of cycling to enjoy this book. Although there is plenty about Bartali’s cycling career and achievements (he dedicated most of his life to it, even after he retired from sporting events), this book is not a manual on cycling techniques, full of information about bicycle manufacturers, and painstakingly detailed descriptions of the individual races. You don’t need to be very knowledgeable about Italian politics or history to enjoy it either. Toscano, the author, manages to combine biographical information about the protagonist of the book with a solid background of the socio-historic-political situation in Italy at the time. I’m not an expert on Italian history, but I felt I gained perspective on the Italian experience during WWII, especially on the efforts of a part of the population to save not only Italian-Jews but also Jews arrived from other areas to Italy in that period. I have come across many books on the experience of the French Resistance (particularly historical fiction set there) but not so many on what happened in Italy, and it offered me a new perspective. And non-fictional as well.
What I most liked of the book was the way the author manages to place the story of Bartali in the context of the era. The personality of the man comes across in the book. He was determined, a fighter, very religious (Roman Catholic and devoted), with high moral standards, who would do the right thing, even if it meant putting himself at risk, and although he did not shy away from popularity (he regularly appeared on TV with Fausto Coppi, his eternal rival while cycling but also a good friend), he never wanted to discuss his role in helping save many Jews as part of the efforts of the DELASEM (Delegation for the Assistance of Jewish Emigrants) in collaboration with Catholic priests, bishops, nuns, and many Italian civilians who helped in any way they could (housing them, providing papers, money, etc.). The book uses translated quotes from Bartali’s own autobiographies and also from the book his son, Andrea, wrote about his father (and the originals in Italian are provided also as Endnotes) to illustrate events and to make us feel as if we could hear him and had met him. There are also a few B&W pictures included. As I have said, I felt I learned a lot about the era, the politics, the importance of cycling as a sport in Italy at the time, and how sports and politics become enmeshed (and sports and national identity). Bartali was not a sympathiser of Mussolini and fascism, and that resulted in difficult situations for him, but he was well known and respected, and that put him in a great position to be able to help others. I also enjoyed the writing style, which is fluid and provides the right amount of information for people without in-depth knowledge to follow the narrative without becoming overwhelming. Toscano achieves a good balance between the general and the detail, and the book offers a good overview of the era and of Bartali’s life and achievements.
If I had to mention something I disliked, or rather, I missed, is a full bibliography. The book provides plenty of information on the subject (Bartali) and on Italian history and politics, but there is no bibliographical section that could help people interested in those topics to research further. Some films and the books about Bartali are mentioned within the text, but there is no separate reference to them. The preface and the afterword, on the other hand, highlight the importance of Bartali and of this book, and there is information within the text about newspaper headlines and articles that would make them easy to trace back.
I recommend this book to people interested in WWII stories, particularly those about the home front and about individuals whose war efforts have not been recognised until recently. People interested in cycling, Italian history and politics, and anybody who wants to read about a fascinating character that more than rose to the challenges of his time will enjoy this book. And I’m sure my father would have loved it as well.
I had to conclude with a quote that, according to the book, Bartali shared with his son, Andrea, about why he kept silent about his role in WWII:
I want to be remembered for my sporting achievements and not as a war hero. The heroes are the others, those who suffered in body, mind, and in their loved ones. I just did what I did best. Ride a bike. Good must be done discretely. Once it is spoken of, it loses its value because it is as if one is trying to draw attention away from the suffering of others. They are the medals you can hang on your soul that will count in the Kingdom of Heaven, not on this earth.
Thanks to Rosie Croft and Pen & Sword for this opportunity, thanks to all of you for writing, and remember to like, share, comment, click, review, keep smiling, keep safe, and never forget.