Author Aili McConnon will tell the fascinating story of Italian cyclist Gino Bartali at a Holocaust Education Month event.
Imagine if you discovered that Wayne Gretsky had “a secret chapter.”
That’s what journalist Aili McConnon said it was like painstakingly unearthing the story of cyclist Gino Bartali, who made the greatest comeback in Tour de France history, and who, between his Tour victories, secretly aided the Italian resistance during the Second World War.
An Italian Catholic, married with a son, Bartali had the courage to help save Jews, McConnon told the Ottawa Jewish Bulletin in a telephone interview.
“If it had been discovered he was helping the Jewish community, he would have been killed. Yet he stood up for what he believed in.”
McConnon, a Canadian freelance journalist now based in New York, and her brother, Andres, a historical researcher, are the co-authors of Road to Valour, which tells Bartali’s epic story.
At a Holocaust Education Month event presented by the Shoah (Holocaust) Committee of the Jewish Federation of Ottawa, Aili McConnon will present an author’s talk on Monday, November 14, 7 pm, at the Soloway Jewish Community Centre, describing the process of uncovering Bartali’s amazing history and writing the book – the 2013 Canadian Jewish Book Award recipient for biography.
“My brother and I were cycling fans and often watched together,” said McConnon, who grew up in Brampton, Ontario. “He was watching the Tour de France the year before Lance Armstrong was disgraced. Armstrong was competing in his 30s and there was a discussion of how old one can be and still win in this sport. In that context, we learned about Gino Bartali ,who won at age 24 and again at age 34.”
Knowing the Italian experience in the Second World War, they decided to look into Bartali further.
“We wanted to figure out whether he helped the Fascists,” she said. “We found an Italian Jewish newspaper published in Florence that said he’d helped during the War. I did a bit more digging; his son was still alive and said his father was part of a network distributing false identity cards. It immediately intrigued us that there was this secret chapter of a cycling hero. It started us on the journey.”
The siblings spent nearly 10 years tracking down the story.
“One of the interesting challenges was the network he was a part of,” she said. “It was critical that any single person didn’t know about the others so they couldn’t give the network up if they were tortured. What that meant was that, if we were lucky, we could find a few different eye witnesses to bring that to life.”
A priest who, as a young boy, had seen Bartali in action, told her Bartali would take off the seat post of his bike and hide the documents there. The inspectors didn’t know enough to take the bike apart.
“Bartali would jump on his bike in Florence, and then cycle a few hours to where the printing press was,” she said. “He would drop off the details for new immigrants and then come back to pick up the forged documents and deliver them to where the immigrants were hiding. He was in a unique position to travel around, because his excuse was always that he was out training.”
McConnon spoke to many Italian Jews who had been in the War. Someone in London led her to her brother in Tel Aviv who was saved as a young boy because Bartali had sheltered a family in a small apartment he financed with his cycling winnings.
After the book came out, Yad Vashem contacted the McConnons and obtained material that helped to recognize Bartali, who died in 2000, as Righteous Among the Nations.
“I hope people are inspired by Bartali,” she said. “We need these stories in what can be a violent and scary world.”
McConnon’s talk is free of charge, but RSVP to Elana Moscoe at email@example.com or 613-798-4696, ext. 355, is appreciated.