ROME (AP) — The clandestine World War II work of champion cyclist Gino Bartali was recognised Thursday when a ceremony was held in Jerusalem to mark his help in rescuing Jews in his native Italy.
The ceremony was held at the Jerusalem Holocaust memorial Yad Vashem to induct Bartali into the prestigious Garden of the Righteous Among the Nations for his work during the German occupation of Italy.
The 1938 Tour de France winner aided the Jewish-Christian rescue network in his hometown of Florence and the surrounding area by shuffling forged documents and papers hidden in the tubes and seat of his bike.
Bartali, who died in 2000, rarely spoke about it for the rest of his life but his son Andrea Bartali led an effort to gain recognition for what his father did.
"It's very moving for me to be here now to talk about my father, a man who covered more than 700,000 kilometers (nearly 500,000 miles) with his bicycle, many of which during the war, to help people in need and, above all, Jews," Andrea Bartali told The Associated Press at the ceremony.
"Why did he do it? He was a great sportsman and his idea was that sport, and mainly cycling, if it's not a life lesson and solidarity then it is totally useless," Andrea Bartali added.
Two Holocaust survivors who were helped by Bartali, Giulia Baquis and Giorgio Goldenberg, also attended the ceremony. The honor recognizes non-Jews who risked their lives to save Jews during the Holocaust.
Baquis told Yad Vashem that during the German occupation she was in hiding with her family at the home of two sisters in the Tuscan town of Lido di Camaiore. One day, a cyclist arrived at the door with a package and inquired about her family.
The courier was turned away, because the sisters thought he might be a collaborator. After the liberation, the resistance member who had arranged the hiding place told Baquis' parents that the messenger had been Gino Bartali.
"I considered him a hero," Baquis said. "I've always considered him a hero, but I never saw him. I only saw him on TV sometimes. I never met him in person. I never talked to him. But in my heart he was a hero for me."
The Jewish-Christian rescue network in Florence was led by Rabbi Nathan Cassuto and Cardinal Elia Angelo Dalla Costa, the Archbishop of Florence, who was previously recognized as Righteous Among the Nations. Even after Rabbi Cassuto was arrested by the Germans, deported and sent to his death, the network continued functioning.
Giorgio Goldenberg, who also attended Thursday's ceremony, was a child when his entire family was hidden by Bartali, who was a friend of his father's.
"I'm alive because Bartali hid us in a cellar," the 81-year-old Goldenberg, who now lives in Israel, told the Italian Jewish monthly Pagine Ebraiche.
Oscar-nominated director Oren Jacoby just finished editing a film called "Don't Talk About It: Italy's Secret Heroes." It's a documentary that tells the story of Bartali and other Italians who helped Jews during the Holocaust.
"Of course there were bad stories, and we show in the film that there were Italians who were sent to Auschwitz and there were times when there were Italians who didn't do the right thing," Jacoby said in a phone interview. "But there were so many remarkable instances. And Bartali's was just a wonderful paradigm for what so many people did."
Eighty percent of the Jews in Italy survived the war, according to the Italy and the Holocaust Foundation.
Still, more than 7,000 Jews were deported under Benito Mussolini's regime, and nearly 6,000 of them were killed.
Next Wednesday marks the 70th anniversary of the rounding up of the Jews in Rome, which has traditionally held the religion's largest community in Italy.
Before the war, Bartali had won the 1938 Tour de France and the Giro d'Italia in 1937 and '37, making him one of the country's biggest stars. He also won the 1946 Giro and 1948 Tour after the war.
"He was sort of like Babe Ruth and Clark Gable rolled into one, in Europe," Jacoby said. "He had everything to lose."
When Bartali was stopped and searched, he specifically asked that his bicycle not be touched since the different parts were very carefully calibrated to achieve maximum speed, according to Yad Vashem.
"He's so representative of so many people who did the right thing," said Vincent Marmorale, the president of the Italy and the Holocaust Foundation. "It's a beautiful story."
Jacoby's film is a feature-length documentary narrated by Italian actress Isabella Rossellini. The director said he hopes to have it released by July on the 100th anniversary of Bartali's birth.
"When people were telling him 'Gino, you're a hero,'" Andrea Bartali said. "He would reply, 'No, no. I want to be remembered for my sporting achievements. Real heroes are others, those who have suffered in their soul, in their heart, in their spirit, in their mind, for their loved ones. Those are the real heroes. I'm just a cyclist."
Associated Press Television News reporters Moshe Edri and Yaniv Zohar in Jerusalem contributed