Though its authors insist that “Road to Valor” is “a work of nonfiction,” the book reads like a novel. Its pages are filled with vivid descriptions and the pacing and suspense that mark gifted storytellers.
The book’s subtitle, “A True Story of World War II Italy, the Nazis, and a Cyclist Who Inspired a Nation,” suggests its vast scope. The authors, the brother-and-sister team of Aili and Andres McConnon, spent almost 10 years’ researching their subject; they examined a wide range of texts, videos and voice recordings in Italian, French and English. In addition, they conducted more than 200 hours of interviews in Italy, France and Israel.
Despite the book’s broad reach, the center of the story remains the life of world-class Italian cyclist Gino Bartali (1914-2000) – three-time winner of the Giro D’Italia (1936, 1937, 1946) and two-time winner of the Tour de France (1938, 1948), Europe’s two most prestigious bike races. The McConnons present what amounts to a “you are there” account of Bartali’s come-from-behind victory in the 1948 Tour de France, where he overcame the odds to prevail in the grueling Alpine stages of the race.
The authors supply the kind of details that keep readers riding along with Bartali. Just as he is close to passing out from hunger on his seemingly never-ending uphill climb in an icy hell, “someone reached out and handed him three bananas …. Gino made quick work of all three bananas. His body responded almost immediately.”
As exciting as Bartali’s cycling exploits are, the deepest drama unfolds in his clandestine work with the underground resistance. Once the Nazis moved into Italy in the fall of 1943, all Jews in Italy – be they foreign or native born – became subject to immediate arrest … and far worse.
At the request of Cardinal Elia Della Costa, archbishop of Florence, Bartali became a courier of forged documents that provided fake identities for threatened Jews.
On his frequent arduous trips between Florence and Assisi, Bartali hid these papers and photographs in the hollow tube under the seat of his bicycle. On one occasion, Bartali was summoned to the Florence office of the notoriously sadistic Fascist Maj. Mario Carita, who accused him of collaborating with the resistance. That Bartali managed to avoid torture and death can be attributed to his cunning, his courage and lady luck.
As Giorgio Goldenberg – whom Bartali hid during the Nazi occupation, along with Goldenberg’s mother, father and sister – told the authors, “There is no doubt whatsoever for me that he saved our lives. He not only saved our lives but he also helped save the lives of hundreds of people. He put his own life and his family’s in danger in order to do so.”
As an epigraph for their book, the authors chose a short excerpt from “Tristia,” by the Roman poet Ovid, the last line of which reads: “The road to valor is built by adversity.” Not only do these words provide the book with its title, but in a larger sense, they suggest its overriding theme: the deepening of our humanity through our ongoing struggle against adversity.
Last February, a lifelong friend, a maid of honor at my wedding, urged me to read and review “Road to Valor.” Her doctor, having read and reviewed the work, felt it merited a far greater readership. I told my friend that I had a number of columns for The Jewish Voice already in the hopper, but that I would make every effort to write about the book for one of the June issues of the paper.
Little could I have known in the depths of last winter that Bartali would make headlines in the May 2, 2018, online edition of The Times of Israel, at timesofisrael.com: “Legendary cyclist Gino Bartali gets honorary citizenship ahead of Giro Israel.”
The accompanying article pointed out that in 2013, Yad Vashem had already designated Bartali as one of the Righteous Among the Nations, Chasidei Umot Ha’Olam, for his efforts in helping to rescue hundreds of Jews in Italy. Bartali was to be further honored by Israel’s hosting the first three stages of the 21-stage Giro D’Italia, beginning on May 4; this was to be the first time in the Giro D’Italia’s 101-year history that the event was to begin outside of Europe.
Moreover, on May 3, the Jewish National Fund dedicated a new bike path in the Jerusalem Forest in the cyclist’s honor.
But perhaps the greatest posthumous honor that Israel bestowed upon Bartali came on May 4, just before the beginning of Stage I of the Giro: the nation granted him a certificate of Commemorative Citizenship, which a tearful Gioia Bartali accepted in memory of her grandfather.
Were he to come back to life, I wonder how Bartali would respond to all these honors, given his adamant refusal to ever consider himself a hero. His son Andrea remembers his saying: “If you’re good at a sport, they attach the medals to your shirts and then they shine in some museum. That which is attained by doing good deeds is attached to the soul and shines elsewhere.”
JAMES B. ROSENBERG is rabbi emeritus at Temple Habonim in Barrington. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.