When journalist Aili McConnon and her brother, researcher Andres McConnon, decided to write a book together, they zeroed in a biography of Italian sports legend Gino Bartali, a bicyclist who won the Tour de France in 1938 – and then, improbably, won it again 10 years later. He was also a three-time winner of the Giro d’Italia, his country’s most prestigious cycling race.
Bartali was a chain smoker and a wine drinker, and his bookend victories were separated by the cataclysm of World War II. In his comeback story, therefore, the sports-loving siblings saw enough unanswered questions to pique their curiosity.
“The project,” Aili McConnon tells the Catalyst, “stemmed from a discussion we had: What did he do during the war? And how in the world did he stay fit enough to win 10 years later? Because that’s no joke to stay at the top of your sport for that long.”
The project was a bestselling 2012 book called Road to Valor, which McConnon will discuss Wednesday (March 27) at 6:30 p.m. at the Florida Holocaust Museum. Admission is free; To RSVP, call (727) 820.0100, ext. 301.
The venue for McConnon’s St. Pete talk is key, for Bartali, she and Andres discovered, not only smuggled documents for the Italian Resistance during the war, he hid a Jewish family in his home.
The story of Bartali’s heroism was not widely known. The siblings discovered a brief reference to it in a regional Italian Jewish newspaper.
“He spoke a bit about it with his family, but not publicly,” McConnon explains. “He was a cycling hero in Italy but not known for his wartime heroism. Now, he has received some recognition for it. A few years ago he received the Righteous Among The Nations, which is an award that Israel gives to honor people who helped Jews during the war.”
So how did a couple of Canadian scribes, who could read Italian but were (admittedly) just journeyman conversationalists, wind up with one of the most inspirational biographies of the modern era?
Simple. Once reporters get on the trail of something that excites them, they don’t let go for a minute.
“We first started by contacting every person that was alive that was related to him – family members, teammates,” McConnon explains. “We used old phone books, and we looked up town registries. That was the first step in establishing that we’d have enough people to interview if we went over to Italy.”
Although Bartali himself had died (at the age of 85) in 2000, his widow and son were only too glad to confirm to McConnon and her brother – yes, he worked for the Resistance. He hid false identification papers in the frame of his bicycle.
“We went over to his hometown in Tuscany, and to various places we knew he had spent time during the war,” McConnon says. “One of the places was a monastery in Assisi, where he had supposedly picked up documents.
“When we were in his hometown, we went to the local café and said that we were basically looking for information about him. And lo and behold, one of his classmates from elementary school was actually in the café at the time. And that gentleman was able to at least give us color on him from ages 5 to 8.
“A similar thing happened when we went to the monastery, where they explained he had participated in this network. One of the priests we met said ‘It’s funny that you mention it, because I was a young priest, 18 years old, when he appeared on one of his missions during the war. So I knew about it.’’’
Here was an eyewitness. “He’d put the documents under the seat of his bicycle,” the old priest told them. “He would wait here, and one of the other priests would come and collect the documents.”
Because he was considered a national hero, in training, Bartali was not routinely stopped, questioned or searched by Italian secret police, by Facist or Nazi checkpoint guards.
Accompanied by a translator, who was adept in the myriad regional dialects of Italy, the authors made it a point to get to know their interview subjects and earn their trust.
“Many of these people who were alive during World War II, they’re 80 and 90 years old … you can’t find them on the internet,” she says. “They don’t have email addresses or social media accounts. So, for this project at least, being there in person was huge – I guess you’d call it old-fashioned reporting. Talking to people face to face made a huge difference. People could give us that granular detail.
“It’s one thing to say ‘OK, we think he was involved in this network.’ But it’s another thing to have people who actually saw him doing the work.
“We tracked down every person we could find who had come in contact with him. Quite a few of them actually spoke English. And everyone often had someone else that they suggested we speak to after we’d interviewed them.”
In Tel Aviv, they met with Georgio Goldenberg, who was 7 years old when Bartali hid his family in an apartment he’d purchased with his cycle-race winnings.
“Bartali put his life in danger, his personal life he put in danger in order to save my life and my family’s life,” the elderly Goldenberg explains, in broken English, in a promotional video for Road to Valor.
When asked in later years about his wartime work, Bartali reportedly said “The good is done, but it is not said. And certain medals hang on the soul, not on the jacket.”
And that was it.
Movie producers have expressed interest in adapting Road to Valor for the screen; McConnon welcomes the idea because, she says, it would mean the Gino Bartoli story would reach an incalculable number of people around the world.
“People respond to it because they have different connections. Whether they themselves are Jewish, or they love cycling, or they’re Italian, or none of the above, and the story just moves them.
“Part of the reason we were drawn to Bartoli as a character is that he has this universal appeal of a hero that didn’t need to help, but he felt so compelled to do so, and did so. People look for those shining examples of courage.”