Florence devastated by war, circa 1944.
(photo credit 9.1)
AS WINTER WITHDREW AND spring crept into its place, the Florence that Gino had learned to love as a boy was fast mutating into a monstrous, unrecognizable place. Every day the newspapers displayed lengthy columns written by the German commander in Florence calling Italian workers to German factories. “Germany offers you work, pay, and well-being. Accept!” But few Italians were willing to uproot themselves for a gluttonous war that was devouring men and supplies at an alarming rate. In Florence, twelve thousand workers went on strike, and scores of walkouts occurred in many other towns throughout Tuscany as well. Protests often elicited brutal reprisals, and several workers who went on strike or refused to do national service were executed publicly. Coupled with the increasing frequency of air raids, such brazen violence made most Italians even more fearful and skittish. Living amid a hungry and angry populace, each day seemed to carry a heightened risk of careening out of control.
In this surreal spring of 1944, Adriana Bartali was distracted by dramatic news of her own. She was pregnant. At any other time this news would have been a source of unconditional celebration for the Bartali family. But with war rations dwindling to the point that many Florentines were malnourished if not starving, these tidings shepherded staggering worry alongside profound joy. Even a celebrity like Gino struggled to track down enough provisions to feed Adriana, their two-year-old son Andrea, and himself. The shelves of the neighborhood stores stood empty and their ration allotments continued shrinking. Olive oil—that treasured staple of any Italian housewife’s pantry—no longer appeared regularly, if at all, and when it was available, a quarter-gallon could cost up to a month’s salary for a civil servant. Meat had become so scarce that frequently just bones were doled out. But bones could be used to make soup. What passed for bread, however, had become barely edible: a lumpy mixture of potatoes, maize flour, and insects. With an unborn child to consider, the Bartalis’ quest to find enough food became even more pressing.
Grappling with her news, Adriana was less worried than might be expected by the fact that her husband had been disappearing over the winter for days at a time. Certainly she had questioned Gino several times about where he was going, especially as there had not been any races since the spring of 1943. Gino never answered, however, so Adriana stopped asking. Time would reveal this silence as one of Gino’s most generous gifts to her. Considering her self-described “anxious personality” in even the happiest of days, her fragile state during the war may not have withstood discovering all the risks her husband faced. Moreover, this enforced ignorance helped to shield her from recrimination by the authorities. In the event of Gino’s arrest or interrogation, the less she knew, the less culpable she was likely to be found.
Adriana’s distress would only have increased if she knew that Gino had been drawn ever deeper into the relief effort. Gino was now also gathering food and clothing for the growing number of Gentile refugees fleeing bombed parts of Italy to shelter in the Vatican and elsewhere. As Niccacci and others helped small groups of Jewish refugees move closer to the Allied line in the south, Gino was asked to scout out parts of the route. He agreed, and rode as much as 270 miles from Florence to report on the placement of German checkpoints. In time, Gino met some of the human smugglers who would sneak the Jews into Allied territory, and was soon negotiating the fees for their services. When a German patrol killed one of these smugglers and arrested another, it was Gino who discovered the news and then relayed it to Niccacci in Assisi.
Down the road from the Bartalis on Via del Bandino, the escalating violence also made the Goldenbergs very nervous. In the spring of 1944, Giorgio Goldenberg’s mother decided it was time to retrieve her son from the Santa Marta boardinghouse and have him join his family hiding in Florence. She was right to be worried. Unbeknownst to her, Germans had been arriving unannounced at the boardinghouse hoping to seize any hidden Jewish children. To find them, they brought all the children out into the yard and compelled them to recite a litany of Catholic prayers. Fortunately, Mamma Cornelia had anticipated as much and taught them the requisite prayers. And if any did happen to forget a phrase, they needed only to look beyond the soldiers where she stood silently mouthing the words to make sure that no one tripped up.
For Jews in Italy like the Goldenbergs, life had entered a new nightmare phase. The Germans and their Fascist collaborators ratcheted up the intensity of their persecution, even as it became increasingly clear that they would be defeated in the war. In addition to raiding convents and monasteries, Nazis invaded old-age residences and hospitals looking for Jews. The numbers soon illustrated the results of their murderous zeal. By the spring of 1944, little more than six months into the occupation, more than 6,500 Jews (both foreign and Italian) had been carried by train from Italy to Auschwitz alone.
When Elvira Goldenberg appeared at the Santa Marta Institute, Giorgio was thrilled at the prospect of being reunited with his parents and sister Tea. He soon discovered, however, how dramatically their lives had changed. The house in Fiesole was long gone, and their room in the Bartalis’ apartment on Via del Bandino was evacuated for fear of the increasing frequency of German and Fascist raids. In its place, Gino had found them room in the cantina, or cellar, of a building a few houses down. This space was barely more than ten feet by ten feet, with a low ceiling and stone walls. There were no windows and the one door was always closed. Dark and cold, the room fit little more than one double bed that the four Goldenbergs shared. There was no electricity or running water.
Life in the cantina was lived on the smallest scale imaginable. Only Giorgio’s mother ever ventured out, armed with a water bucket in each hand. With light brown hair and blue eyes, she did not draw any attention in Florence. For Giorgio’s father, his sister, or himself, it was too dangerous to leave their underground hideaway. As a result, their days moved between overwhelming fear and boredom. “What can you do if you are closed in a room twenty-four hours a day without permission to go out?” said Giorgio later. “My sister and I sat there counting flies.”
Hunger remained a constant obsession. Food was forever scarce and usually consisted of a meager portion of rice, pasta, or stale bread. Most of it had come from Gino and Sizzi, and the rest Elvira Goldenberg found on her expeditions in Florence. In the corner of the basement room, she kept a sack where she saved any leftovers from their meals as supplies for the next day.
Nighttime brought curfew and mandatory blackouts. In the long hours of darkness, any sound, perceived or real, preyed mercilessly on the children’s imaginations. For Giorgio, the shrill cry of an air-raid alarm conjured up that indelible image of a sky teeming with bomber planes. For Tea, it was the sound of German jackboots clattering on the stone streets, their metallic thud becoming the terrible soundtrack to her nightmares.
As the violence dragged on, Adriana Bartali felt as if she were in free fall. After nearly four years, the war no longer seemed like an event with a defined beginning and a probable end. Instead, it had devolved into an incessant hallucination, punctured by sudden relocations whenever the danger escalated and they left their home to stay with friends in safer parts of Tuscany. She dreaded the nights when the screech of the air-raid warning ripped through her slumber and, in a mad dash, she and Gino would scoop up Andrea and flee into the fields to join countless others trying to escape the bombs.
“The air reverberated with the heavy roll of engines, like a blanket of sound waves suspended overhead,” wrote one man about a bombardment of Tuscany at the time. “The hypnotic droning throbbed and saturated every cubic inch of air.” Overhead they could see the bluish Bengal lights—flares used by bombers to illuminate the sites they wished to target. The flares would hover, suspended by parachutes, and for a few seconds everything was floodlit in a ghastly glow, leaving the people below feeling completely exposed and blinded as they cowered in the deep trenches and shelters carved out of the soil in the Tuscan countryside. The planes, invisible in the inky night sky above the flares, dropped a barrage of bombs that screamed through the air until they walloped the earth and unleashed an ear-piercing series of explosions. If Adriana was holding Andrea, she covered his ears with her hands and folded him inside her arms while they crouched and felt the earth tremble as the bombs made impact. Finally, the all-clear siren would sound, but most let it ring for some time before they dared to move. As they cautiously stood up to return home, they could often smell acrid smoke and hear the sirens of ambulances. They plodded slowly back to their homes, where they would wait tensely until the next time the alarms started wailing.
Daytime was no less lethal. As the Allies inched up slowly through Italy, the bombardments increased in frequency and ferocity and spawned an ever-present anxiety that started to permeate everything until it seemed to assume a life of its own. One early-summer day in 1944, Gino had evacuated his family to a friend’s home on a hilltop town southwest of Florence. The front was inching closer to Florence, and they could hear sporadic gunshots and ordnance in the distance. Artillery was particularly treacherous. Unlike the air-raid sirens, which gave people a few minutes of advance warning of aerial attacks, shells could appear unannounced from anywhere, launched from tanks or other land-based artillery, often miles away.
When the initial panic that prompted the evacuation had subsided, the Bartalis found themselves with a welcome lull. Gino, his friend, and Adriana decided to go for a short stroll near the house, a reliable remedy for pent-up nervous energies. The men were soon lost in conversation and walked ahead of Adriana, who lingered a bit behind; walking was becoming more laborious as the child in her womb continued to grow. As she stepped, Adriana heard a loud thud, no more than five yards away from her. A hard artillery shell had pelted the earth. Adriana stopped still in her tracks. Where had it come from? Transfixed, she stared at the shell, and could hear nothing but a lethal silence.
After several agonizing seconds, Adriana carefully exhaled. The shell was a dud. If it had exploded, I would have been blown up, she realized in horror. She walked slowly back to the house, ashen-faced. Gino was devastated when he heard what had happened, and realized how close he had come to losing his wife and unborn child.
Somewhere along the line, the collective weight of such concerns about his family and his secret work for the cardinal began to cloud Gino’s mind. “Try to line up, day after day … without joy, without satisfaction, in a state of depression and continual anxiety,” he said. Distressed and withdrawn, Gino grew more and more restless and volatile—telltale signs of a condition known at the time as “war neurosis.” (Post-traumatic stress disorder, or PTSD, was not given that name until 1980.) “Everywhere, I felt like I was being tracked,” Gino recalled. “I, who sleep very little, didn’t sleep at all anymore. I rested the whole night listening to the sizzle of a petrol lamp wick.”
Gino was cracking. Given his mysterious trips around Tuscany and Umbria and an alibi that must have grown increasingly questionable as the spring races of the previous year became ever more distant memories of the past, it was becoming clear to anyone paying attention that he was up to something. In the early summer, a volatile Fascist brigand named Mario Carità took notice.
One unhappy day in July 1944, Gino received the summons that he had dreaded for months. He was required to appear at Major Mario Carità’s headquarters, the building that most in Florence knew only by its nickname, Villa Triste, or “House of Sorrow,” so named for the screams heard coming out of it. Had one of his neighbors tipped off Carità’s thugs to Gino’s mysterious trips to Assisi earlier that year? Or, worse, had someone discovered the Goldenbergs? Gino grew very jittery. “These were times when life was not highly valued, it was held by a thread and vulnerable to circumstance and the moods of others,” he said. “You could easily disappear as a result of hatred, a vendetta, rumor, slander, or ideological fanaticism.”
In these uncertain times, no Italian wanted to cross Carità. Less than two months into the German occupation of Italy in September 1943, he had “erupted on the scene like an insane Minotaur to begin his wholesale repressions, tortures, ceaseless interrogations, all of which were accompanied with the most degrading brutality and humiliations,” as one historian put it. His surname, Carità, meant “charity,” but his behavior was anything but charitable. The major’s ambition was simple. He wanted to be “the Himmler of Italy”; Heinrich Himmler, the German head of the Gestapo and the SS, was known internationally for his role running the Nazi concentration camps. Carità’s men, a degenerate gang of two hundred, had ingratiated themselves with the Nazis by zealously pursuing Jews and anti-Fascists. By the time Gino arrived in Villa Triste in July 1944, Carità had turned the torture of suspected enemies of the Fascist and German forces into a grim science.
Just a few miles from the heart of Florence, Villa Triste was not a typically dreary prison, at least from the outside. It was a five-story luxury apartment house made of marble and yellow sandstone in a neighborhood popular with lawyers, businessmen, and other professionals. “The close-carpeted corridors and sumptuously large apartments gave the house the impression of an oceangoing liner, which had docked unaccountably in the midst of a peaceful countryside,” wrote one historian.
The polished exterior, however, did little to calm Gino as he walked through the neat courtyard, past a low row of narrow windows, which offered glimpses of the coal bunkers in the basement that had been turned into prison cells. As Gino entered the building, he grew more alarmed. Villa Triste was “a sinister place that aroused terror,” as he put it. How will I ever get out of here? he wondered as he crossed the threshold.
He found himself in a large entrance hall flanked with tall marble columns, off of which there was a spacious room with a dining table, often littered with scores of empty wine bottles and the remains of lavish feasts if Carità had felt like using a prisoner’s inquisition as the entertainment for an evening. On such occasions, he would bind prisoners to a chair and interrogate them, sometimes staging mock executions. He fired his revolver just past the nape of their neck to scare them as he and his guests watched and laughed. Nearby stood a piano, where a monk who had joined Carità’s gang was said to play “Neapolitan songs and Schubert’s Unfinished Symphony … to drown the cries of the tortured.”
Most prisoners, however, including Gino, were first dragged downstairs, to the subterranean cellars. Before their eyes could adjust to the dim shadows, their senses were assaulted by the sour smell of old blood and rancid sweat. Their feet crunched as they walked on the floor soiled with a mix of coal debris and blood. Carità liked to terrify his prisoners in advance of their interrogation, and among the first shocks, as their eyes began to focus on the inferno they found themselves in, was the array of medieval torture tools. There were “thick whips, rods of steel, pincers, manacles,” not to mention the primitive carpentry tools used “to tear off earlobes of recalcitrant victims.” In one room was a heavy wooden triangle, where Carità would splay and tie prisoners and then beat them until their flesh hung in bloody ribbons from their bodies. In another area, medical equipment stolen from hospitals was used to administer electric shocks to prisoners.
Gino glimpsed the horrors that he could expect as he was led into a questioning room to wait for Carità. He sat petrified. As the minutes ticked by, he grew increasingly apprehensive about meeting the man who had become one of the most bloodthirsty Fascist villains in Italy.
While Gino waited, he spied some letters addressed to him sitting on a table. Somehow Carità’s squad had intercepted them. Gino panicked. How could he possibly respond if Carità had found any scrap of evidence of his work carrying forged documents or sheltering the Goldenberg family? Helping declared enemies of the state such as Jews was treason. Men had been shot for lesser crimes.
Carità burst through the door. He was a force to behold, with his “frog-like mouth” and “hooded eyelids covering his cold, lizard-green eyes.” The major launched into a tirade against the Catholic religion, hoping to provoke the cyclist from the get-go. Gino struggled to stay calm.
Carità snatched up one of the letters on the table addressed to Gino and started reading it aloud. The letter came from the Vatican and thanked Gino for his “help.”
“You sent arms to the Vatican!” yelled Carità.
“No!” Gino responded. “Those letters refer to flour, sugar, and coffee that I sent to people in need. I didn’t send arms. I don’t even know how to shoot! When I was in the military, my pistol was always unloaded.”
“It’s not true,” the major said, fixing his prisoner with a knowing smile.
“It is true,” Gino replied, matching the major’s steady gaze.
Carità was not convinced. He threw Gino into a cell, leaving him to stew with his worries and listen. For the basement in Villa Triste was a very noisy place. Men and women were dragged kicking and screaming down the stairs and thrown into the coal-bunkers, holes barely nine feet long and six feet wide, which could serve as a prison cell for weeks on end. When they weren’t being interrogated or tortured themselves, they could hear the moans and screams of other prisoners as Carità and his men tried to secure information and force admissions of guilt. They put out cigarettes on the faces of prisoners, pierced their eardrums with daggers, and forced open their mouths to pour scalding hot liquid down their throats. If prisoners still didn’t confess, beatings continued until people became unrecognizable husks of bloodied, swollen flesh, so battered they had to be sent on to prison hospitals or they would have died in Villa Triste.
Gino knew most of this from rumors that had spread in Florence, and his imagination filled in the rest of the ghoulish details as he waited in the semidarkness, listening to every footstep near his cell, wondering when his time in Carità’s torture chamber would come.
On his third day at Villa Triste, he was pulled once more into the interrogation room with Carità and three of his henchmen. Carità asked again about the letters from the Vatican, and Gino repeated his story. Some Tuscan parishes were gathering coffee, flour, and sugar to send to the refugees who had flooded into the Holy City. Gino had helped procure these supplies from various farmers he knew and had them sent to the Vatican.
Carità still wasn’t persuaded.
Exasperated, Gino added, “If you want to try yourself, Major, I will teach you how. Give me sugar and flour. We’ll make a package and we’ll send it in your name. You’ll see that the Holy Father will send you thanks.” Gino was never one for tact, and he had slept so little in the past three days that he had become testy. But as soon as he said it, he knew that he had gone too far. Carità was enraged.
But before Carità could lay his hands on Gino, one of his militiamen stepped out of the shadows and interrupted the proceedings: “If Bartali says coffee, flour, and sugar, then it was coffee, flour, and sugar. He doesn’t lie.”
Gino had been so terrified of Carità he had hardly noticed his other interrogators. When he looked at the man who had defended him, he was startled to see a familiar face, framed by a short-cropped head of dark hair. It was Olesindo Salmi, the same man who had been his military supervisor in Trasimeno and had authorized Gino to use a bicycle instead of a scooter for his military duties. Salmi had taken a big risk by defending Gino, a suspected anti-Fascist, but he had waited until he was sure Carità had been unable to rustle up any further damning evidence.
Gino didn’t know any of this, and just sat astounded by Salmi’s words. He was even more astonished by what happened next. Carità finally relented. Gino was to be released. His fame had certainly helped save his skin, but Carità was also distracted by bigger worries than Gino. The Allies were moving closer to Florence by the day.
“We’ll meet again,” Carità sneered menacingly as he left, instructing Gino to remain in Florence.
“I hope I never see you again,” Gino said quietly as he left the building.
Gino returned home to find his pregnant wife a nervous wreck. Adriana had known full well that many men did not emerge alive from Carità’s clutches, and, given young Andrea and her pregnancy, she was even more panicked about losing Gino. She could scarcely believe he had survived and evaded the notorious torture that scarred so many who spent any time in Villa Triste.
Gino and his family were now living in downtown Florence in the home of his friend who owned the pasticceria across from the department store where Adriana had once worked. The Florence that surrounded the Bartalis in July 1944, however, couldn’t have been more different from those innocent days in 1936 when Gino had first courted Adriana. The Germans were determined to wreak as much havoc as possible before the Allies arrived. So they blew up seventeen of Florence’s pasta and flour mills, and destroyed the city’s two main telephone exchanges with corrosive acids and then smashed them with crowbars. At night, they soaked the bases of railway tracks in gasoline and set them on fire. All over the city they plundered goods ranging from beds and binoculars to specialized medical equipment from doctors’ offices. And they commandeered vehicles of every description: ambulances, hearses, even the three-wheeled garbage carts used by the town dustmen. Florence reeled in response to this desecration. Garbage and horse carcasses rotted in the streets, attracting flies, and it was not unusual to see people walking their dead in pushcarts to a garden behind the University of Florence where bodies were being collected and sprinkled with lime to prevent the spread of disease.
At the end of July 1944, the German army was in full retreat. Rumors circulated that the Germans planned to destroy Florence’s bridges to slow the Allies. A directive from the German commander in control of Florence at the end of the month left little doubt. Those who lived in neighborhoods along the Arno were ordered to evacuate their homes by noon on July 30. Gino grew very alarmed. Though their hiding place wasn’t in the evacuation zone, they were still less than half a mile from the Arno.
Chaos followed close behind as thousands of Florentines scrambled to find a place of refuge. Those evacuees without friends or relatives created a sad parade through the streets as they traveled with whatever they could carry to designated gathering centers, one less than a mile from the Bartalis, the famed Pitti Palace in the Boboli Gardens. A correspondent from the Manchester Guardian described the scene on the ground: “It is as if a cross-section of London’s population were camping out in Kensington Palace, sleeping on the floors of the royal apartments, among the old masters and bits of period furniture, cooking picnic meals while the Germans snipe intermittently from the roofs of Barkers and Derry and Toms’ and lob shells on Bayswater Road. Only this morning two civilians were hit by snipers.”
On August 3, the Bartalis heard the news that terrified all Florentines. The German commander of Florence issued his final injunction, declaring a state of emergency for the city: “From this moment on, it is severely forbidden for anyone to leave their houses and walk along the streets and in the squares of the city of Florence … the patrols of the German Armed Forces have orders to shoot people who are found in the streets, or who show themselves at windows.” By nightfall, Florence was shrouded in darkness. The Germans had completely destroyed the city’s main electricity station, so the blackout was ubiquitous.
Behind shuttered windows and closed doors, the Bartalis waited in tense anxiety. Soon after the clock struck ten, the silence was broken by a terrific, crashing explosion. “The sky toward the Palazzo Pitti was magnificently turned to crimson,” wrote one resident near the Arno. Gino could feel the house trembling. As the thunderclap of blasts continued, young Andrea awoke with a start. “What is it, Papà?” he asked his father. “Sleep, sleep,” comforted Gino. “It’s a thunderstorm.” For over seven hours the deafening clamor of detonating explosives ripped through the air as each of Florence’s beloved bridges was destroyed.
All except one. A huge load of explosives had been placed in the houses at either end of Ponte Vecchio, the oldest bridge in Florence, and the only one lined with alcoved shops. During the middle of the night on August 3, they were detonated. Tiles, bricks, and shutters flew everywhere. Florence’s crown jewel survived, but was completely impassable as a result of the huge piles of rubble at either end. This disarray was deliberate. Hitler had reportedly ordered that all of Florence’s bridges be destroyed except “the most artistic one.”
The wreckage rattled everyone, including Gino. “The spectacle of Florence was devastating,” he said. The area covered in rubble on either side of the Arno extended some two hundred yards. Gino knew there would be more violence along the river when the Allies finally arrived by land. So he decided to move his family again, this time to Adriana’s parents’ home on the northeastern outskirts of Florence. She needed a less tumultuous place to spend the final weeks of her pregnancy. Her parents would help calm her.
But one night, shortly after they had arrived, Adriana began experiencing contractions. She and Gino were both frightened, as it was too early. He jumped onto his bike and began cycling to the heart of Florence to find a doctor. It was after curfew and getting dark, and the destruction was inescapable, particularly near the Arno, where the Florence of Dante and Petrarch lay in ruins. Somehow, despite all the damage and chaos, Gino found a doctor and they raced to Adriana’s bedside. The scene that met them would haunt Gino for the rest of his life.
His second son was stillborn.
Adriana’s condition was serious, and Gino spent the night terrified that he might lose his wife as well. The doctor did his best, and by the next morning Adriana had turned a corner. Gino was relieved, but his anguish over his dead child was overwhelming. In a daze, he visited a nearby friend, a carpenter, who built him a tiny coffin.
Back home, he sat quietly with Adriana, then gently picked up the wooden coffin holding his stillborn son and carried it to his bike outside. Cradling the coffin under his arm, he pedaled south through battered Florence. He passed close to Campo di Marte, where thousands of Florentines, who had been evacuated from their homes near the Arno, were camped out. The houses in the neighborhood nearby lay in flattened ruins, bombed months earlier. He rode past groups of people huddled around makeshift fires and near handcarts overflowing with belongings that they had pushed through town. Every so often Gino would make eye contact with one of them, and as he stared at them, the tired and vacant defeat in their gaze was inescapable. Finally, Gino made it to the cemetery in Ponte a Ema. He biked up the winding, wisteria-lined path to the main white stone building, where he dismounted and carried his dead son, tenderly placing the small coffin in the family crypt next to his brother Giulio’s.
When Gino returned home, the image of his young son remained seared in his memory. He had been a small baby, but his features were well formed. He and Adriana had planned to call him Giorgio to honor her brother lost at sea. Gino and Adriana consoled each other, but they would not speak of this to others for years.
On the morning of August 4, 1944, the first Allied tanks neared the south bank of the Arno. In the heart of the city on the other side of the river, a small group of Florentines emerged from their hiding places. They made a rush for the southern bank, only to be killed by a series of mines planted by the Germans. Other Florentines would soon fall beside them, killed by Fascist snipers still roaming the city.
Although it would be a full week before these last Fascist holdouts were expunged from the area, even they couldn’t stop the news of liberation from slowly starting to spread across the city. On Via del Bandino, it was announced by the hopeful shouting of local boys, “Gli inglesi son arrivati!”—“The English have arrived!” Sitting in the cellar with his parents and sister, Giorgio Goldenberg crept cautiously out to investigate. He was startled to see a British soldier standing right on the street beside his building. On the soldier’s shoulder, he saw a Star of David. Giorgio didn’t speak any English, but wanted desperately to communicate with this man whom he recognized as an ally. So he started singing, at first quietly and then loud enough so that the soldier could hear him. He sang the melody of the Hatikvah, a popular Hebrew song that would later become the national anthem of Israel.
The soldier recognized the song and burst forth in an excited flurry of English that Giorgio did not understand. Giorgio dashed downstairs to find his father and bring him to street level. His father and the soldier began to speak together in Yiddish. Giorgio watched them happily, a feeling of relief washing over him for the first time in years. “For me, this was the end of the war,” he said later.
The Bartalis heard the news of liberation on August 11 with the ringing of the bells atop the Bargello, the “people’s palace” in central Florence. Once the partisan scouts were certain the streets were safe for civilians, they sent a courier, a young woman, to spread the good news to Florentines installed in the town hall and at a few other key locations. Sprinting through the city, the courier was seized by simultaneous joy and anguish, capturing the tense mood of the city:
My heart seemed to want to burst, I felt desperate and happy, down and full of energy. In front of the lowered blinds of the Bizzarri Chemist I stopped, lost: the bell of the Bargello, silent for four years, had rung out once, and in that silence seemed to be magic; there it was again, a second time, I lifted my eyes up and another miracle happened: slowly on the tower of the Palazzo Vecchio the tricolor [Italian flag] rose. I knelt down crying on the pavement while one by one the shutters in the square opened wide, a woman from a low window shouted to ask me:
“Have they gone?”
“We’re free, free,” I answered, sobbing and opening my arms.
In Assisi, the celebrations had started earlier, and its normally staid residents rejoiced with fervor. When the first Allied tanks rolled into the town on June 17, 1944, the bells of all the churches and monasteries started tolling. From the basilica of St. Francis, a monk started playing “God Save the King” on the organ, and the music wafted throughout the city. On Via San Paolo, an old Fascist poster displaying one of Mussolini’s slogans had been ripped down. In its place, a new banner, crafted by Luigi and Trento Brizi, had been lifted: “The Jews of Italy have Italian blood, Italian souls, and Italian genius.”
As the wave of liberation slowly traveled toward the northern borders of the nation, the bittersweet legacy of the war started to become more fully apparent. Italian Jews and their foreign counterparts emerged from the shadows and began to understand just how much a small group of heroic Gentiles had helped them. In Florence and its environs, an estimated 330 Jews had been saved by the efforts of Cardinal Dalla Costa and his associates. Another estimated three hundred Jews had been saved in Assisi and Perugia. Gino Bartali had sheltered the Goldenberg family and had transported critical documents between Tuscany and Umbria (if Gino or Dalla Costa kept a record of how many identity documents Gino carried, neither of them ever told anyone, so this figure remains unknown).
The news of these rescues, however, was inevitably leavened by sadness as a fuller picture emerged of all those who had perished. By the end of the war, some fifteen percent of the Jewish community in Italy had been killed. Compared with other countries in Europe where the German occupation had started much earlier, the death toll was significantly smaller. Nevertheless, it couldn’t help but evoke uncomfortable questions for those willing to consider them. In little more than eighteen months, nearly seven thousand Jews had perished, including the Goldenbergs’ cousins, the Kleins. Although the primary architects of this murderous campaign had been German, they had been more than ably helped by a small group of committed Fascists and a larger segment of the population that was willing to abet the crime with its silence.
The story of how it had all happened would remain untold for several decades. Instead, Italians in liberated Italy would try to put the past behind them and focus during those final months of the war in Europe on securing provisions and slowly starting their lives anew. Gino was no different. Hoping to restart his career, he tried to cobble together enough new bike supplies so that he could start racing again. Unfortunately, few in Tuscany had any of the necessary equipment to sell him. Frustrated, Gino resigned himself to making a trip all the way to Milan on an old bicycle.
When he got to the city, Gino was startled to come across the corpses of Mussolini and one of his lovers, strung up by their ankles in a gas station in Piazzale Loreto. Below, thousands of Italians gawked at the executed leader who had ruled their nation for over twenty years. “It was an obscene spectacle, a savage testimony of the cruelty of the times,” Gino said later. In that moment he simply tried to avoid looking at the frozen gaze of the gruesome suspended cadavers. This is not the Italy I dreamed of for myself and for my family, Gino thought. Wearily, he soon made his way home to Florence. As the war in Europe drew to a close six weeks later, Gino would join his countrymen in the monumental task of rebuilding, ever haunted by all that had been lost.
An autographed card given to Giorgio Goldenberg by Gino Bartali during one of his wartime visits to Fiesole. (photo credit i1)
Gino, Adriana, and Andrea Bartali, circa spring 1943. (photo credit i2)
Jean Robic wins the 1947 Tour de France. (photo credit i3)
Louis Bobet. (photo credit i4)
The Goldenberg family, saved by Gino Bartali: Elvira, Giorgio, Tea, and Giacomo.
The Goldenberg family in 2011: Giorgio (top center) and his wife, with their married children, his late sister Tea’s married children, and all their respective grandchildren. (photo credit i5)
Gino Bartali on the cover of an Argentinean sports magazine after his 1938 Tour de France victory. (photo credit i6)
Father Pier Damiano stands by the monastery door where he saw Gino Bartali enter to meet with Father Rufino Niccacci during World War II. (photo credit i7)
In the family print shop in Assisi where he once manufactured false identity documents, Trento Brizi showcases some of his printing equipment to Dave Catarious and Harry Waldman of the Graphic Arts Association. (photo credit i8)
Gino Bartali during a trip to Argentina, circa December 1951. (photo credit i9)
Gino Bartali in his eighties. (photo credit i10)