An Impossible Choice

Elvira, Tea, and Giacomo Goldenberg.

Giorgio Goldenberg.

(photo credit 7.1)

ONE EVENING IN THE fall of 1943, Gino received a mysterious phone call. It was the archbishop of Florence, Cardinal Elia Dalla Costa. Gino was unnerved. The two men had been friends for years, but Dalla Costa had never been one to call just to chat. It didn’t help that Dalla Costa kept the conversation short and cryptic. He wanted to meet the cyclist in person at the archbishop’s residence in the center of Florence. And it was urgent. Gino didn’t press him for more details. He understood that phone calls were liable to be monitored by the Germans or the Fascists, and if the cardinal was being curt, he must have had a good reason.

When the day of the meeting arrived, Gino mounted his bike and started off for the archbishop’s residence. In the fields near his home on Via del Bandino, signs of autumn’s departure were already emerging. The vines stood in forlorn, leafless rows, their plump, ripened grapes already carried away to nearby cellars. The dry heat of the summer that had nourished them had long since disappeared, leaving behind drab, listless days that slipped quickly into night. Contemplating this time of year in Florence, the author Henry James had once mused, “Old things, old places, old people, strike us as giving out their secrets more freely in such moist, grey, melancholy days.”

The dreary limbo between seasons suited the moment. After a summer of hopeful expectation, Florence had moved into an unsettling netherworld between war and peace when Mussolini returned to power in mid-September. At the end of the month, the city had suffered its first war damages when an Allied bombing expedition targeting an important railway station in the eastern part of the city went terribly astray. The bombs pulverized a school, destroyed a pharmacy, and leveled various neighborhoods. Over two hundred civilians were killed.

But as Gino pedaled on this day past the burnt-umber-roofed buildings that made up central Florence, signs of life and activity bustled everywhere. Adults with jobs proceeded with business as usual; most children still attended school. Theaters continued to delight audiences with stagings of Shakespeare and Chekhov, and one of the city’s big cinemas offered up Italy’s most famous comedian, Totò, in a madcap comedy called The Happy Ghost. Behind this façade of normalcy, however, the war prowled. During the day, it lurked behind closed doors in the secret activity of the city’s black markets, where desperate Florentines traded their valuables to get a few ounces of cheese or a handful of eggs. It emerged in the late afternoon as groups of women rummaged through the garbage looking for a stray leaf or core to eat after the markets closed. At dusk, it roved the streets again as haggard elderly men began to hunt down the city’s vanishing legion of stray cats for sustenance.

Riding into Florence, Gino could forget the bleak undercurrent of war by focusing on the things that hadn’t changed, like the white, green, and red marble–clad Duomo cathedral that dominated Florence’s skyline. He wheeled toward it and then arced past it and across to the archbishop’s residence. Swinging one leg back and over the frame of his bike, he rolled up to the front of the four-story yellow stone palazzo, stepped off, and walked his bicycle to the front gate. He rang the bell, and after a few minutes he was greeted by the cardinal’s personal secretary, a tall, white-haired priest named Giacomo Meneghello. After the tall gate shut behind them, Gino leaned his bike against one of the pillars that lined the courtyard and followed the secretary into the residence. The two men walked to the cardinal’s study, an inviting room with ornate rugs, intricately designed draperies, and dark wood bookshelves lined with leatherbound tomes. There they found Dalla Costa ensconced behind his desk. Gino stepped forward to greet the cardinal, and the heavy wooden door closed behind him as Meneghello left them to talk.

Although he had lived in the sumptuous archbishop’s palazzo for over a decade, Elia Dalla Costa had never lost the wan and searching look of a desert ascetic. Seventy-one years old, he was tall and thin and had gray, close-cropped hair framing a broad forehead. The angular, hawkish quality of his features imbued him with a look of uncompromising severity that concealed a remarkably sensitive personality. Early on, his peers had recognized a profound and reflective quality about his character and faith, and in the latter years of Pius XI’s tenure as pope, rumors spread that Dalla Costa was a likely candidate to replace him. Younger priests found him a kind, selfless teacher and a quick judge of character, who left a lasting impression on them, “like a father does on his own sons.”

Dalla Costa had spent his adult life tending to the religious needs of his Roman Catholic parishioners, but he wanted to speak with Gino about a secret request from a group of Florentine Jews. This group was part of a larger organization called Delasem (Delegazione assistenza emigranti ebrei), which helped foreign Jews pouring into Italy from other parts of Europe. During the early war period, before the Germans arrived, Delasem had worked in the open, legally, as Fascist government officials realized that this relief organization could spare them the trouble of having to coordinate basic services for the new refugees. After the Germans arrived in Italy in the fall of 1943, however, all foreign and Italian Jews (including the members of Delasem) became targets for arrest. The relief work of Delasem’s Florentine branch was forced underground and became more difficult to carry out. The growing number of Jewish refugees arriving in the city only taxed the organization further. It became clear that they needed to reach out to sympathetic Gentiles in order to have any hope of helping all those in need. In the latter half of September 1943, they approached Cardinal Dalla Costa.

That decision would prove an inspired one. Dalla Costa had already demonstrated his anti-Fascist convictions when Hitler visited Florence in 1938, and in 1943 he quickly became an effective and compassionate leader of what would emerge as a powerful rescue network. When asked, the cardinal organized nearly all the resources at his disposal. His personal secretary, Monsignor Meneghello, was instructed to help the Jewish relief coordinators. For a short time, Meneghello received Jewish refugees seeking assistance in the diocesan office before moving this activity to a less conspicuous location. Another priest was recruited to reach out to various convents and religious orders scattered around Tuscany. Dalla Costa supplied this priest with a letter of introduction that provided clear guidelines to those throughout the archdiocese. “He told us to peremptorily welcome all the needy that would present themselves at our doors and to offer them assistance and food, without asking anything, not where they came from, nor for how many days they would be staying,” said one recipient of Dalla Costa’s letter. The cardinal also gave of himself, housing and feeding several Jews in the archbishop’s residence before finding them lower-profile housing elsewhere.

Gino would not learn the full extent of the cardinal’s wartime activities until years later. As he sat down in Dalla Costa’s office on that late-fall day in 1943, it was all an utter mystery. Speaking in his slow, methodical manner, in which he seemed to weigh each word and shape it in his mouth before he spoke, Dalla Costa outlined the problem. Jewish refugees were flooding into Florence. Some had come through the city with the intention of getting closer to the front and the arrival of the Allied forces; others were looking to slip across the Alps into Switzerland or to leave the country at ports like Genoa. Still others were hoping to ride the war out in the city or its outskirts, living under non-Jewish identities.

These refugees needed food, shelter, and false identity documents, the cardinal explained, and he wanted Gino to help him. The cyclist would work as one of the network’s messengers, delivering documents and carrying out tasks around Tuscany and its environs. At first glance, it looked like a tailor-made role for Gino. During much of the war, he had been riding the local roads as a military bicycle messenger, and on his frequent leaves from the army, he had been training and racing on them. If anyone knew these roads and had a credible alibi to be on them, it was Gino Bartali.

The danger of the work, however, was inescapable. Dalla Costa was explicit. If he was caught helping Jews, there was a very real possibility that the Germans would imprison him, execute him on the spot, or send him to a concentration camp, where disease, starvation, and torture regularly killed prisoners. The Italian Fascists were no less formidable. Desperate and angry, many hard-line soldiers had formed large gangs that terrorized civilians and searched for Jews hiding around the country. Together the two groups ensured that the threat of being caught helping Jews was an ever-present one.

Secrecy would therefore be paramount. Gino could not share the information that Dalla Costa passed on with anyone, not even his wife. Even Gino himself would be limited to knowing the absolute minimum required to carry out his role. It was essential that no one individual know too much, or even know the other people involved in the network, the cardinal explained, so that no one could give the whole group away if interrogated and tortured.

The cardinal finally raised the question that defined the evening. Would Gino join the rescue effort? Would he be willing to risk his life for a group of strangers?

In nearby Fiesole, Gino’s friend Giacomo Goldenberg assessed an alarming piece of news that was spreading through the Jewish community: Jews in concentration camps in other occupied countries were being murdered en masse. In the strictest sense, it wasn’t new information. It had been discussed for months on Allied radio stations, and it had spread like wildfire from the letters of Italian soldiers on the eastern front. But when the Fascists alone held power in Italy, the threat had felt more distant, a feeling borne out by the fact that groups of foreign Jews secretly poured into Italy because it was safer than the rest of Nazi-held Europe at that time. With the arrival of the German army, however, the sense of danger became more raw and immediate as the darkest force of the occupation permeated Italy. Goldenberg had felt the first tremors with the Racial Laws in 1938 and the indignity of the arrests of foreigners, including foreign Jews, in 1940. And now, under Mussolini’s new German-supported regime, the last supports of his world were fast collapsing beneath him.

Since his release from the internment camp, Goldenberg had heard nothing from his cousins the Kleins, which raised the terrifying possibility that they had been arrested again by the new Fascist regime. His immediate family’s situation seemed no less precarious. His address was known to the Italian police; there was no doubt that it was recorded on at least one list. To a man who had learned to expect the worst regarding anti-Semitic behavior, it was no stretch to foresee the Germans getting hold of the list and arresting his family. It was time to leave Fiesole.

Giacomo Goldenberg and his wife, Elvira, began making a series of arrangements and soon realized their family’s chances for survival would increase if they split up. They took their now eleven-year-old son, Giorgio, to live at the Santa Marta Institute in Settignano, a religious children’s boardinghouse northeast of Florence that had agreed to care covertly for Jewish children, after receiving Dalla Costa’s request. Six-year-old Tea, however, seemed too young to live apart from her parents. With her and his wife in mind, Goldenberg began to think frantically about where they could hide.

The problem was finding a place to go. Having lived much of their lives in Fiume, the Goldenbergs had few relatives or friends who could shelter them in Tuscany. The other option, finding a rental apartment, would have put the family at a stranger’s mercy. With their identity documents, which listed the family as Jewish, they were vulnerable targets for betrayal. Since the German occupation, an opportunistic landlord, or any Italian for that matter, who turned a family over to the German authorities could expect a reward of anywhere from one thousand to nine thousand lire per person. At a moment when the average factory worker was earning but twenty-nine lire per day, such sums represented breathtaking amounts of money. More tellingly, they revealed the extent of the Nazi zeal for persecuting Jews; the capture of a Jewish refugee was even more prized than the capture of an escaped Allied prisoner, typically worth just 1,800 lire in reward money.

Even an otherwise kindhearted landlord might have thought twice about housing the Goldenbergs and risking a confrontation with the Fascist and German police apparatus. Early in the fall of 1943, sheltering Jews may have only prompted a questioning or a temporary arrest. But in November a group of Fascists had formalized the Carta di Verona, which declared that “Those belonging to the Jewish race are foreigners. During this war they belong to an enemy nationality.” By early December it became clear that this meant all Jews on Italian soil could be arrested. And anyone who helped them, let alone housed them, was committing a severe and punishable offense. As individuals like Dalla Costa had realized, it was a crime that could be punished by death. Given these circumstances, Goldenberg knew that few Gentiles would be willing to take his family in.

Frantic about his lack of options, Goldenberg reached out to his old friend Armando Sizzi. The two men met one afternoon in Fiesole, and Goldenberg laid out his dilemma. Sizzi recognized his friend’s fear and knew that if he did nothing, the Goldenbergs could disappear without warning, arrested and deported like countless other Italian Jews. Before Goldenberg had even finished speaking, Sizzi was trying to work out how he could possibly aid him. As a humble bike mechanic, he had neither the financial means nor the network of contacts to help, but to leave his friend to be hunted down was simply not an option. Sizzi knew the only hope lay with his cousin Gino. As a successful cyclist, he had been able to purchase one house for himself and another for his parents, and had stakes in other residences as investments. And even if he had no space of his own to offer, Gino was a celebrity, a man who had many friends and acquaintances; he knew people.

Sizzi promised his friend he would make some inquiries on his behalf. After arranging to meet again in the coming days, he watched Goldenberg hurry back down the street.

Then Sizzi went back to Florence and asked his cousin Gino for help.

Cardinal Dalla Costa and the Goldenberg family—the weight of it all nearly suffocated Gino. There was no question that he wanted to help them both, but the danger involved was overwhelming. It ate at him, making him more taciturn among friends and downright flighty when Adriana spoke with him. At night, as they lay in bed together, he grew ever more restless and agitated, consumed by the fear of what might happen if he was caught.

The only place that could offer any peace in a moment like this was the Ponte a Ema cemetery. As he sat by his brother’s grave, Gino could begin to contemplate the choice that stood before him. He had every reason to help. Dalla Costa was his spiritual mentor—the human face of the faith that Gino had built his life around—and the man who had officiated at his marriage and baptized his son. Goldenberg was a friend, looking to protect his family. It was impossible not to empathize with his situation, and it resonated deeply with Gino’s own childhood experience of political tumult. Certainly the scale of the Jewish persecution had been amplified exponentially, but the parallels to what had happened to the Socialists when he was a boy were uncanny. A minority group was being demonized by government-backed voices in the press and scapegoated by government officials. Few men could have better understood the cruelty of such pressures than Torello Bartali’s son.

And yet he had two reasons more powerful than any other not to risk himself: Adriana and his son, Andrea. If he was caught helping Jews or even sheltering them, he could be imprisoned and killed by the German authorities, leaving his wife alone to fend for their two-year-old son.

It was an impossible choice. The siren call of self-preservation was deafening, but a nobler impulse beckoned. Other Italians facing the same quandary in other parts of the country would liken it to a battle in which there was no middle ground. Few of them had any illusions about the repercussions if their activities were discovered. But to stand by and do nothing while civilians were being captured and murdered was a choice that many viewed as tacit support of the deportations. And so each individual was left to decide on which side he would stand. “It was something that we all had to do,” explained one participant in the broader resistance. “One made the choice to be on the side of the Fascists or one had to defend the people.”

Gino wrestled with the dilemma about what course to take. As a man of fervent faith, he turned to prayer for solace as he contemplated his options. He poured out his thoughts to his brother’s tomb. Finally, without speaking to his wife, he made his decision.

Cardinal Dalla Costa and the other members of the resistance effort in Florence quickly understood the scope of what they were up against. On November 6, 1943, without warning, German SS and Italian Fascists arrested Jews around the city, many of them foreign-born. At the end of the month, as part of a larger series of arrests, German and Fascist soldiers stormed into one of the buildings of Florence’s archdiocese and arrested key members of the Jewish refugee assistance committee, including one of Dalla Costa’s most trusted priests and the chief rabbi of Florence.

Rufino Niccacci, a monk and priest from Assisi, happened to come into Florence to meet with Cardinal Dalla Costa at the time of these November raids. As he left the train station and walked toward the archbishop’s residence, he was startled by what he saw. German soldiers and Fascists with rifles swarmed the city in trucks and on motorcycles. As he neared the archbishop’s palace in the center of town, Niccacci could hear loudspeakers blaring “Achtung! Attenzione! All inhabitants outside! No packing, take nothing. You have three minutes.” Jews were being rounded up in different parts of the city. On one street, Niccacci came across groups of Jewish families huddled together as Nazi soldiers grabbed parents by the shoulders to load them into one vehicle while they pushed the children with rifle butts, to shuffle them into separate vehicles. A few women clutched their babies to hide them, but the soldiers ripped them from their arms. Some young Jewish men sized up the situation and decided to make a break for it. They didn’t get far, crumpling as the bullets hit them. Niccacci hurried along through the city, and the violence only got worse. “I saw a whole family lined up against a wall and machine-gunned because a revolver had been found on one of them,” he said. By the time he reached the archbishop’s palace, he was distraught and soaked in a panicked sweat.

In his everyday life, Niccacci was the father superior of the monastery of San Damiano in Assisi. With a square jaw and prominent dark eyebrows, he was the picture of youth. He was energetic and strong, a trait he inherited from his father, the operator of a small grain mill. Even the formless brown sackcloth of his Franciscan cassock, tied at the waist with a cord, could not hide his muscular frame. To many people who knew him, however, he seemed an unlikely candidate for the monastic life. As he himself readily admitted, he was rather inclined toward certain earthly pleasures. He relished a good bottle of wine and was the only one in the monastery’s community who smoked. At thirty-two years of age, he seemed too young to be the head of a monastery filled with older men.

But when a group of Jewish refugees had arrived in Assisi in September 1943, and the local bishop asked him and another priest, Don Aldo Brunacci, to help them, Niccacci discovered within himself an uncommon reservoir of courage and wisdom. He arranged safe accommodation for them in the guesthouses that the different monasteries and convents in Assisi maintained. He organized the production of false identity documents so that they could evade detection during arrests. And when stopped by the German army or the Fascists, Niccacci proved adept at telling bold lies in order to protect these people who now relied on him for their personal safety.

He had come to Florence to seek the cardinal’s assistance in coordinating safe passage out of the country for some of the Jews he had been hiding. When he entered Dalla Costa’s study, the cardinal was sitting at his desk with his head resting in his bony hands. The cardinal looked up and composed himself. Niccacci listened as he shared an alarming piece of news: there was no longer a practical way for the refugees in Assisi to leave Italy. The Swiss were turning away many Jewish refugees at their borders; the Germans were keeping a watchful eye on the Port of Genoa, closing off the possibility of escape by sea. Dalla Costa could do little to help those who had taken refuge in Assisi. Niccacci sat gloomily as he contemplated how his trip to Florence appeared to have ended in failure. Then the cardinal slowly outlined an alternate plan.

“You came here to ask my help in establishing a route out of Assisi. I would like to reverse the process—and establish a route to Assisi,” he said.

“Your Eminence doesn’t mean to suggest that all Jewish refugees come to Assisi?” replied Niccacci anxiously.

“Calm down, Padre. No, I don’t mean to turn your city into the hiding center for Jews. But I would like to turn it into a counterfeiting center—where you could produce identity cards for the people who need them. First of all for those who are hiding in private houses and are in constant danger. Those people need your help, Padre.”

Niccacci balked for a moment, worried about all the new responsibilities he was being asked to shoulder. Slowly he composed himself and agreed to help.

Weighing the task ahead, he asked the cardinal one final question before beginning his trip home to Assisi. “How do you propose, Your Eminence, to forward the photographs to us and pick up the identity cards when they are ready?”

“I have my couriers,” the cardinal replied. “The photographs will reach you in a week.”

As the afternoon sun sank in the sky, Gino left his home on the outskirts of Florence with some bread and vegetables he had procured from several farmers near Ponte a Ema. The Bartalis didn’t really have extra food to spare, but Gino knew the Goldenberg family would have nothing. He walked down Via del Bandino toward an apartment he co-owned on the same street as his home. He let himself in and put the meager supplies in the small kitchen. It wasn’t much, but it would have to do. After one final look around, Gino left the way he had come and locked the door behind him.

He then hurried north toward Florence. Having made his decision, he knew there could be no looking back. It was time to bring the Goldenbergs to their new home.

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