8

The Counterfeiters’ Ring

The Brizi printing press.

(photo credit 8.1)

ONE EARLY MORNING NOT long after Dalla Costa’s meeting with Niccacci, Adriana Bartali awoke to see Gino putting on his cycling shorts, jersey, and sweater in the corner of the room. Where is he going? she wondered as she sat up in bed. Startled, Gino stopped changing and turned to her.

“Don’t wait for me this evening. I’m leaving for a few days of training,” he said.

She stared back at him.

“If someone should come looking for me, especially at night, say that I left the house for an emergency.”

“Who would be looking for you—at nighttime?” she asked, anxiety creeping into her voice.

“No one,” he replied. “But if someone does, just tell them that I’m out finding medicine for little Andrea, who is sick.”

Adriana watched as Gino finished dressing himself, adding a pair of long johns over his shorts because the mornings were already getting cold as winter approached. That he would be gone for a few days wasn’t what bothered her. She was long familiar with the demands of her husband’s training commitments and a racing schedule that took him all over Europe from early spring to late fall. But in these last weeks he had been disappearing more frequently, and the nervous way he had answered her questions alarmed her.

“What are you training for if there are no races scheduled?” she asked.

Gino stopped getting ready and walked over to his wife. “I’m just training,” he said, and leaned over to kiss her firmly on the forehead. Adriana’s breathing slowed as her husband communicated reassurance in the unspoken language they shared. Gino wanted to be ready when the races started again.

Gino carried his bicycle out of the house and left. Soon he was gliding across Florence’s city streets to meet one of the cardinal’s trusted assistants. The rendezvous spot changed frequently, but the objective was always the same: Gino was picking up a few documents and a cache of photographs. All would be used to create counterfeit identification papers for Jews in hiding. Although barely larger than four postage stamps placed together, each photo told a story about its provenance. Some had been taken recently, with the black and white tones still crisp but artfully weathered to look older. Others betrayed their true age in their creases, and in the corners still curling from where they had been pulled off genuine identity documents. Gino recognized none of the faces. From old men wearing youthfully stylish suits, hinting at their vanity, to young women staring blankly with world-weary eyes, they were all strangers.

After hiding the photos away in the safest place he knew, Gino began the journey south. It was still early morning, but Florence was already humming with activity. Pedestrians streamed across sidewalks, drawn like magnets to lines outside the neighborhood dry-goods stores, where each hoped to pick over the nearly empty shelves and find something that could tide them over for a few more days. Here and there, soldiers mingled among them, some chatting among themselves while others stood still, watching. The most menacing were the German SS, who wore caps bearing a skull-and-crossbones badge. Gino had seen these men in the city time and time again, but the sight of them always filled him with a mixture of fear and anger. It was just another unwanted reminder that he lived in a police state, where his every move could be followed and questioned. Relief came only when he rode over the bridge above his beloved Arno River. In a few minutes he would leave the city behind and be alone again on the open road.

The trip to Assisi was a lengthy one, some 110 miles along the most direct route, and so Gino had several hours to reflect. If Alfredo Martini or one of his other training partners had been out riding with him, he would think out loud in an unbroken stream of chatter. “He liked to say everything that passed through his head,” said Martini when describing these rides. Martini, like Gino’s other training partners, loved to train with Gino because Gino would happily let Martini draft on his wheel for almost the entire ride; he was just delighted to have company. “He never stopped talking to me,” said Martini, who could barely understand Gino at times because of the wind and his own fatigue, though he never failed to respond “Yes” whenever he could to encourage his friend.

Gino talked about everything except the war. He could spend hours analyzing a strategy he had used in a race years earlier, or share his latest thoughts on the best food to eat before training. But his favorite topics were his rivals, and in 1943 that meant Fausto Coppi, the young upstart who had become a credible competitor in those last races before the war turned more serious in Italy. Coppi seemed to be among the very few who could methodically parry Gino’s staccato attacks with an unyielding fluidity that refused to be baited. Inevitably on those training rides, Gino would also vow to win the Tour de France again. He would silence those critics in the cycling community who he believed were quietly starting to whisper that he was past his prime, calling him Il Vecchio, “the Old Man,” a “grandfather [who had to be] taken for walks from time to time.”

But Coppi had been gone from Italy for more than six months, dispatched as a soldier to Africa as part of one of Mussolini’s failed military campaigns. Nor could the Tour have felt more remote. Five years after Gino’s win, it was nothing more than a dream from a distant, prewar world. And so, in the rare moments of silence when Gino was riding alone instead of with his cycling partners, he wrestled with a growing sense of hopelessness. He was losing his “most fertile years,” as he put it, for winning cycling’s top honors and earning the prize money that would be critical to support his family. Whatever plans he held for the future were diminishing with every passing month without races.

When he had ridden some seventy miles, Gino came close to Terontola, where he had a little job to complete. Terontola was a typical small Tuscan town with a cluster of ocher-and-tawny buildings, but it held one unusual distinction: it was the transfer point between the main north-south rail line in Italy and one of the regional lines that ran southeast to Perugia, Assisi, and Foligno.

Some five hundred yards from the train station, Gino stopped on a nearby bridge. He was early, and so he busied himself by pretending to inspect his bicycle. As he fiddled with it, however, he watched the train tracks. He was waiting for a train coming in to Terontola from the north, which was thought to be carrying either Jewish refugees or other anti-Fascists fleeing to the countryside and southern Italy. This station was particularly dangerous for them because they often had to switch trains and therefore risked detection and capture when moving across the platforms.

Jewish refugees dreaded train stations because they were exposed to so many possible captors. As one Italian Jew explained, “That’s where one was most likely to get cornered. Nazi and Fascist uniforms were everywhere, and God only knows how many secret service trench coats. Most evident were the German military police. They were tall devils, walking in pairs in impeccably fitted and pressed gray uniforms, gloved hands joined behind their backs and simonized boots clicking in slow, synchronized rhythm. A polished metal plate with the engraved word Feldgendarmerie hung from their necks by a chain like a wine steward’s emblem, and it swung on their chests as they watchfully zigzagged through the crowd.”

Gino knew these dangers, and so when the train finally appeared in the distance, he got back on his bike and rode into town to the bar in the Terontola train station. Word of his arrival spread quickly through the station and even the small village itself. The appearance of one of Italy’s most famous sports stars in Terontola was an exciting event unlike any other. In the bar, the owner, a friend of Gino’s, greeted him; the town tailor, another friend who worked nearby, appeared and offered Gino a prosciutto sandwich for lunch. Around them, people from the train station pushed to get closer to Gino. Many hoped to embrace him or give him a friendly slap on the back. Others wanted to buy their idol an espresso or get his autograph.

In no time at all, the little bar filled up, and Gino was called to address the noisy throng. He offered a few words of friendly greeting, and was answered with loud cheering. All this extra commotion attracted the attention of several of the soldiers in the train station, some of whom likely hoped to get autographs of their own. And for those refugees and dissidents hoping to avoid the Germans and Fascists as they switched trains, it is believed that this planned distraction bought them a few precious minutes of cover.

When it was all over, Gino got back on his bike and headed to the city of Perugia, where he planned to stay the night in a local church.

Meanwhile, in Settignano, the hillside Tuscan town northeast of Florence, eleven-year-old Giorgio Goldenberg rushed out of a local elementary school. His stomach growling for food, he joined a group of his classmates heading back to the Santa Marta boardinghouse for lunch. It was a short walk past a few small farms and a German military post. Within a few minutes they turned the corner past the estate’s stone wall and walked through the front gate, a soaring manorial entrance that would have made any giant feel small. Scurrying up a long stone driveway, they came to the ivory-colored four-story building that Giorgio and his housemates called home.

The boys stormed through the front doors and made a beeline to the room where the nuns brought them together for meals. Lunch this day was the same thing they had eaten at lunch every day since Giorgio arrived: a bowl of watery soup and a serving of peas. Dinner, a slice of stale bread and a warm glass of barley coffee, would just be a repeat of breakfast. “For an eleven-year-old child, this was not enough,” explained Giorgio.

With such limited rations, food emerged as a constant obsession. Some of the boys became very enterprising. One turned the chore of potato peeling into a chance to gather the discarded skins (covertly pared as thickly as possible) that he later roasted secretly over a small fire built with friends and enjoyed with a pinch of salt. Others turned brazen, strong-arming younger students out of their food, or filling their pockets with bread stolen from the pantry. No scheme, however inventive, offered a permanent remedy; the satisfaction of any morsel, no matter how ill-gotten, inevitably yielded to the gnawing pain of hunger and a renewed struggle to find more.

The nuns did what they could to pacify these little battles, and tried to overcome the inevitable tension wrought by shortages by showering the boys with abounding love. One nun, known affectionately as “Mamma Cornelia,” emerged as a figure of particular kindness for the group of about ten Jewish boys who were hidden at Santa Marta’s—none of whom knew the others’ true religious identity at the time. She helped them avoid any uncomfortable questions when they didn’t take communion during mass, by suggesting that their parents were military combatants who would decide about the timing of their children’s participation in the sacrament when they returned from the battle front. Attuned to their spiritual needs, she memorized and privately delivered a traditional Hebrew blessing given by Jewish parents to their children. In the evenings, when she visited each boy as prayers were being said in the dormitory, she quietly encouraged them to say the prayers of their own faith in silence. Through all of these acts, her boarding house became a small island of refuge in a country beset by murderous persecution.

Try as she might, however, it was impossible to keep the outside world entirely at bay. The children saw it when truckloads of German soldiers trundled past them as they walked from their boarding house to the school nearby. They heard it in the noisy drone of Allied bombers flying overhead. And they felt it in the loneliness of a visiting day spent waiting fruitlessly at the window, when a boy was forced to accept the reality of his parents’ arrest and deportation. At times like that, “hunger was almost a blessing because food was all you could think about,” said one Jewish refugee who spent the war hiding in a nearby orphanage.

At dawn, Gino awoke in the Perugian church where he had spent the night. He did his morning calisthenics, as he had done nearly every day since 1936, and checked his bike. The distances between his seat, handlebars, and pedals always had to be the same; if the settings were off by even a fraction of an inch, that could cause muscle strain or pain midway through a ride. When he was satisfied with his bike, he wheeled it out of the church. He put his cycling cap on and set off again for Assisi. In the distance, the sun was just beginning to rise. The world was asleep, but there was a quiet hopefulness to this time of day that Gino had always cherished. It was the time that long races started, when a cyclist waited with nervous excitement to see whether the hundreds of miles of training he had accumulated in his legs would be enough.

Riding out of Perugia, Gino moved slowly at first, “warming up the engine” as he called it, getting a sense of how his body felt. It had been nearly six months since he last competed in what was admittedly just a middling wartime race, yet his legs remained remarkably strong. The ribbon of road spooled out in front of him, beckoning with a gentle descent through dormant wheatfields and silvery green olive trees, whose ripe globes were still being pressed into liquid gold by a bold few. Gino started to push harder. His heart sped up and he started to feel warm enough that he took his sweater off and rode just with his undershirt. The road leveled out, opening up as an alluring temptation. Gino pushed a little harder, sailing through the Umbrian countryside, slightly wilder and more rugged than his home region of Tuscany. Finally he could begin to feel the foothills of the Appenine mountain range under his wheels. Still he was holding something back; a real climb could only be won when every last ounce of strength was in play. Gino looked around and tried to estimate how far he was from his destination—and then he checked his watch and attacked.

Ahead, the town of Assisi rose out of the landscape, a cluster of pinkish white monasteries, convents, and churches perched on the side of Mount Subasio. Imposing and austere, Assisi traced much of its history back to its most important inhabitant, the thirteenth-century Catholic monk and saint, Francis of Assisi, who was revered for his teachings on charity and simplicity. Francis’s monastic order had spread around the world and transformed the sleepy outpost of Assisi into a major center of religious activity. Gino knew the town and had visited its churches before the war, receiving a chalice from the local bishop as a gift for the chapel in his home. But he had not come to Assisi today as a pilgrim. He had come to see Father Rufino Niccacci.

He found him at the San Damiano monastery, an expansive oatmeal-colored stone building just outside the town walls in a grove of olive and cypress trees. Gino made his way to the thick wooden side door and knocked on it. Niccacci heard him from his room and rushed down and let him in.

“You’ll catch a cold, Bartali!” he said, looking with surprise at the cyclist in his shorts and undershirt, before inviting him in.

“Thirteen kilometers from Perugia in a quarter of an hour is not bad, is it?” Gino replied with a touch of swagger, as he removed his cycling cap. Niccacci led the cyclist to a private room in the monastery.

When he was sure they were alone, Gino began to take apart his bike, and Niccacci watched as he unloaded its precious cargo. Gino loosened the screw attaching his seat to the bike, removed the seat, and pulled out the cache of photographs and documents, rolled up like a scroll and hidden in the hollow frame of his bicycle. Niccacci took the papers, unrolled them delicately, and hid them in a cupboard that held sacred relics in the monastery’s oratory.

Turning back to Gino, he said, “Come and have some coffee.” The two men walked to the refectory, the catacomb-shaped room of maroon wood and cream stone where the monks took their meals. They sat at one of the long, well-worn wooden tables beneath a nearly life-size painting of the crucifixion as Niccacci served up the monastery’s roasted barley coffee. It was simple fare, but Gino was happy to have it. As he sipped his drink, he relayed the news that the cardinal had instructed him to go even farther south. He was to speak with a priest who had contacts with smugglers who might be willing to be paid to run Jewish refugees across the battle lines into Allied-controlled territory. He would stop through Assisi again on his return.

When they finished, Niccacci walked his guest to the side door. The conversation turned to cycling as Gino put his cap back on. “I’ll be champion again one day. I’ll show them who Il Vecchio is,” he promised boldly. With that, he mounted his bike and sped off.

Niccacci would keep this meeting and the others that followed it as secret as possible. Still, on at least one occasion, a monk who was uninvolved with the network found out. It happened soon after Gino arrived for one of his deliveries. As chance would have it, Pier Damiano, a twenty-two-year-old member of the order, was coming out of his room when he saw the cyclist standing by the side door. Confused, Damiano stopped and looked at the stranger intently. In a moment, he recognized the face and sinewy figure that he had seen in countless newspapers.

Niccacci swore Damiano to secrecy about Gino’s visit. It was essential that the network they had set up continue to function without interruption, because the arrival of Gino delivering photographs could mean only one thing: Cardinal Dalla Costa in Florence needed more false identity documents.

Few things were more important in German-occupied Italy than identity documents. Often little larger than a small folded pamphlet, an identity document typically consisted of a stamped photo and lines of information that detailed everything from the holder’s name and address to racial background and skin type (possible entries included “healthy” and “pink”). An ID was used constantly. Renting an apartment, getting food ration books, keeping a job, even just passing an everyday police document check on the streets—everything required an identity document. “A man without identity documents,” Giorgio Goldenberg later explained, “did not exist.” For Jews in Italy, now enemies of the state who could be arrested on sight, this meant the possibility of detection loomed around every corner of daily life. False identity documents, which hid their Jewish heritage, therefore became integral for survival.

Possession of false identity documents was, however, a grave offense in occupied Europe. A Jewish refugee captured with them would be arrested and probably deported to one of the death camps. A counterfeiter caught making the documents was liable to be executed for his crime. Given such severe punishments, forgers skilled and brave enough to do the work were difficult to find. Good false documents that could pass the near-constant inspections became more precious than gold.

In such a climate of desperation in the early fall of 1943, Father Niccacci had found himself the guardian of an improbable alchemist’s secret. On a side street in Assisi he had found a skilled printer named Luigi Brizi. Now he just had to persuade him to risk everything and become a counterfeiter.

Short and portly, Brizi often sported overalls and an Italian beret in his comings and goings about town. At seventy-one years old, he was the aging patriarch of a family that traced its roots far back into Assisi’s history. One ancestor, Eugenio Brizi, had been the town’s mayor and a noted local ally of Giuseppe Mazzini, a key player in Italy’s nineteenth-century battle for independence. Other members of his family had been wealthy landowners, amassing significant holdings of buildings in a nearby town. By Brizi’s time, however, the family had slipped inexplicably into a state of genteel poverty. The family’s buildings had all been sold off, and the profits spent. Only a street named after Eugenio remained in Assisi, an obscure memorial to the prominence they once enjoyed in the town.

As a young man, Brizi had settled upon the idea of starting a store in Assisi. He chose a small retail space across the piazza from St. Clare’s, the basilica dedicated to the thirteenth-century nun who was Assisi’s second most important religious figure after Saint Francis. Like many of the stores in Assisi, the space was small, narrow, and, at full width, measured but fifteen feet across. It was poorly lit, and its cold stone walls surrounded a rudimentary wooden floor that looked ready to collapse at any moment.

In the beginning, Brizi had intended to focus on stationery. Over the years, however, he added a small assortment of tourist bric-a-brac—religious figures, medallions, carvings, and the like. The income generated from all this would probably have been minimal, and it certainly wouldn’t have gone far in supporting his wife and five children. So he also began offering printing services. Sitting behind a refurbished Felix printer that he set up in a corner of his small store, he coaxed the press like a virtuoso behind a piano and began printing menus, rate cards, and circulars for the town’s restaurants, hotels, and churches.

Brizi likely first met Niccacci in this context, although it’s not certain. What is certain is that the two men did not meet because of a common affinity for the Catholic Church. Brizi was an atheist, despite living in one of Italy’s most religious towns. He had little patience for proselytizers and, like his ancestors, identified closely with the strain of Italian politics that viewed the Church’s influence in the nation with skepticism.

It must have been unusual in the Assisi of the 1930s for the head of a monastery to befriend a man who avoided church at all costs, and the fact that it happened revealed something about each man’s respective capacity for tolerance. In time their friendship grew stronger, nurtured over its own weekly ritual—a game of checkers each Wednesday, played with a shared carafe of Umbrian wine at a small café in the town’s main piazza.

In the fall of 1943, a single conversation would transform their relationship. It happened after Bishop Nicolini charged Niccacci with helping a group of newly arrived Jewish refugees. Each of these individuals needed counterfeit identity documents. One day, after their weekly checkers game, Niccacci reached out to Brizi to help him. As they walked through the narrow, cobblestoned streets of Assisi, the late-afternoon bells began tolling for evening vespers. Niccacci introduced the idea by reminding Brizi of the Jewish contribution to the cause of Italian liberation, aware of the Brizi family’s support of Italian nationalism. Niccacci kept speaking, leading Brizi through a brief history of Jews in Italy until finally he reached the end of his meandering monologue.

“Luigi Brizi, ares you going to help them?”

“Jews? Here, in Assisi?” Brizi asked incredulously and with good reason. There was no history of a Jewish community ever existing in Assisi.

“Yes.”

“How?” Brizi demanded.

“By printing false identity cards in your printing shop. By contributing to the cause you preach yourself—freedom and democracy. By repaying the debts Mazzini, Garibaldi, Cavour, and Brizi owed them. By saving their lives.”

Brizi was stunned into silence. But slowly Niccacci’s words began to take effect as the old printer bristled with the realization that the descendants of Italian patriots were now being betrayed by the very country they had helped establish. Finally he responded.

“I will do it—on one condition. I don’t want my son, Trento, to know, to be involved at all. In case something happens to me, I do not want him to be incriminated.” The twenty-eight-year-old Trento had just returned to Assisi in early September after fighting for Italy on the Yugoslavian front. Having almost lost him to the war, Brizi wasn’t willing to risk his son’s life again.

Just days later, Brizi was working on the false identity documents in his store when his son walked in. He tried to hide what he was doing, but Trento demanded that his father tell him what was going on. Brizi resisted at first, but then buckled under the weight of his son’s questioning. He swore him to secrecy, and then explained what Niccacci had asked of him. When his father had finished, Trento responded, “I fought for three years on the front, I heard the bullets whistling around me, and at this point I am no longer afraid of anything. If you are doing something, I will do it too. I will help you.” The old man reluctantly agreed.

Over the next several hours, father and son labored intently on their creation in the back of the store. Brizi continued to experiment with the movable type and printed samples on different types of card stock. Working on a suggestion that Niccacci had given his father, Trento began crafting the first of several false rubber seals from different communities like Lecce and Caserta that were below the Allied front and therefore unverifiable by the Fascist authorities. Together they made several copies, testament to Brizi’s long-held belief that “making prints was like making fritters—the more one made, the nicer they turned out.” Finally they managed to craft a workable blank identity document. They filled it out with personal information Niccacci had provided them. When they finished, their first counterfeit identity card was complete: Enrico Maionica, a Jewish refugee who had arrived in Assisi from Trieste in the north, became Enrico Martorana, a bachelor from the southern city of Caserta.

As they were wrapping up, they heard a noise outside the print shop. Brizi signaled to Trento to be silent, and turned off the light. They held their breath and went to the front of the shop. Trento looked outside through a crack in the shutter. They heard a pair of men’s voices, the snap of a match lighting a cigarette, and then one man said, “Danke schön,” or “thank you” in German. Though there was little light with which to see, Trento recognized the uniforms of the German SS and the Italian Fascist police. The pair had paused for a smoke outside. They moved on after a few minutes.

“What a scare. I wanted to throw everything away,” remembered Trento later. Then he reconsidered. Niccacci was risking his life to protect the Jews, and Trento decided that he didn’t want to surrender, either. So while it was after curfew, and there were Fascists and German soldiers patrolling the streets, Trento hid the new ID in his pants, and rushed out of the printer’s shop. He walked across the piazza, out the archway at the corner, down the steps, and along the descending path lined with cypresses and olive trees to the San Damiano monastery.

When he arrived, Trento pulled the document out of his pants. Niccacci inspected it closely and started speaking excitedly: “My God, you are very good. It’s perfect. Tell your father that there are dozens of Jews hidden here, and I will need several identity cards like this one. But please—change the city often. Identical identity cards will arouse the suspicions of the Nazis.”

And then, as if sensing the enormity of his request, Niccacci offered a small measure of help. Going forward, he would see to it that the identity documents were filled out with the appropriate personal information such as one’s birthplace and parents’ names.

As fate would have it, Enrico Maionica, the recipient of the first forged document, would emerge as the last link in the counterfeiting chain. An athletic chemical engineering student, he arrived in Assisi in the fall of 1943 carrying with him a story of persecution that would have been familiar to any Jew hiding in the small town. His trip to Assisi had been a nightmare, hiding from German and Fascist officers swarming the trains, which were overflowing with people and belongings. Some desperate souls rode in the couplings between carriages; others rode atop the cars, clinging to the roofs, only to be killed when the trains passed through narrow tunnels. Once in Assisi, Maionica hid for a period in a boardinghouse run by an order of nuns. Recognizing the risk of being identified as a Jew, he asked Niccacci to help him get false identity documents, and was soon drawn into the monk’s counterfeiting ring.

Working out of a back room in Assisi’s San Quirico convent with two other Jewish refugees hiding there, Maionica took up the task of finishing the false identity documents that Brizi had created. (In time the three men would expand their operations to include creating fake drivers’ licenses and ration cards.) He carefully affixed the photographs that Niccacci had given him to the blank documents. Using an old southern Italian telephone book, one of Maionica’s partners picked out the names of people from regions already under Allied control to match the seals created by the Brizis. Working together, the three men typed the new names onto the identity documents with an old typewriter and forged signatures where needed.

When they were finished, the documents looked ready. In a moment of inspiration, Maionica decided that they were missing two things. The first was a House of Savoy stamp, the imprimatur of the Italian royal family that he had seen on many older identity cards. The problem was that these seals were too detailed to be carved quickly by hand, and too rare to be carried by most typographers. Desperate, he visited several print shops in the local area. When he finally found one that carried the stamp, he stole it and used it to place an impression of the Savoy coat of arms on the identity documents and licenses.

As a final touch, he devised a scheme to add one more authentic element to the false cards. He daringly ventured out to a nearby house where several Italian soldiers had taken up residence and persuaded them to sell him the postage-stamp-like tags from their drivers’ licenses. Amazingly, many soldiers agreed to his offer to earn a few extra lire, probably since most couldn’t drive during the war anyway. With a piece of damp blotting paper, Maionica peeled off the tags and soaked them in bleach to dissolve the ink that had been stamped over them when they were originally authenticated. Once they were dry, he glued them to the false licenses and identity documents that he was making. “I put three- or four-year-old tags to give them more authenticity,” he later explained.

When the documents were finally completed, Maionica would hand them over to Father Niccacci. He had no idea whom the monk would give them to, or where they were going. (It was only after the war that he discovered that many were being smuggled into Florence in the frame of Gino’s bike). From there, Niccacci would either give the documents to Gino directly or pass them along to the mother superior of the San Quirico convent to hold. In the meantime, they would be hidden until the cyclist came back to pick them up.

Gino’s return to the monastery played out much like his earlier trip, but his arrival at the San Quirico convent caused more of a stir. “He would arrive with his bicycle and would ask for the mother superior,” explained Sister Alfonsina, who witnessed Gino’s arrivals firsthand. “I can still see him. He was strong and had short pants.” Another nun, Sister Eleonora, also spoke with him and heard his voice. But she never saw him because, like the majority of the convent’s other nuns, she had forsworn contact with the outside world. Instead, her interaction with Gino was limited to what she heard when she was stationed behind the convent’s ruota, a wooden wheel where items from the outside world could be placed and retrieved, without the attending nun having to see or touch the person on the other side.

With the false identity documents collected and safely hidden inside the frame of his bicycle below his seat, Gino would set off again for Tuscany, hoping to make it home during daylight hours. Given the danger of violating the curfew, a crime punishable by up to a year in prison, it was undoubtedly the least suspicious time for him to make his way home. It was, however, not without its risks. One frightening episode happened when Gino stopped by a café in Bastia Umbra, near Perugia. He left his bike propped against the wall and went inside for a coffee. Something nearby attracted the attention of an Allied plane flying overhead, and it shot a short burst of machine-gun fire in the general direction of the bicycle and the café. The pilot could have been reacting to anything, but Gino was convinced it was the chrome of his bicycle shining in the sun that had drawn the attack. From that moment on, he got in the habit of dirtying up his bike before riding on it so that it wouldn’t be so reflective. For someone who was so meticulous about caring for his bike, this felt “sacrilegious,” as Gino’s son would say later.

Attacks by air, however, were less of a threat to Gino than the land patrols. In the cities, uniformed soldiers could stop anyone at any time for any reason at all. In case the rifles, grenades, and other weapons the soldiers regularly carried didn’t evoke enough fear, a newspaper column advised Italian civilians to take these situations seriously: “If you are stopped on the street by any military patrol who says to you ‘who goes there?’ stop immediately, give your name and last name and wait for the patrol leader. Then, upon request, you can show them your documents. Be careful not to make any sudden moves.”

In the countryside, these patrols would take the form of roving groups of German and Italian soldiers on trucks and motorcycles. They routinely stopped civilians and searched homes, looking to thwart the partisans smuggling weapons to use in guerrilla attacks. If Gino heard them from afar, he would duck onto a side road or find anywhere he could to hide in a hurry. Once he even dove into a ditch as he saw the headlight of a military motorcycle approaching him on a dark road.

Gino recoiled from these encounters because so many of the soldiers seemed blinded by their poisonous ideology. “I was neither hot nor cold about politics. It wasn’t my trade,” he said. “I wanted to be a man of sport.” But that had become impossible by the fall of 1943. When he was riding with the documents in his bicycle frame, a stop at a military checkpoint filled him with dread because it meant his work could be uncovered.

Yet encounters were almost inevitable, particularly on the outskirts of cities like Florence, where one had to use specific roads to enter the city. So Gino was forced to devise his own way of coping. When he was flagged by a patrol checkpoint, he pulled over. “Documenti prego”—“Your documents, please,” the soldiers would say. One military man might scrutinize Gino’s face closely as another inspected his papers. If they hadn’t identified him already by sight, most soldiers instantly recognized his name. If Gino thought they would believe he was still a soldier, he could feign he was doing his old work as a bicycle messenger. If any knew to ask why he no longer served, he could explain that he had resigned to focus on training and winning races that would bring Italy greater glory (betting they wouldn’t be aware that all races had been suspended). While many soldiers had been pressed back into service after the Germans took control, or then labeled deserters if they refused, Gino was able to avoid either scenario because the military officer who had eventually processed his resignation papers was a cycling fan.

It was no surprise that Gino found many sympathetic strangers, if not impassioned fans, among the soldiers that worked the patrols in Tuscany and the neighboring region of Umbria. Young conscripted servicemen had been some of his most enthusiastic supporters at his races as he rose to fame in the late 1930s; in the intervening years he had befriended countless other military men in these parts when he worked as a military messenger.

At the checkpoints they still searched him, of course, but, without any bags or weapons on his person, he appeared fairly harmless. Once their suspicions had been allayed, the members of the patrol were freed for a moment from the anxieties of the war to delight in the novelty of meeting one of their nation’s most famous sports celebrities. Gino recognized this interest and coyly played to it. Low-ranking privates were delighted with autographs or a well-delivered joke in toscano, the distinct local dialect proudly paraded as the badge of Tuscan authenticity. For patrol leaders or any other authorities with a penchant for playing armchair cycling experts, Gino could indulge their pontificating with a sympathetic ear and a few flattering remarks. As his exchange with the soldiers ended, Gino mounted his bike again, with the documents still safely stowed away in the frame. He continued to the city of Florence, where the distribution of the false identity cards could begin.

Most were handed over to one of the cardinal’s assistants, who either passed them along to another trusted confederate, or personally hand-delivered them to the intended recipients. Such was the case of the Frankenthals, who became the Franchis, and only found out in the months after the war ended that Gino had brought their false documents to Florence. In rarer cases, refugees received their documents directly from Gino. It was in this way, for example, that the Goldenbergs staying in Gino’s apartment discovered their new alias. It would be several years before they learned the incredible details of how their identity cards had been manufactured.

As impressive as the whole counterfeiting relay was, however, mistakes did occur. On one occasion, Gino had gone out to Lido di Camaiore to deliver a set of false documents to the Donatis, a Jewish family from Florence hiding in this Tuscan coastal town. Everything had been arranged beforehand, but when he arrived, the Gentile woman who was sheltering them panicked. Worried that Gino’s arrival or delivery of the documents might endanger her own family, she turned him away at the door. Although she would continue to help the Jewish family for the rest of the occupation, they would have to live in daily peril without any identity cards.

The fact that the counterfeiting operation was located in Assisi would prove to be an important asset to the rescue network. Without industry of any kind, the town had little strategic value that might cause it to be targeted by either the German or Allied air forces; the proximity of nearby farms and related amenities like the Niccacci family grain mill meant that food shortages were less acute. Taken together, residents were spared some of the most vicious violence and famine that terrorized the rest of the country.

Yet in their own way, these small comforts were also risks insofar as they made it easy to lose sight of the dangers lurking in the town. The reality was that the German army and Italian Fascists were never far from sight in Assisi. Spot searches of homes occurred; the risk of being betrayed by civilians seeking monetary rewards was an invisible but omnipresent one. As the weeks passed into months and the rescue network found its own rhythm, it was easy to get complacent.

On a cloudy morning in early 1944, Trento Brizi learned the danger of such complacency firsthand. He was working alone on the latest batch of identity cards in the back of the shop, and he had forgotten to draw the curtain separating that area from the front. He was surprised when two uniformed German soldiers entered the store. He swallowed hard. I’m caught, he thought. They have seen me and now they’re going to arrest me. Terrified, he walked over to the soldiers to accept his fate.

In broken Italian, one of the soldiers politely explained that they were hoping to bring home images of Saint Clare to their wives. Trying to contain himself, Trento could barely control his shaking arm as he found two wood carvings. The soldier spoke again and asked the price. “Nothing, a gift from Assisi to our German friends,” Trento responded. They thanked him profusely, smiling as they left.

Inside Trento, something snapped. The pressure of making the false identity documents had finally worn him down. A small oversight had almost seen him arrested for a crime that routinely resulted in execution. He could risk his life no further. He knew he had to visit Father Niccacci immediately to tell him of his decision to resign from the effort. He hid his work, left the store, and raced down the cypress-dotted hill to the monastery.

When he arrived, another monk let him in the side door and asked him to wait in the courtyard. As he stood there, he caught sight of Father Niccacci talking to a stranger in a room across the way near the front door. He was a young man with dark hair, combed back, and he was leaning against the handlebars of a bicycle. He was wearing shorts, and the muscular build of his legs was obvious even from where Trento was standing. I am sure I have seen this man somewhere before, Trento thought.

The man walked to the main door, mounted his bicycle, and sped off. Father Niccacci started walking toward Trento. Trento was barely able to keep his surprise in check as he realized exactly who the man was.

“But Father, isn’t that man—”

“Yes, Trento, he really is the great racer Gino Bartali,” Niccacci said, interrupting him. “For pity’s sake, do not tell anyone that you saw him here.”

Stunned, Trento listened as Niccacci offered a little more explanation to wipe the surprised look off his face. “It will please you to know that some of the documents you prepared have been brought to Perugia and to Florence by [Gino] himself,” Niccacci continued. “Speaking of which, Trento, how is your work going?”

“Good … good,” a starstruck Trento stammered in reply. “By all means, tell Bartali that soon he will have to pedal with more identity cards. And tell him to train well.”

Trento returned to his store. Later he reflected on the singular importance of that moment in his decision to continue making counterfeit identity documents. “Yes,” he said, “the idea of taking part in an organization that could boast of a champion like Gino Bartali among its ranks, filled me with such pride that my fear took a back seat.”

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