Thursday, 23 February 2017

Gino Bartali: Some Medals are Pinned to Your Soul, Not Your Jacket

"Good is something you do, not something you talk about.  Some medals are pinned to your soul, not your jacket." (Gino Bartali)

Gino Bartali, during the Tour de France in the late 30s

Gino Bartali competing in the 1938 Tour de France courtesy 

Gino Bartali was reaching the peak of his career when the Second World War broke out.  The cyclist had three Giro d'Italia medals around his neck as well as one Tour de France trophy.  When someone suggested that he dedicate the Tour de France victory to Italy's fascist dictator Mussolini, he refused. Bartali marched to the beat of his own drummer.  By war's end, Bartali would be a hero once again, but for an entirely different reason.

Gino Bartali, a villager from a poor Tuscan family, took up cycling after being encouraged by his older brother.  While the latter died tragically in a cycling accident, the former continued to race.  A sickly and skinny child, Bartali worked on strengthening his body to endure the gruelling races through the Alps.  In 1936, the cyclist cliched his first major victory, the Giro d'Italia, repeating the feat the following year.  

Mussolini, like Hitler, had his own ideas about the master race, summed up in his Manifesto of Race published in 1938.  That same year, he watched the 1938 Tour de France with interest, assuming that if an Italian won, the victory would just confirm his racial theory.  Bartali did win the Tour, but refused to dedicate his victory to Mussolini, risking the possible wrath of the fascist dictator.

                                Gino Bartali is congratulated by Costante Girardengo after winning the eleventh stage of the Tour de France

    Gino Bartali wins 1938 Tour de France courtesy

The Second World War, for all intents and purposes, put the Tour de France on hold.  But Bartali continued to train in hopes of keeping his strength up.  In 1943, when the alliance collapsed between Italy and Germany, the German army occupied the Northern and Central regions of Italy.  The Wehrmacht started rounding up Italian Jews and putting them in concentration camps.

Bartali, a devout Catholic, was approached by the Florence priest who had married him and asked if he could help the plight of the Jews.  Bartali agreed to become a courier, transporting forged documents to Jews in order to prevent them from being deported.  The occupying forces would see the cyclist racing up and down the Alps and think that he was training for his next race.  In the meantime, inside the handlebars of his bicycle, he carried vital documents that would save lives.  If he were stopped and searched, he would always ask the soldier not to tamper with his bike, that it was set just the way it should be for his next race.  The guard would let him continue on his journey, unaware that the cyclist's destination was a secret printing press.  Bartali was questioned by the secret police at one point and had to go into hiding in Citta di Castello.  

Bartali's son, Andrea, said that he rarely talked about the sacrifice he made to save Italy's Jews. "Good is something you do, not something you talk about," he explained matter of factly.  "Some medals are pinned to your soul, not your jacket."  Bartali's story has a denouement.  In 1948, a full ten years after his first Tour de France victory, he won the title yet again.  Today, Bartali still holds the record for the longest gap between Tour de France victories.

Gino Bartali wins Tour de France again in 1948 courtesy

Wednesday, 22 February 2017

An Die Nachgeborenen: For Those Who Come After

"The Nazis had a price on Father's head that was second only to the bounty that they were prepared to pay for the capture of German-born Prince Bernhard, Queen Wilhelmina's son-in-law and commander in chief of the pitiful Dutch free forces." (Elisabeth Holdsworth)

The Nachgeborenen Elisabeth Holdsworth second from left Fritz front centre

Elisabeth Holdsworth grew up in the shadow of the Second World War.  Born in 1949 in Middelburg, Holland, she was an only child, long wanted by her parents.  Her mother, a Dutch Jew, was sent to work as young teenager for a prominent family in their hometown.  Her father, a Dutch Christian, was a member of the prominent family.  

Elisabeth's father lived underground during the Second World War as part of the Dutch Resistance. While he performed many heroic acts, he was never officially recognized for his role in helping to save Holland from the grips of the Nazis.  "The Nazis had a price on Father's head that was second only to the bounty that they were prepared to pay for the capture of German-born Prince Bernhard, Queen Wilhelmina's son-in-law and commander in chief of the pitiful Dutch free forces."

Elisabeth grew up with a posse of friends who, dressed in their clogs, scrambled over the piles of war rubble.  One day, her mother gave her a severe beating for playing in a field with hidden land mines.  Her mother was prone to fits of rage, a result of her years in a Nazi concentration camp.  Her husband's brother, Linus, had fingered her as the wife of a member of the Dutch Resistance and the Nazis took her away.  The constant threat of them figuring out she was a Jew weighed heavily on her.

After the bombing May 1940

Middelburg was bombed so heavily by the Luftwaffe that the sky was sometimes completely black from the planes overhead.  The Nazis flattened all of the buildings and there was nothing left suitable for a command post.  This was the scene that Elisabeth's mother returned to upon being liberated from the concentration camp.  There she was reunited with her husband.

Right after the war, Elisabeth's Uncle Linus was murdered and her father was questioned as to the whereabouts of his gun.  He said that it must have disappeared during the war.  Elisabeth said that while no one in her family actually said that her father murdered her uncle, the silence spoke volumes.  While the Nazis were hated, a traitor was despised even more, especially one who fingered his own sister-in-law.

Elisabeth's father spent several years trying to repair the dikes which surrounded Middelburg, but his pleas fell on deaf ears.  In 1953, the dykes collapsed and the region was flooded resulting in hundreds of deaths.  A broken man, Elisabeth's father moved the family to Australia where he died soon after. Her mother died in a car accident there in 1975.  

Note:  Read Elisabeth Holdsworth's Calibre Prize 2007 essay "An Die Nachgebroenen:  For Those Who Come After" at

Holdsworth w father

Tuesday, 21 February 2017

The White Mouse: The Socialite Who Killed a Nazi with Her Own Hands

"A little powder and a little drink on the way, and I'd pass their [German] posts and wink and say:  'Do you want to search me?'  What a flirtatious little bastard I was." (Nancy Wake)

Nancy Wake (1945).jpg

She was nicknamed The White Mouse for her ability to elude capture by the Gestapo.  She killed a Nazi with her bare hands.  Five million francs were wanted on her head.  

Nancy Wake was born in New Zealand in 1912 and raised in Australia.  Her father abandonned the family and she ran away at 16, sailing to New York City and later to London.  In the 1930's, Nancy trained as a journalist and worked for the Hearst newspapers as a European correspondent.  She met and married a French industrialist in 1937.  The following year, Nancy "saw roves of Nazi gangs randomly beating Jewish men and women in the streets in Vienna".  

Vowing to help the Jews, she joined the French Resistance.  The Australian bombshell, an unlikely candidate as a spy, used her feminine wiles to distract the enemy.  "A little powder and a little drink on the way, and I'd pass their [German] posts and wink and say:  'Do you want to search me?'  What a flirtatious little bastard I was." When the Gestapo did catch on, they started tapping her phone and intercepting her mail.  However, unable to catch her in person, they nicknamed her "The White Mouse".  

With five million francs on her head, she fled to Marseilles.  Her husband, who remained in Paris, was captured, tortured and executed by the Gestapo, paying the price for his wife's role in the Resistance.  Unaware of her husband's fate, Nancy continued to carry out her daring work.  On the night of April 29, 1944, she parachuted into Auvergne, France to serve as a liasion officer for the local maquisards. From July of 1944 to the liberation of France, Nancy and her fellow maquisards fought 22,000 German soldiers and inflicted 1400 casualties while only sustaining 100 casualties. The White Mouse even killed a Nazi with her bare hands using a karate chop she learned in Resistance training.

Ever eluding the Gestapo, Nancy crossed the Pyrenees to Sapin on her sixth attempt.  To replace codes for her wireless operator, she rode a bicycle over 500 kilometres through German checkpoints.  The Second World War ended with no one claiming the prize on her head.

For her heroic efforts, Nancy Wake received the Croix de Guerre (3 fois), Medaille de la Resistance, Medal of Freedom and George Medal.  She married a RAF officer in 1957 and returned to Australia where they enjoyed a 40 year marriage.  

For more information, read:

1.  The White Mouse (Nancy Wake, 1985).
2.  The Socialite Who Killed a Nazi with Her Bare Hands (New York Times, 2012).