In our current turbulent world in which anti-Semitism and the refugee crisis make headlines everyday, Oscar-nominated documentary filmmaker, Oren Jacoby ponders in My Italian Secret: “Would you risk your life to save a stranger?”
“It’s a question, sadly, very relevant again today,” Jacoby tells me by phone from a stopover in Chicago on the way to New York.
“Not many people even remember what happened in WWII in Italy and are not aware of the Italians who risked their lives to save Jews, other refugees and partisans,” says the writer, producer, director of his insightful documentary, My Italian Secret: The Forgotten Heroes.
Narrated by actress Isabella Rossellini, the untold story reveals that 80% of the Jewish population in Italy was saved by an elaborate underground network of priests, nuns and neighbors- in one case, an entire village. And, astonishingly, that three-time winner of the Giro d’Italia and two-time Tour de France winner, Italian sports hero, Gino Bartali, became a courier, hiding forged IDs inside the frame and handlebars of his bicycle that enabled Jews to escape! Bartali, (voiced in the film, by the late actor, Robert Loggia,) never talked about his wartime efforts. He had sworn his son to secrecy only divulging details after his father’s death.
“We’ve seen documentation that he rode thousands of kilometers across Italy, travelling the roads between cities as far apart as Florence, Lucca, Genoa, Assisi, and the Vatican in Rome,” says Jacoby. You must remember, that at the time, Gino Bartali was like Babe Ruth and actor Clark Gable rolled into one. He was a huge celebrity so whenever soldiers saw him cycling, they just thought he was in training” Jacoby explains.
By sheer coincidence, Jacoby met Bartali’s son, Andrea, on a scouting trip to Italy. “He was actually organizing a cycling race in his father’s honor,” Jacoby explains, “and introduced me to Giorgio Goldenberg, hidden as a child.”
“He was risking not only his life but also his family, says survivor, Goldenberg, whose family was a friend of Gino Bartali and one of the participants interviewed in the film. “He saved my life and the life of my family. That’s clear because if he hadn’t hidden us, we had nowhere to go.”
Coincidentally, after Jacoby returned from his scouting trip to Italy, he was made aware of Road To Valor: A True Story of WWII Italy, the Nazis and the Cyclist Who Inspired A Nation, written by Canadian authors, Aili and Andres McConnon.
In October 2013, Gino Bartali was posthumously awarded with the honor Righteous Among the Nations by Yad Vashem, the Holocaust Memorial and Education Center in Jerusalem, Israel.
The citation reads in part: “When Bartali was stopped and searched, he specifically asked that his bicycle not be touched since the different parts were very carefully calibrated to achieve maximum speed. ”
His son, Andrea Bartali who attended the inauguration ceremony at Yad Vashem, says his father refused to view his actions as heroic. “When people were telling him, ‘Gino, you’re a hero’, he would reply: ‘No, no – I want to be remembered for my sporting achievements. Real heroes are others, those who have suffered in their soul, in their heart, in their spirit, in their mind, for their loved ones. Those are the real heroes. I’m just a cyclist.'”
More international screenings at http://www.italyandtheholocaust.org