The Silent Hero

Veteran: Gino Bertali
ArtistMike Tesch
WriterHowie Cohn

One of the greatest heroes of World War II never fired a gun, thrust a bayonet or threw a grenade. His name was Gino Bertali, and his impact on the war was not in taking lives, but saving them.

As a boy growing up in a poor Tuscan family, Gino had a passion for riding bikes – really fast! He would eventually become a three time winner of the prestigious Giro D’Italia, and later, a two time winner of the Tour De France.

When the war broke out, Gino was approached by the Italian Resistance to use his cycling talents in a unique way – to be a courier carrying fake documents on his long distance training runs all over Italy. At great risk to his own life, and that of his family, he agreed.

Hidden in the frame and handlebars of his bike were photographs and counterfeit documents that would be used to create safe passage for hundreds whose lives were at risk. In several tense confrontations, Gino was stopped by suspicious Italian black shirts who wanted to examine the bike. Using his wits and a good gift of gab, he would explain that the bike was precisely calibrated for speed and tampering with it would ruin his chances of winning races.

It worked, and the life saving rides continued. It’s estimated that hundreds of Jews - 80% of those at risk - were saved thanks to people like Gino.

Yet, when people told him, “Gino, you’re a hero” he would reply, “No no, real heroes are others, those who have suffered in their soul, in their heart, in their spirit. I’m just a cyclist.”

Those are the words of a real hero.