My Italian Secret: The Forgotten Heroes

My Italian Secret: The Forgotten Heroes

Italy and the Holocaust Foundation

Reprinted with permission from the Italy and Holocaust Foundation (

MY ITALIAN SECRET: The Forgotten Heroes is a feature length documentary that tells the story of courageous Italians, including sports idol Gino Bartali, who carried out ingenious schemes to rescue and protect Jews in Nazi-occupied Italy. The film is narrated by Isabella Rossellini with Robert Loggia as the voice of Gino Bartali. It is available on disc, at Amazon Video and on iTunes.

MY ITALIAN SECRET tells personal accounts that reflect this little known piece of history. Through witnesses’ stories, viewers revisit a time when an entire continent was engulfed in genocide. They learn how approximately 80% of Jewish people living in Italy, including foreign Jews, survived the Holocaust. On September 8, 1943 the Nazi’s invaded Northern Italy and the deportation of thousands of Jewish people and others to Auschwitz began. This film asks: Why would someone risk his or her own life and put their family in jeopardy to ‘do the right thing’ and protect the life of another person . . . a stranger?

Yad Vashem posthumously recognized Gino Bartali from Italy as ‘Righteous Among the Nations’. Bartali was a champion cyclist and a beloved public figure. During the German occupation of Italy (beginning in September 1943), Bartali, a devout Catholic, was part of a rescue network spearheaded by Rabbi Nathan Cassuto of Florence together with the Archbishop of Florence Cardinal Elia Angelo Dalla Costa (previously recognized as ‘Righteous Among the Nations’). This Jewish-Christian network, set up following the German occupation of Italy and the onset of deportation of Jews, saved hundreds of local Jews and Jewish refugees from territories which had previously been under Italian control, mostly in France and Yugoslavia. Gino Bartali acted as a courier for the network, secreting forged documents and papers in his bicycle and transporting them between cities, all under the guise of training. Knowingly risking his life to rescue Jews, Bartali transferred falsified documents to various contacts, among them Rabbi Cassuto.

Although Gino Bartali is a sports legend, his most daring triumph came when he risked his life countless times to save Jews threatened by Nazi extermination. The story of Bartali and the secret network of which he was a member, is just one example of the heroism exhibited by thousands of ordinary Italians who risked their lives to save others from capture and death. As an entire continent was engulfed in a genocide, which took the lives of most Jews in Nazi-occupied Europe (11 million people perished, including 6 million Jews), approximately 80 percent of Italy’s Jews survived. Bartali, like most of the rescuers, never sought recognition or reward. Few of those he helped knew his name or what role he played in their rescue. In addition to Gino Bartali, thousands of conscientious individual Italians risked their lives in order to assist people who in many cases were complete strangers. Most of these heroes never spoke of their courageous deeds.

Guiding Questions: Use the documentary “My Italian Secret: The Forgotten Heroes of the Holocaust” to provide evidence to answer the following questions.

  1. Identify one segment that is a primary source and one segment that is a secondary source.
  2. Provide one positive example and one negative example of how some Italians treated the Jews during the Holocaust.
  3. Describe three ways in which Italian rescuers helped the Jews during the Holocaust.
  4. In your opinion, which of the six individual characters in the documentary displayed the most courage. (Explain the reason for your answer.)
  5. Can the experiences of the people portrayed in the documentary be related to the current refugee crisis? (Explain)


A) Who was Gino Bartali?

Gino Bartali is well known in the sport of cycling and holds the record for the longest time span between victories at the Tour de France (ten years). Bartali’s life provides a powerful lesson in how moral endurance can empower from within. As Bartali attained “super star status” in the sport of cycling, he never lost sight of the fact that it was his inner strength that carried him through the most difficult moments of his life.

As he told his son Andrea, “If you’re good at a sport, they attach the medals to your shirt and then they shine in some museum. That which is earned by doing good deeds is attached to the soul and shines elsewhere.”

In 1943, when Italy was under the German army occupation, Archbishop Elia Angelo Dalla Costa and Rabbi Nathan Cassuto organized a resistance network. Bartali was recruited by the network and worked as a courier. In addition, Bartali aided the Assisi resistance movement that was organized by church members from his hometown. He also sheltered a local Jewish family in his home. As part of his job as courier, Bartali hid documents in the handlebar and seat of his bicycle. These documents were primarily export visas, giving numerous Jews the chance to evade deportation to the death camps. Long bike rides were common place for professional cyclists, even during the war. Bartali was able to travel thousands of kilometers around Italy under the guise of training rides, while he smuggled forged identity papers in the frame of his bicycle to Jewish families trying to desperately flee the country.

After the war, Bartali never spoke of his underground activities and refused all attempts at interviews. He simply remarked that “he had been motivated by his conscience and therefore did not want to have his activities documented.” Bartali’s decision to act was heroic not because he felt no fear but rather because he did not let his fear prevent him from doing what he felt was ethically right. He demonstrated moral endurance, forged in a moment of danger that few of us could ever hope to fully understand. Although the exact number of people is unknown due to Bartali’s taciturn nature, he is credited with saving 800 lives. Yad Vashem recognized Gino Bartali as a ‘Righteous Among the Nations’ in 2013. In spite of the heroic title, Bartali never thought of himself as a genuine hero. He once said, “Real heroes are others, those who have suffered in their souls, in their hearts, and their spirit, for their loved ones. Those are the real heroes. I’m just a cyclist.”


  1. Why is Bartali famous?
  2. What did Bartali mean when he said, “That which is earned by doing good deeds is attached to the soul and shines elsewhere.”
  3. How did Bartali become involved in saving Jews?
  4. What was Bartali’s role in the resistance movement?
  5. How did Bartali demonstrate his moral endurance? 

B) The Rescue of Jews in Assisi, Italy

Essay Assessment: Write a response to the following question that includes an introduction, at least two body paragraphs and a conclusion. To what extent was Gino Bartali’s role in the resistance movement in Italy successful? In your response, be sure to address the following: supporting evidence from the reading and website, individual’s actions/participation, and results of the action taken.

Father Brunacci

Father Brunacci in Assisi

The only time in history when there is a record of Jews living in Assisi, Italy was during the Holocaust, when the town and its churches, monasteries and convents became a safe haven for several hundred Jews. Shortly after the German occupation, when the manhunt for Jews began, the Bishop of Assisi, Giuseppe Nicolini, ordered Father Brunacci to head the rescue operation of Jews and to arrange sheltering places in some twenty-six monasteries and convents. The Bishop authorized the hiding of Jews in places that were closed to outsiders by monastic regulations. The Committee of Assistance that Bishop Nicolini organized transformed Assisi into a shelter for many Jews.

In addition, many other Jews were provided with false papers enabling them to travel and survive in other places. Later, Father Brunacci was arrested and tried in court for his involvement in Jewish rescue efforts but was released after the intervention by the Vatican. Father Rufino Niccacci, the Guardian of the St. Damiano Monastery, played an important role in the network. He arranged false papers and found hiding places in the monasteries and convents, disguising the Jews as monks and nuns. The network not only saved Jewish lives, but also made great efforts to supply Jews with some of their religious needs. After the war, Father Brunacci described how during Yom Kipper, the Day of Atonement and the highest holiday in the Jewish religion was celebrated in Assisi in 1943. The convent nuns prepared the special meal for the ending of the fast.

Not only priest and nuns of the church participated in this collective effort, but many others played key roles in the rescue of Jews. One such person was Luigi Brizi who owned a souvenir shop in Assisi that operated a printing press. Brizi and his son became members of the Assisi rescue network and risked their lives by printing false papers for the persecuted Jews. Luigi’s son, Trento, bicycled to Foligno, 20 kilometers from Assisi, to a friend who used his etching skills to produce seals in order to stamp the false documents. The Viterbi family was one of the families that lived openly due to the false papers provided by Brizi. After the war, Brunacci remarked that about 200 Jews had been saved from the persecutors. As a result, Yad Vashem in Israel, honored the following people for their role in saving Jews: Father Rufino Niccacci was recognized as Righteous Among the Nations in 1976; Bishop Giuseppe Nicolini and Father Brunacci were recognized as Righteous Among the Nations in 1977; and Luigi Brizi and his son Trento were recognized as Righteous Among the Nations in 1977.


  1. Why did Jews move to Assisi?
  2. How did the Bishop of Assisi, Giuseppe Nicolini, react to the German occupation?
  3. Explain what happened to Father Brunacci as a result of his rescue efforts.
  4. How did Father Rufino Nicacci’s role in the rescue network help Jews?
  5. How did Luigi Brizi and his son Trento participate in the saving of Jews?
  6. How did the Jewish people give thanks to those who saved their lives in Assisi?

Essay Assessment: Write a response to the following question that includes an introduction, body paragraph and a conclusion. To what extent were the activities of the Assisi Underground network successful in the saving of Jews during the Holocaust? In your response, be sure to address the following: – supporting evidence from the reading – action of individuals – results of action taken

C. Courageous Hall of Fame

Directions: Review the following list of individuals who performed acts of courage (up-standers). Choose one individual to research the actions taken by the individual and answer the five project questions (only one student researching an individual). After completing the research, the teacher may choose to have students present their arguments for their nominee to the class. The teacher may also have students vote to determine if the arguments/evidence presented was strong enough for the nominee to be inducted into the Courageous Hall of Fame.

Alternative Strategies: Write a letter to the Courageous Hall of Fame award committee presenting your arguments/evidence to nominate your individual person to the Courageous Hall of Fame. Write a thank you letter to the individual researched thanking him or her for his/her acts of courage.

COURAGEOUS HALL OF FAME NOMINEES: Father Joseph Andre; Aristides de Souza Mendes; Mordecai Anieleswicz; Dr. Giuseppe Moreali; Gino Bartali; Father Ruffino Niccacci; Father Arigo Beccari; Bishop Giuseppe Placido Nicolini; Father Marie Benoit; Uri Orley; Tuvia, Zusia, Aasel Bielski (brothers); John Pehle; Dietrich Bonhoeffer; Giorgio Perlasca; Dr. Giovanni Borromeo; Marion Pritchard; Leon Feldhendler; Bishop Angelo Roncalli; Anne Frank; Irene Sandler (Opdyke); Varian Fry; Oskar Schindler; Meep Gies; Monsignor Schivo; Ana Ginno; Sophie Schole; Paul Grueninger; Tempo Sugihara; Alicia Appleman-Jurman; Hanna Szenes; Jan Karski; Marie Agnes Tribbioli; Father Maximillian Kolbe; Andre Trocme; Janusz Korczak; Raoul Wallenberg; Abba Kovner; Elie Wiesel; Take & Edna Lasow; Sir Nicholas Winton (Kindertransport) 


·         A Teacher’s Guide to the Holocaust
·         Notable Social Studies trade books for young people

 Suggested Reading for Young Adults:

Altshuler, David. Hitler’s War against the Jews. New York: Berhman House, 1978.
Anflick, Charles. Resistance: Teen Partisans and Resistance Who Fought Nazi Tyranny. NY: Rosen, 1999.
Bartlett, Susan Campbell. Hitler Youth: Growing Up in Hitler’s Shadow. Scholastic, 2012.
Frank, Anne. The Diary of a Girl by Anne Frank. New York: Doubleday & Company, 1947.
Lee, Carol Ann. Anne Frank and the Children of the Holocaust. U.S.A.: Puffin Books, 2006.
Rapport, Doreen. Beyond Courage: The Untold Story of Jewish Resistance During the Holocaust. Summerville, Massachusetts: Candlewick Publishers, 2012.
Warren, Andrea. Surviving Hitler: A Boy in the Nazi Death Camps. U.S.A.: Harper Collins, 2001.
Meltzer, Milton. Rescue: The Story of How the Gentiles Saved Jews in the Holocaust. NY: Harper, 1988.
Rogasky, Barbara. Smoke and Ashes: The Story of the Holocaust.New York: Holiday House, 1988.


·         Italy and the Holocaust Foundation (
·         Anne Frank Online Cybrary of the Holocaust
·         The Simon Wiesenthal Center
·         The Holocaust Rescuers
·         The Jewish Foundation for the Righteous
·         United States Holocaust Memorial Museum
·         Yad Vashem
·         Non-Fiction Holocaust Literature for Young Adults



Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s