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The Righteous Cyclist

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There was once a man in a large department store in America, balancing a canoe on his head as he passed the cashiers at the front of the shop, and the security guards; he smiled sheepishly and pointed to the canoe, saying, “They didn’t have a bag big enough.”  Only after he was long gone did they find out that he’d stolen the canoe – it was in plain sight, but because it was so bold, no one ever thought to ask to see a receipt.

Hiding things in plain sight is a frequently-used form of deception, from animals to thieves, and in this particular story, a cyclist whose racing bike was stuffed with forged documents; but the cause was much more important, and changed the lives of countless thousands through the generations.

Gino Bartali (July 1914 – May 2000) was a champion racing cyclist in Italy, who won races both before and after World War 2.  A devoutly religious man, he used his celebrity status, as well as the cover story of “training” to ensure that hundreds of Jews were rescued from the Nazi occupation in Italy.  Not only did he risk his and his family’s lives by hiding a Jewish family in his cellar, but he also used his fame to slip by undetected as he delivered forged documents and messages hidden within the frame and handlebars of his bike.  In 1943, he led a group of Jewish refugees toward the Swiss Alps; he cycled, pulling a wagon with a secret compartment; when he was stopped by a German patrol, he simply said that it was part of his training.  Working with the Assisi underground, his speed, fame and cover story enabled him to quickly travel 35-40 trips between Florence to Perugia, Assisi, Lucca and Terontola to deliver paperwork that saved the lives of over 800 Jews; if you look at those distances on a map, its mind boggling to think that he often made the trip out and back within the same day.

When he went to train stations, he would use the confusion of the crowds of fans to distract the German guards checking the identifications of passengers entering the train, thus slipping the Jews aboard in the chaos.  Once, when he was taken in for questioning, he asked that they not touch his bicycle, claiming that its parts were very carefully calibrated to achieve maximum speed.  He believed that talking about the good one does is taking advantage of others’ misfortunes for personal gain.  “Good is something you do, not something you talk about.  Some medals are pinned to your soul, not to your jacket.”  He refused to wear the label “hero”, wanting instead to be remembered for his sporting achievements; he said, “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.”

He kept his actions hidden for over 50 years, and only after his death did the story begin to emerge; he was declared one of the “Righteous Among the Nations” in 2013.  Please click on the image to watch a short video about a cycling tribute along the routes he traveled.

gino-bartali-righteous-among-the-nations

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The Deaf Princess Nun

Princess Alice of BattenburgPrincess Alice of Battenberg, christened Victoria Alice Elizabeth Julia Marie (born 25 February 1885 at Windsor Castle – 5 December 1969 at Buckingham Palace), later Princess Andrew of Greece and Denmark, was considered the most beautiful princess in Europe.  She was born completely deaf, yet learned to read lips at a young age and could speak several languages.  Alice grew up in Germany, and was the great-granddaughter of Queen Victoria.  In a time when royalty had little to do with the commoners, she was an unconventional royal who placed the importance of people over privilege and wealth.  She was devoted to helping others, and in the turmoil of her own personal life never lost sight of her devotion to God and her commitment to helping those less fortunate.

At the age of 17 she fell in love with Prince Andrew of Greece, and they were married in 1903.  They had four daughters and one son; their daughters went on to marry German princes, and their son Prince Philip married Elizabeth II, Queen of England; Alice is therefore the grandmother of the Princes Charles, Andrew, Edward and Princess Anne.  She and her family lived in Greece until political turmoil caused the royals to flee in exile in 1917, when they settled in a suburb of Paris.  Alice began working with charities helping Greek refugees, while her husband left her and the children for a life of debauchery and gambling in Monte Carlo.  She found strength in her Greek Orthodox faith, yet relied on the charity of wealthy relatives in that period of her life when she had no home to call her own, and no husband to help raise her children.  Understandably through the stress of circumstances, she had a nervous breakdown in 1930; dubiously diagnosed with schizophrenia, she was committed suddenly and against her will to a mental institution in Switzerland, without even the chance to say goodbye to her children (Prince Philip, 9 at the time, returned from a picnic to find his mother gone).  She continually defended her sanity and tried to leave the asylum.  Finally in 1932 she was released, but in the interim her four daughters had married (she had thus been unable to attend their weddings), and Philip had been sent to England to live with his Mountbatten uncles and his grandmother, the Dowager Marchioness of Milford Haven.

Alice eventually returned to Athens, living in a small flat and devoting her life to helping the poor.  World War II was a personal dilemma for her as her four sons-in-law fought on the German side, while her son was in the British Royal Navy; yet in her home she hid a Jewish family safely for the duration of the war.  She also remained in Athens for the duration of the war, rather than fleeing to relative safety in South Africa as many of the Greek royal family did at the time.  She worked for the Red Cross in soup kitchens, and used her royal status to fly out for medical supplies, as well as organized orphanages and a nursing circuit for the poor.  The German occupied forces assumed she was pro-German due to her ties to royal German commanders, and when a visiting German general asked her if he could do anything for her, she replied, “You can take your troops out of my country.” [For an interesting film on this period in Greek history, see “Captain Corelli’s Mandolin” (2001), starring Nicholas Cage and Penelope Cruz.]

After the war ended, Alice went on to take the example of her aunt, Grand Duchess Elizabeth Fyodorovna (who had been formulating plans for the foundation of a religious order in 1908 when Alice met her in Russia at a family wedding), and founded a religious order, the Christian Sisterhood of Martha and Mary, becoming a nun (though she still enjoyed smoking and playing cards) and establishing a convent and orphanage in a poverty-stricken part of Athens. Her habit consisted of a drab gray robe, white wimple, cord and rosary beads.

Prince Philip, The Duke of Edinburgh with his mother, Princess Alice (taken late 1950s, early 1960s)

Prince Philip, The Duke of Edinburgh with his mother, Princess Alice (taken late 1950s, early 1960s)

In 1967, following another Greek political coup, she travelled to England, where she lived with her son Prince Philip and her daughter-in-law, Queen Elizabeth II at Buckingham Palace until her death in 1969.  Her final request was to be buried near her sainted aunt in Jerusalem; she was instead initially buried in the royal crypt at Windsor Castle, but in 1988 she was at last interred near her aunt in the Convent of Saint Mary Magdalene on the Mount of Olives in Jerusalem.

In October of 1994 her two surviving children, the Duke of Edinburgh and the Princess George of Hanover, went to the Holocaust Memorial in Jerusalem to see their mother honoured as one of the “Righteous Among the Nations” for having hidden Jews in her house in Athens during the Second World War.  Prince Philip said of his mother’s actions, “I suspect that it never occurred to her that her action was in any way special. She was a person with a deep religious faith, and she would have considered it to be a perfectly natural human reaction to fellow beings in distress.”  In 2010 the Princess was posthumously named a Hero of the Holocaust by the British Government.

Information Sources:  Wikipedia; The Accidental Talmudist

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