Accounts of Gentile resisters who chose to risk their lives to save Jews during the Holocaust continue to hold readers’ spellbound. What made these individuals act this way amidst the climate of acceptance of Nazi cruelties while others actively abetted the destruction of their once-friends and neighbors? Amalia Hoffman and Chiara Fedele’s picture book, The Brave Cyclist: The True Story of a Holocaust Hero, tells the thrilling story of Gino Bartali — Italian cyclist and winner of the Tour de France race, who used his athletic skills and his deeply ingrained moral code to help rescue Jews in his native Tuscany.
Bartali was a deeply religious and modest man; his deeds during WWII were not widely known until years afterwards. When he died in 2000, his New York Times obituary omitted any mention of efforts on behalf of Italy’s Jews. Hoffman begins her book with a portrait of the hero as an awkward boy obsessed with bicycles, who gradually — through persistence and determination — became a champion at competitive cycling. Young readers will identify with Bartali’s refusal to give up, while learning that he began each day with twenty-four exercises and ate a dozen raw eggs during the course of one challenging race. The text is quite detailed, with Fedele’s dramatic paintings complementing Hoffman’s narrative. People’s facial expressions convey deep emotion, whether of a Jewish family terrorized by Mussolini’s soldiers, or the glee on Gino’s face as his father agrees to allow him to pursue his dream. Scenes of Italy’s imposing geography and landmarks, from the Pyrenees Mountains to Florence’s Bargello Palace, are breathtaking.
Only in the second half of the book, after Hoffman and Fedele have developed Bartali’s character, do they turn to his moral decisions. When he is approached by Cardinal Elia Dalla Costa with a request to deliver false documents to enable Jews to escape, Bartali agrees. He will continue to ride his bicycle as swiftly as possible, not to beat his competitors, but to save lives. Hoffman frames Bartali’s story as one of logical progressions rather than superhuman bravery. The book concludes with Bartali’s second Tour de France triumph in 1948. In 2013, he was recognized as Righteous Among the Nations by Yad Vashem.
The Brave Cyclist includes an “Afterword” with further information, and a “Select Bibliography.” The book is highly recommended for children as well as for caregivers and educators looking for an unusual approach to heroism during the Holocaust.
Emily Schneider writes about literature, feminism, and culture for Tablet, The Forward, The Horn Book, and other publications, and writes about children’s books on her blog. She has a Ph.D. in Romance Languages and Literatures.