Elia Dalla Costa had the help of the winner of the Tour de France, Gino Bartali.
Pope Francis has officially recognized the heroic virtues of Cardinal Elia Dalla Costa (1872-1961), archbishop of Florence, who organized a rescue network for Jews in central Italy in the midst of World War II.
This pontifical recognition, which took place in May, has made Dalla Costa better known outside of Italy. In 2012, he had already received the title of “Righteous Among the Nations” from the Yad Vashem institute in Jerusalem “for having offered refuge to more than 100 Jews from Italy and 220 more from outside the country.”
The pope’s decision is a decisive step in the public recognition of the holiness of this prelate, who was the archbishop of Florence from 1931 to 1958. Now, for his beatification, it is necessary to prove the existence of a miracle (a scientifically inexplicable cure) attributed to his intercession.
The investigation carried out by Yad Veshem for its “Righteous Among the Nations” designation, with which the Jewish world expresses its gratitude to someone who risked his or her own life to save the lives of Jews during the Nazi persecution, helped to discover the network that the cardinal built to provide refuge for persecuted Jews.
Elia Dalla Costa’s role was particularly important after the arrest of the chief rabbi of Florence, Nathan Cassuto (who would later die in Auschwitz), together with the entire clandestine support network that had been organized by the Jewish community, in November of 1943.
From that moment on, the cardinal of Florence became the reference point for those seeking help.
Among the testimonies gathered by Yad Veshem is that of Mrs. Lya Quitt, who remembered how, after fleeing from France to Florence at the beginning of September in 1943, she was taken to the archbishop’s residence. She spent the night there, together with other Jews who had been given shelter, before being taken the next day to one of the Florentine convents that had opened their doors to the Jews at the archbishop’s request.
Yad Veshem also cites the testimony of Giorgio La Pira, who would become the mayor of Florence after the Second World War; he revealed that Archbishop Dalla Costa was “the soul of this ‘activity of love’ aimed to save so many brothers.”
With the help of cycling champion Gino Bartali
In order to help the persecuted Jews, the cardinal needed to give them fake documents, which were made by Franciscan friars in the city of Assisi about 110 miles away.
Now, during the Nazi occupation, it had become extremely risky to transport those documents. The cardinal had heard accounts of people being shot by solders at checkpoints for trying to help Jews.
The cardinal then had an excellent idea: there was someone who would be able to avoid the army and police checkpoints—namely, Gino Bartali, who had won the Tour de France in 1938, as well as the Giro d’Italia in 1936 and 1937.
No soldier would dare to stop the greatest athlete in Italy while he was training on his bicycle.
The cardinal called Bartali to make a request: that he carry the false documents between Assisi and Florence inside the tubes of the frame of his bicycle. The archbishop knew well that, by doing this, both he and—especially—Bartali were risking their lives.
Bartali, profoundly Catholic, accepted the mission entrusted to him by his archbishop. Both managed to save many human lives; for this reason, Bartali has also been recognized as “Righteous Among the Nations.”