Wednesday, January 27, 2016

Gino Bartali:  Cycling for Humanity

Gino Bartali was enough of a cycling star to win the Tour De France twice---ten years apart---and be personal friends with Pope John the XXIII, to whom he gave lessons on how to ride a bike.  But what Gino did on and with his bike, was about so much more than fame.

Due to his racing success Bartali was already a European celebrity when the dark clouds of Nazism and Fascism began to shadow his world.  Because of his standing as a sports hero, though, he could have easily avoided the politics and suffering around him and waited out the war.  But Bartali loved what was best about his country and humankind too much to avoid engagement.  And when a friend asked him to become involved in the Italian Resistance, he agreed.

He began using his cycling workouts as a cover for his new calling.  He’d don his racing jersey with his famous name emblazoned across the back and ride hundreds of miles between Florence and Rome carrying secret messages, photographs, and documents---hidden in the handlebars and frame of his bicycle---to the network of safe-houses, churches, and convents in the resistance. His fame allowed him to ride without harassment.

In addition, Gino Bartali also hid a Jewish family in an apartment he’d purchased with his cycling prize money until the end of the war.

By 1943, he had also begun to literally pull Jews to safety by attaching a wagon with a secret compartment to the back of his bicycle and riding for the Swiss Alps with them in tow.  He told patrols that occasionally stopped him that the wagon was part of his new ‘training regimen.’
After the war, Andrea Bartali wanted to tell others about his father’s heroism, but Gino forbid it.  “You must do good, but you must not talk about it. If you talk about it you're taking advantage of others misfortunes for your own gain."

Gino Bartali was a remarkable athlete who cycled for Italy…but even more for humanity.  And that’s what made him not just a true champion, but an eternal champion.

Gino Bartali is a hero you should know. And I'm Dr. Ross Porter.

Saturday, January 23, 2016

Irena Sendler: The Ghetto and the Glass Jar

Irena Sendler was a social worker, and personally responsible for saving 2,500 Jewish children during the Nazi occupation of Poland.   

In 1939, 450,000 Jews were rounded up in Warsaw by the Nazis and crammed into a tiny section of the city, behind seven foot high walls, and Sendler knew that time was precious.  As the head of the children’s bureau of Zegota, a social service program responsible for monitoring the threat of typhus in this newly established ghetto, she was given unlimited access by the Nazis in order to insure “sanitary conditions.” 

What the Nazis didn’t realize was that Zegota was also the cover for an underground resistance movement committed to saving Jews from death, and Sendler was at the heart of this effort.  For nearly five years, using health inspections as an excuse, she entered the ghetto again and again and smuggled infants and children to safety;  in coffins, burlap sacks, tool cases, wrapped packages, and even beneath the floor boards of an ambulance. 

And as parents gave their children to Sendler, she collected names.  New identities had been created for the children, but she wanted to make sure their original identities were not lost.  She buried this list of names in a glass jar in her backyard in case she was arrested.

In 1943, the Gestapo did finally catch Sendler.  She was imprisoned, tortured, and sentenced to death.  However she was able to escape, and went into hiding.  As soon as the war ended, she dug up the jar, grabbed the list, and went to work trying to re-connect the children she’d saved with their families.

In gratitude, Israel made her an honorary citizen in 1991.

Irena Sendler is a hero you should know.  And I'm Dr. Ross Porter.

Saturday, January 2, 2016

Heroes You Should Know: Vasili Arkhipov

“The man who saved the world” is a pretty impressive title.  But that’s exactly what Vasili Arkhipov did.  Arkhipov was second in command on one of the Soviet Union’s four B-59 attack submarines, sent to Cuba in October of 1962.  Arkhipov’s submarine carried 22 torpedoes, one of which was nuclear---and as powerful as the bomb dropped on Hiroshima.

Each of the captains had been given permission to fire their nuclear torpedoes as long as they had the blessing of their on-board political officer.  The only other officer with veto power was Vasili Arkhipov, who was in charge of the submarine flotilla.

Because the submarines had been so deep under water en route to Cuba they did not receive radio transmissions from Moscow about the United States’ naval blockade of Cuba.  So on October 27, when eleven U.S. destroyers and the USS Randolph located the submarine Arkhipov was on and began dropping depth charges to force it to surface and identify its self, Soviet captain Valentin Savitsky mistakenly believed war had begun. He and the political officer on board wanted to respond by launching their nuclear torpedo.  Arkhipov forcefully disagreed, arguing that no direct order had come from Moscow and such a response would be catastrophic.  He suggested the sub surface and find out for sure what was going on.  A heated argument reportedly ensued between the three men in charge, but Arkhipov held his ground against the other two officers.  Eventually, he prevailed.  The submarine surfaced, was told by the Americans to return to the Soviet Union, and a nuclear war was averted.

It is believed that Arkhipov’s position eventually carried the day because of his prior heroism.  You see, a year before the Cuban Missile Crisis, he had been present at another near-catastrophic nuclear disaster! 

In July of 1961, the K-19 nuclear submarine Arkhipov was on, complete with a nuclear missile, sprung a leak in the reactor coolant system and was in real danger of a nuclear meltdown.  Engineers on board the sub built a make-shift cooling system and were able to contain the overheating reactor. But the first-responders, along with many crewmen, died of radiation exposure and in response the crew of the K-19 almost erupted in mutiny.  Arkhipov himself was seriously irradiated, but stood by his captain, was credited with helping to quell the revolt, and was later awarded a medal for valor.   

Arkhipov would go on to serve another twenty years, retiring as a Rear Admiral.  He died in 1998 at the age of 72, and his exposure to radiation on the K-19 was cited as a contributing cause of death.

A man who was in the right place at the right time---twice!  And the world should be very grateful.

Vasili Arkhipov is a hero you should know. And I’m Dr. Ross Porter.