• ISRAEL \ Mar 21, 2001
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    Rusty bike shipped to Israel to honour wartime heroine
Rusty bike shipped to Israel to honour wartime heroine
A RUSTY old bicycle on which a courageous French woman pedalled around southern France almost 60 years ago to denounce the Nazi persecution of Jews is to take pride of place at Israel's Holocaust Memorial centre.

Marie-Rose Gineste's sturdy "Semper" model, on which she covered 100 miles over two days in 1942, was shipped to Jerusalem recently and will serve as a symbol of the devotion to saving Jewish lives that she displayed during the darkest days of the German occupation.

After the war ended, Mrs Gineste, a devout Roman Catholic, kept the bicycle in the courtyard of her home in Montauban, near Toulouse, to remind her of that perilous journey to spread the truth. Last December, still spritely at 89, she decided that her days in the saddle were over and offered it for display in a new historical museum planned by the centre, where a tree honouring her name already stands.

Mrs Gineste's ride took place in the summer of 1942, when the mass deportation of Jews to concentration camps in Germany and Poland - carried out with the support of France's collaborationist Vichy regime - was approaching its peak. She was then an unmarried social worker with the diocese of Montauban, whose bishop, Pierre-Marie Theas, was determined to speak out against Nazi barbarism.

In an impassioned pastoral letter, he expressed "the outraged protest of Christian conscience" at the spectacle of "the uprooting of men and women, treated as wild animals" and called on Catholics to protect the Jews. Bishop Theas wanted to post this denunciation to all the numerous churches in his diocese, but Mrs Gineste warned him that the Vichy authorities, then in control of southern France, would undoubtedly intercept and censor it.

Instead, she volunteered, "with the greatest of enthusiasm", to hand-deliver the message by bicycle to more than 40 parishes scattered around the heavily-policed countryside of the Tarn and Garonne. She set off on August 28, riding from dawn to dusk in the fierce heat for the next two days.

On Sunday August 30, the letter from Bishop Theas was read out from the pulpit in all but one of the churches to packed congregations: the sole exception was a priest known for his Vichy leanings. The text of the pronouncement soon reached the BBC, which then relayed it back in full to millions of French tuning in clandestinely to the broadcasts that began "Ici Londres."

In the judgement of Dr Mordecai Paldiel, an expert at the Yad Vashem Holocaust centre, the impact of the message that Mrs Gineste delivered was swift and significant. "Historians now see it as marking a turning point in the Catholic Church's earlier passive attitude towards the Vichy regime," Dr Paldiel explained. From then on, many French families were moved to risk their lives by sheltering Jews in their homes.

Mrs Gineste's devotion to that cause did not end with her bicycle ride: as the war continued, she accepted the mission of finding safe houses for Jewish fugitives in the Montauban diocese. Dr Paldiel noted she was also responsible for pilfering food ration cards from the authorities (sometimes aided by sympathetic officials) for use by underground Jewish organisations.

Like all those who resisted the Germans, Mrs Gineste was in constant danger of being denounced by an informer and interrogated under torture, but her profound faith never wavered. "From my earliest days as a child, Christianity has dominated and shaped my whole life," she told The Telegraph. "My belief guided me before the war and during the war and the occupation and still does to this day."

In 1985, following the submission of many testimonies to her wartime heroics, the title of Righteous Among the Nations - which honours gentiles who worked to save the lives of Jews - was formally bestowed on her by Yad Vashem. This put her in the company of such figures as the Swedish diplomat Raoul Wallenberg and Oskar Schindler (of "Schindler's List") in addition to her mentor Bishop Theas, and she was subsequently invited to Jerusalem to plant her own tree beside the Avenue of the Righteous.

In the mid-1990s, the American film director Peter Bogdanovich teamed up with Barbra Streisand in her producer's role to make a television film based around Mrs Gineste's experiences. Woman on a Bicycle was described by Bogdanovich, whose own mother was Jewish, as "a very human story from an inhuman time".

Some years ago, Mrs Gineste's bicycle was stolen from outside her home. She prayed for its return and, more practically, appealed to the thief's conscience in an advertisement in the local newspaper, emphasising its personal and historical significance. A few days later, it reappeared in her courtyard, still in working order.