Tullia Zevi
Domenico Stinellis  /  AP
FILE - A July 1997 file photo showing Tullia Zevi a pillar of Italy's Jewish community and an ardent anti-fascist who spent the war years in exile in Switzerland, France and the U.S. Zevi, the first female president of the Union of Italian Jewish Communities, died Saturday, Jan. 22, 2011, according to union president Renzo Gattegna. She was 91. (AP Photo/Domenico Stinellis, File)
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updated 1/22/2011 2:32:38 PM ET 2011-01-22T19:32:38

Tullia Zevi, a pillar of Italy's Jewish community and an ardent anti-fascist who spent the war years in exile in Switzerland, France and the U.S., died Saturday. She was 91.

Zevi, the only female president of the Union of Italian Jewish Communities and the longtime vice president of the European Jewish Congress, died in Rome, current union president Renzo Gattegna said.

Condolences poured in from Italy's president, prime minister and politicians of nearly every stripe who praised her tireless defense of Jews and warnings about the current threat of anti-Semitism.

"For survivors, she was a clarion voice that warned against the dangers of neo-Nazism to not just Jews, but to society and democracy as a whole," said Elan Steinberg, emeritus executive director of the World Jewish Congress, where Zevi served for many years on the executive committee.

One of four children of a bourgeois Jewish family, Zevi was vacationing with her parents in Switzerland in 1938 when Italy passed its racial laws. The family, known for her father's anti-fascist beliefs, fled to France and later the U.S. as World War II raged.

She returned to Italy in 1946 and worked as a journalist as well as with various center-left political parties while taking on increasingly important leadership roles in the Jewish community.

In a biographical article she wrote in 1999, Zevi said she returned because she wanted to help Italy and its Jews rebuild after the war.

"The horrors of the war had just been discovered; the mass extermination of the Jews, the gypsies and political opponents, the devastation of Jewish communities," she wrote.

"It seemed right, having had the fortune of having survived, to return and participate in the reconstruction of this traumatized community in chaos, and also to participate in the rebirth of democracy in Italy following the defeat of fascism."

Zevi was elected president of the Union of Italian Jewish Communities in 1983 and held the post until 1998. For around two decades, she was vice president of the European Jewish Congress, a branch of the World Jewish Congress, Steinberg said.

He called Zevi a "relentless champion of Jewish rights and the universal struggle against the malignant threat of fascism."

Even after her official duties ended, Zevi remained active in Italy's Jewish committee, frequently commenting in the media about issues affecting Jews, and Jewish-Vatican relations in particular.

In 1992, she was awarded Italy's highest civilian honor, news reports said.

"We recall her profound and dignified interventions that she made in defense of the Jews and all minorities," Gattegna said in a statement.

Her husband Bruno Zevi, an architect, Jewish leader and member of Italy's clandestine Justice and Liberty movement while fascists held power, died in 2000. They had two children.

A funeral was planned for Monday in Rome, the ANSA news agency said.

Copyright 2011 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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