January 22, 2011 / 10:59 PM / in 7 years

Tullia Zevi, historic Italian Jewish leader, dead

ROME (Reuters) - Tullia Zevi, one of the historic post-war leaders of Italy’s Jews and the only woman to ever hold the post of president of the country’s Jewish communities, died Saturday at the age of 92, her family said.

Zevi, who had been in failing health for some time and was a prominent figure in Christian-Jewish dialogue, died in a Catholic hospital just across the River Tiber from the Rome neighborhood that is still known as “The Ghetto.”

During her long career she also held senior positions in the World Jewish Congress and European Jewish Congress.

She was often critical of the Vatican and the Roman Catholic Church when she felt Jewish rights were not respected. One of the best-known women in Italy for decades, she was once considered a candidate for the country’s presidency.

Zevi was born in Milan of a well-to-do Jewish family that emigrated to the United States in the late 1930s after dictator Benito Mussolini enacted the so-called racial laws which prohibited Jews from holding state jobs or studying in state schools.

She was the lay head of Italy’s Jewish communities from 1983 to 1998 and was one of the officials who welcomed the late Pope John Paul to the Rome synagogue in 1986 when he became the first pontiff since the times of the apostles to visit the temple.

During her presidency, she oversaw the implementation of a special accord with the Italian government in 1987 when Roman Catholicism lost its status as official state religion.

After leaving Italy, she first moved to France to continue her university studies in philosophy and music, fleeing to the United States when the Nazis occupied France.

She continued her studies in New York, where she became an accomplished harpist and played in several orchestras. She joined anti-Fascist associations in New York and after the war returned to Italy to begin a career in journalism.

She worked for several Israeli publications, covering the Nuremberg war crimes tribunal and the 1961 trial of captured SS officer Adolf Eichmann, one of the major organisers of the Nazi Holocaust.

“We are losing a protagonist of our history,” said former Rome mayor Walter Veltroni. “She was an extraordinary woman who was at once strong, courageous and meek.”

Italian President Giorgio Napolitano hailed her “exquisite humanity and culture.”

“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, executive director emeritus of the World Jewish Congress.

Steinberg called Zevi “a relentless champion of Jewish rights and the universal struggle against the malignant threat of fascism.”

Her funeral will be held Monday.

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