Tribute to Marillyn Tallman by Pam Cohen, former UCSJ President
A great light has gone out. None of us can or will be the same without Marillyn Tallman in this world. She left her mark on all of us.
Her work for her people was unrelenting. After the Holocaust, she worked with Abe Sachar to bring in refugees from Europe on student visas...one of those was Congressman Tom Lantos. In 1948 when the fledgling Jewish State was attacked on all borders she raised emergency funds for planes and armaments. She inspired hundreds of young North Shore women and men through her 7 year curriculum on Jewish history. Her classes were animated by her research papers, sheer brilliance, and wit. She was an inveterate collector of Jewish books and Jewish personal narratives. She was on the national Speakers Board for the UJA. In those classes I met Marillyn Tallman. She was my teacher and my inspiration. She became my sister, my second mother, my friend. Once she said “We were attached at the hip” and when her’s broke, mine hurt too.
In the late 70's, despite her rigorous speaking and teaching schedule, Phillip (and the dog) living at home, she agreed to become co-chairman of Chicago Action for Soviet Jewry and came to our first tiny Highland Park office, to brief tourists going into the former USSR to see Refuseniks and to help us raise the funds we needed. Marillyn was my partner. For Harvey, she was the “General.”
33 years of memories. We worked, conspired, calculated, strategized and developed an effective first response strike for Refuseniks arrested or harassed. Marillyn and I traveled together for CASJ so often we thought of making a family album of our pictures.
Mer, I’m flooded with memories.
Remember the St. Basil hotel in London where you described your interviews with Freud's daughter in Vienna and Trotsky's daughter? You would be traveling with Teddy, knock on their doors, identify yourself as a Jewish history teacher and those doors opened. You were irresistible.
Remember our secret trip to Finland to meet the Christian Finns in Rihimakii who were helping us during the darkest years of anti-Jewish Kremlin policy, by carrying in our microfilmed documents to Refuseniks in Leningrad and cameras for them to sell on the black market? Remember the timbered camp they cleared in the deep forest, filled with medicine and blankets ready for the Jews they believed would escape through the North? Remember sitting with David Selicowitz in Paris and Rita Eker in London to establish a coordinated international briefing system centered in our office?
And all those UCSJ trips to Israel to debrief Refuseniks who had just come out...Remember all those UCSJ board meetings in Washington? Once in 1979, your car picked me up in the predawn dark the morning after Brooke’s bat mitzvah, her gifts still unopened.
Remember the endless casework and the effort to create media events, the demonstration of Rabbis carrying Sefer Torahs downtown during a Soviet delegation’s visit? Oh, Mer, I’d come to you with some far-fetched idea, and you’d turn in your seat to face me, one hand already on the telephone and say offhandedly, “Why, I’ll just call Danny Newman, the Chicago impresario and of course he’ll get us Dina Halpern, the famous Yiddish actress who will be happy to translate from Yiddish to English for former prisoner, Lev Roitberg, at Solel. No problem.” That’s how it always happened, Marillyn---nothing too difficult, everything mobilized with those words-- “Well, I’ll just call......” and you had friends everywhere and the doors opened for our Refuseniks.
Mer, remember the demos and activities we had yearly on January 20th, Scharansky’s birthday, while he was on a hunger strike in prison camp? Remember the time Attorney General Daley came to address the crowd and asked whether Mr. Sharansky had arrived yet and remember when a big Jewish organization called the office to ask for Sharansky to speak at their dinner while he was on hunger strike in a Siberian prison camp?
Remember how you got our Refusenik list to Senator Chic Hecht who handed it to President Reagan? Oh, and remember the international news we made when we delivered thousands of petitions signed by attorneys for Sharansky to the Soviet Embassy in Washington and for the first time ever, the door opened and a Soviet delegate emerged to engage us? Remember, it was the grandson of Anastas Mikoyan, part of Lenin and Stalin’s team and we pressed him on Natan’s innocence?
Remember laughing hilariously with Volvovsky in Moscow and your philosophical correspondence with Nellie Mai in Moscow?
Remember the wonderful CASJ fundraisers---and the songs we wrote and that warm camaraderie of all those who traveled during the darkest times to meet our people--Refuseniks? If those tourists showed a single hint of anxiety during our intensive briefings, especially the briefing in case they were picked up by KGB, you’d shoot them one of your looks and assure them, that if anything happened to them, they shouldn’t worry, we’d always be able to find another tourist! The Jews in Russia were the ones who were so vulnerable, not American Jews with their US passports and the Congress behind them.
Harvey and Yasha conspired together to put pressure on me to take up UCSJ’s presidency, leaving you along with Hetty and Susie to run CASJ. My home office still next to yours, we wove the fabric of our activity into a seamless effort--we were one, working, battling our battle with evil, defending our courageous and principled people, whose integrity and Jewish identity were stamped on our souls.
I married Lenny without you, it’s true, and had our children without you. But that’s about it. With my first opportunity to learn with Rabbi Belsky, I needed you learn with me, I needed your great mind to work with me to help me stretch beyond what I was exposed to and to assess whether what were about to learn could actually be truth. When we formed Komimiyus North Shore Torah Center, the first classes were at your home and you continued to host them for more than a decade. You see, Mer, you made choices. You designed your choices to create a magnificent achievement...You reached beyond yourself, utilizing your full potential for the sake of the survival of Jews in face of massive repression and as well for Jewish survival...for the advancement of Jewish education in Russia, Ukraine, Moldova, the Baltic, Siberia, Samara, Novosibirsk, St. Petersburg and in Chicago.
Marillyn, may all the chesed you did proceed before you and open the highest gates closest to Kisei HaKavod and may you bask in all the richest rewards on the other side.
You will always be with me. I love you.