Mark E. Talisman, a leader, supporter and advocate of several Jewish organizations and causes as well as a founder of the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, died July 11 at his home in Chevy Chase, Md. He was 77.
He had heart ailments, said his wife, Jill D. Talisman.
Mr. Talisman spent much of his early career as chief of staff to Rep. Charles A. Vanik (D-Ohio), and his most notable impact in Congress was helping draft legislation aimed at removing official emigration barriers for Jews in the former Soviet Union.
Sen. Henry M. Jackson (D-Wash.), a Cold War hawk, co-sponsored what became known as the Jackson-Vanik amendment in 1974, and they attached it to a trade reform bill that linked the Soviet Union’s trade status to whether it freely allowed Jewish emigration. The Soviet Union relaxed emigration barriers for several years, during which Jewish emigration increased.
In a 2002 Washington Post editorial, Michael McFaul, a Russia scholar and future U.S. ambassador to Russia, called it “one of the most successful foreign policy ideas initiated by Congress during the Cold War. The Jackson-Vanik amendment was a moral act. It explicitly linked the Soviet Union’s trading status to levels of Jewish emigration.”
After leaving Vanik’s office in the mid-1970s, Mr. Talisman became Washington office director of the Council of Jewish Federations, which represented Jewish organizations from around the country in dealings with Congress and the executive branch. In that capacity, he helped obtain grants to resettle Soviet Jews in the United States and Israel. The council is now called Jewish Federations of North America.
Mr. Talisman also served on a presidential commission in the late 1970s that recommended the creation of a national memorial to the Holocaust. After Congress mandated creation of a Holocaust museum, he served from 1980 to 1986 on the Holocaust Museum Memorial Council as vice chairman to Holocaust survivor, author and Nobel laureate Elie Wiesel.
The museum opened on the Mall in Washington in 1993, and Mr. Talisman served on its Committee on Conscience, which oversees genocide-prevention efforts.
He was “a founding father . . . instrumental in shaping the Museum in its formative years,” Howard M. Lorber, chairman of the council; Allan M. Holt, vice chairman of the council; and Sara J. Bloomfield, director of the museum, said in a statement on Mr. Talisman’s death.
Mark Elliott Talisman was born in Cleveland on July 16, 1941. His father ran a gas station, and his mother was a secretary. He graduated from Harvard University in 1963, then joined Vanik’s staff as administrative assistant. In the early 1970s, he was a fellow at the Institute of Politics at Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government, where he created a seminar program for newly elected members of Congress.
Survivors include his wife of 47 years, Jill Dworkin Talisman of Chevy Chase; two children, Jessica Talisman of Arlington, Va., and Raphael Talisman of Hyattsville, Md.; and three grandchildren.
With his wife, Mr. Talisman organized a foundation to identify and preserve relics of hundreds of years of Jewish history in pre-Holocaust Europe, including artifacts such as Sabbath wine cups, circumcision knives, a polished silver laver and basin for ritual hand washing, and a silk and velvet Torah.
In 1983, he helped bring one such exhibit to the United States: “The Precious Legacy: Judaic Treasures from the Czechoslovak State Collections,” featuring objects from the state Jewish Museum in Prague. It traveled to the Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History, among other museums.
“This was to be known by the Nazis as a museum of the extinct race,” Mr. Talisman told The Washington Post when the exhibit opened in Washington. Instead, he declared, “Tonight we open an exhibition to a living, vibrant people.”
In 2000, he helped create and later advised the Holocaust Survivors Foundation USA.
Mr. Talisman was also a baker and gardener. In her books on Jewish cooking, author Joan Nathan once included recipes he brought to her attention for bagels and challah.
For 20 hours a week during the summer months, he worked in the garden at his Chevy Chase home, growing flowers and vegetables, including 20 varieties of heirloom tomatoes. The Post once called him “Washington’s Johnny Appleseed of Tomatoes.”
In the hot weather, he could often be found in his garden, a hose in one hand to water his plants, a cellphone in the other to talk to a congressman or a federal bureaucrat about matters of interest to Jewish organizations.