“What use is it, my brethren, if someone says he has faith but he has no works? Can that faith save him? If a brother or sister is without clothing and in need of daily food, and one of you says to them, ‘Go in peace, be warmed and be filled,’ and yet you do not give them what is necessary for their body, what use is that? Even so faith, if it has no works, is dead, being by itself. But someone may well say, ‘You have faith and I have works; show me your faith without the works, and I will show you my faith by my works.’” Jas 2:14-18
Born in Beaver Dam and raised in Appleton, Lisa C. Paul was formed in the Catholic faith. At home and in school, she listened; she saw faith in action. More than 10 years later, as a 22-year-old college senior at the University of Minnesota, she took that faith and put it into practice – a practice that had international implications and nearly saved the life of a woman she loved.
That faith and action, and the people it affected, are at the core of “Swimming in the Daylight: An American Student, A Soviet-Jewish Dissident, and the Gift of Hope,” Paul’s memoir about that experience.
The first-time author’s interest in what was then the Soviet Union was piqued during a European history class and was fueled by a trimester of study in the country in early 1982. When she returned to the United States, she declared a Russian studies major at the university, anticipating she might someday become a professor of Russian studies or Soviet history.
“I had no idea that I’d be going back there and living there,” she said.
Not a textbook education
The following year, she was hired as a nanny for two girls whose father was employed by the Caterpillar Tractor Company and living in Moscow. The one-year commitment became two.
During August 1984 she met Inna Kitrosskaya Meiman, who tutored English-speaking students in Russian. The relationship deepened beyond tutor-student as Paul learned Inna’s story: She held a doctorate in English education from the Moscow Institute of Foreign Languages and had taught there, but she was forced to quit her job in 1979 after the Soviet government refused her application to emigrate to Israel. She was, in Russian slang, a refusenik.
In 1983 Inna had a cancerous tumor removed from the back of her neck. She needed additional medical care, but of a higher quality than that provided in the Soviet Union. Her husband, Naum, was known in international circles because of his work with the Moscow Helsinki Watch Group, which monitored the 1975 Helsinki Accords. Several countries offered them the opportunity to receive the care Inna needed, but the Soviet government denied her a visa.
Coming to an end of her time in Moscow, but having grown close to Inna and concerned about the woman’s health, Paul wanted to do something. But what?
Faith inspires action
Paul recalled that, as a college student, she had been looking for “direction,” but hadn’t found it.
“I was a prayerful person, but in some ways it was more passive than active. I never really had to call upon it in the way I found myself having to call upon it when I was searching for a way to how to help Inna,” Paul, a member of Three Holy Women Parish, Milwaukee, said in an interview with your Catholic Herald.
Having returned to Minneapolis in fall 1985 for her final semester of school, Paul kept thinking about Inna. In September she received a letter from her with the news that the woman’s health was getting worse; Soviet doctors had determined that the woman’s tumor was inoperable.
About that time, Paul received a copy of a videotape that contained an interview that CBS News correspondent Mark Phillips had done with Inna in May. Paul had been present for the interview that she had encouraged her friend to do. Viewing the tape and listening to her friend talk about her medical condition and why she was not being allowed to leave
Why that title?
Two parts of the title – “Swimming in the Daylight: An American Student, a Soviet-Jewish Dissident, and the Gift of Hope” – are obvious. The student is Lisa C. Paul; the Soviet-Jewish dissident is Inna Kitrosskaya Meiman. The gift of hope applies to both of them.
the Soviet Union, Paul drew upon two of her “internal resources” – family and a willingness to try to do something for Inna and fail, rather than not trying at all. She had another resource – her faith.
“I remember really thinking about those basic lessons I learned: ‘Knock and the door will be opened’; ‘ask and you shall receive.’ ‘Seek and you shall find,’” she said. “When you think about the lessons I learned in Catholic grade school, they’re that simple. For me, I don’t need to make it more complicated than that. ‘Hey, this is what I’ve learned so here I am.’ It was basic. It was also very powerful when you really spend time in that place and really try to live it.”
Having recognized the inner resources from which she could draw, Paul prayed, “Please God, let me help her, let me help her, let me help her.” Mixed with her prayers were ideas about how to call attention to Inna’s plight. And then it came to her.
A work of faith
The Newman Center, according to Paul, in particular the balcony of the church, was where she would pray about the action she would take on Inna’s behalf – a hunger strike.
“I was just an ordinary person and I found myself in that empty, lonely desert and was able to hear the voice of my faith, and it ended up being very empowering,” she said, adding, “When I got to that place where I felt completely powerless, that’s where I started to hear the voice of my faith.”
Paul said she was looking for a sign that a hunger strike was the right thing to do.
“The sign came to me as soon as I walked down the stairs from the church balcony into the lobby and saw a poster with these words on it: ‘The purpose for which you are brought together is to live in harmony, hold all that you have in common. You are not without blame if by your silence you permit a brother to be lost. – The Rule of St. Augustine,’” she wrote in “Swimming.”
For Paul, it wasn’t a casual, superficial request that God give her a sign. She recalled being in a “very prayerful place” where the signs were “popping.”
“Once I heard that voice of my faith, I only opened myself up to hearing it louder. And that was a remarkable journey,” she said. “It was very personal and it’s a part of the book I really had to take time and write about and work on in conveying what it was.”
Hunger strike makes an impact
Paul began her hunger strike on Dec. 14, 1985. The previous day, she stocked up on fruit juices and vitamins – the sustenance of her physical being during the strike. Before falling asleep that night, she read the story of Lazarus, a source of spiritual sustenance during the strike.
“After reading the story, I knew I had to have a similar faith in conducting my hunger strike,” she wrote in “Swimming.” “I wanted to believe that, if God was with Inna, she would not have to die in Moscow. So I decided the spiritual goal of my hunger strike would be to move ‘the stone’ blocking Inna’s exit from the Soviet Union one inch each day with my love and faith.”
Eighteen pounds lighter and 25 days later, Paul ended her strike with a press conference in the U.S. Capitol hosted by the Union of Councils on Soviet Jews. It was the first of what became a series of press conferences and panels sponsored by various Jewish and human rights groups that drew the attention of media and politicians, e.g., U.S. Sens. Paul Simon and Gary Hart, who worked on Inna’s behalf so that she could come to the U.S. and receive the medical care she needed.
“Those experiences really only deepen that spiritual place because they weren’t just threads to hang on to. This God that I was trying so hard to believe in and this faith that I was trying to rely on – they were throwing ropes,” she said. “It is so remarkable to look back on it now. People are so impressed with the length of time I didn’t eat and I get to say, ‘I wasn’t hungry once.’ That’s remarkable. I knew it then, and I know it now, that was really a gift of my faith.”
The hunger strike and the reason Paul undertook it also got the attention of Soviet officials. On Dec. 16, 1987, they approved Inna’s request to leave the country, but without Naum. She arrived in the U.S. Jan. 19 and began receiving treatment at Georgetown University Hospital in Washington. It was too late; she died Feb. 9.
Lisa C. Paul on Web, in person
Lisa welcomes readers’ submissions to the Daylight Stories part of her Web site www.swimminginthe
Tuesday, March 22
Saturday, March 26
Thursday, April 7
Life after Inna
Paul remained in Washington for another three years, working for the American Committee on U.S.-Soviet Relations. She returned to Wisconsin to enroll in the Marquette University Law School, from which she graduated in 1993. She is in private practice and of counsel to attorney Paul Cook.
“After Inna died and I was trying to move forward in my life, I actually felt a distance in my faith. It was almost as if after this ended and there was a quiet, I had to move on in a different direction,” she said, likening the experience to Moses seeing the burning bush (Ex 3).
Paul said the impact of the hunger strike didn’t “catapult” her to do more. Rather, she retreated. In April 2006 her father died of lung cancer, and in November 2008 her mother, who had suffered with Alzheimer’s for more than two years, also died.
“There was an evolution of my faith during that time when I didn’t think God was listening, when my mom was ill and other things were happening. I went from a time period during my hunger strike when I felt God was listening then I had an opposite experience where I didn’t think he was listening at all,” she said. “I appreciate now that God is present in those times as well, because I think of what I learned during that time that I didn’t know before. I learned how to ask for help I learned that I couldn’t fix everything. I appreciated that there are times in life that you don’t get the sign you’re asking for, and that your faith has to be as strong during those times as when you’re getting the answers you’re asking for.”
The inspiration for Paul to write about her experience came in 2007, the result of seeing the German movie “The Lives of Others.”
“As the film credits rolled, I realized that if a story about the omniscient power of the East German police could so effectively demonstrate why countries that have gained their freedom from communist rule must preserve it, then the story of Inna could surely do the same,” she wrote in “Swimming.”
Yet, it wasn’t until after her mother’s death that Paul realized she could relive Inna’s story – something she hadn’t wanted to do.
“I didn’t want to feel it all again. I didn’t want to leave Inna behind again. My mother’s death was so painful for me that it made this experience to go back and relive it – it lightened it a little bit,” she said. “If I could get through that (mother’s death), then I could get through this.”
Whether readers of “Swimming” remember the Cold War years and living with Soviet threats, or if they were born after the Berlin Wall came down, the wife of Ross Puppe for 15 years and mother of Catherine, 12, and Jamie, 7, hopes they will come to the same realization.
“I want them to know, whether it’s through how Inna dealt with her adversity or even if they look and see how I searched and found the tools to help her, that humans have the capacity to find hope and daylight even in the most darkest, challenging times,” she said, noting that it has to do directly with the title of the book.