In this edition of Ukrainian Jewish Heritage, Myra Junyk reviews The Sea is Only Knee Deep, a two-volume memoir of a nuclear scientist who defected from the Soviet Union to Canada at the height of the Cold War.
The Sea is Only Knee Deep is the true story of Paulina Zelitsky’s defection to Canada from the Soviet Union with her two young children in 1971. These two volumes explore many topics including: Stalin’s final years, Fidel Castro’s Cuba, and the dangers of defecting. Paulina’s story begins in Cuba in 1968. She is part of the engineering team designing a top secret submarine base for Soviet nuclear submarines. “My predicament was dangerous and the possibility of defection much more so.” (Vol.1, p. 1)
Zelitsky’s story does not shy away from the complex political realities of life in the Soviet Union. Beginning with her birth in 1945 in postwar Odessa, Zelitsky’s Jewish family is subjected to constant scrutiny by the KGB. Despite the death of her mother from Stalin’s imposed famine of 1946-1947, Paulina is an optimistic child who loves difficult tasks. Jokingly, adults tell her, “To you any sea is only knee deep.” This Odessan motto, which is the title of the book, becomes a powerful tool in her life. The multicultural city of Odessa is full of beautiful buildings and talented people. However, the constant fear of Soviet repression rules their lives. Children are forced to denounce their parents for any supposed anti-Soviet activity resulting in arrest and punishment in a Gulag prison camp.
Paulina manages to keep a low profile and stay out of politics. Despite the obstacles in her path, she skillfully uses the Soviet system to study engineering at the National Marine University of Odessa where she meets her future husband, Eduardo, a Cuban citizen. Accompanied by their two children, they are sent to Cuba to work under the Castro regime. As Volume 1 ends, Paulina narrowly escapes being raped by her superior who then proceeds to make life difficult for her. She must decide whether to face the dire consequences or defect from the Soviet Union with her children.
In Volume 2 of The Sea is Only Knee Deep, Paulina continues the harrowing story of her defection to Canada. She must divorce her husband Eduardo to cut her connection to Cuba. All her plans depend on travelling by air to Gander, Newfoundland. When she reaches Gander, she runs across the runway with two small children to reach safety. After a grueling immigration process, Paulina is granted asylum in Canada. Her life is difficult, but at least she is free from the constant fear of Soviet oppression. Her message is very powerful, “To be yourself, to live by your own values is the only freedom.” (Vol.2, p.130)
The two volumes of The Sea is Only Knee Deep are full of intricate details of Paulina’s life experience: living in Odessa as a child, getting an engineering education, marrying a Cuban citizen, experiencing Fidel Castro’s Cuba, suffering the indignity of an attempted rape, planning to defect from the Soviet Union, and learning to live in her new country of Canada. There is a great deal of technical detail about Paulina’s top secret engineering work on the nuclear submarine base in Cuba which was the cause of the undisclosed second Cuban missile crisis beginning in 1969. This information will be very interesting for anyone interested in the history of Cuba and the Soviet Union. Paulina also describes Cuban life during the 1960’s, and gives readers insight into Fidel Castro’s idiosyncratic leadership style based on rumors from servants who worked for his family members.
These self-published books by Paulina Zelitsky and her second husband Paul Weinzweig provide an interesting look at rarely discussed historical aspects of the Soviet Union, Cuba and Canada. Readers will experience the terror that Paulina experienced in her defection process. They will also admire her strength of character. Most of the information in these books is based on Paulina’s own observations and experiences. These two volumes could definitely have profited from more rigorous editing in order to condense them into one book.
Today, Paulina and her husband continue to engage in engineering projects from their Canadian home. Readers of the two volumes of The Sea is Only Knee Deep will be fascinated by Paulina’s insights into the Ukrainian famine, anti-Semitism, Odessan family life, education, and culture, as well as political oppression in the Soviet Union and Cuba.
The Sea is Only Knee Deep Volumes 1 and 2 are available at Amazon and Barnes and Noble.
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