Ukrainian Jewish Heritage interview—Paulina Zelitsky Part 1



Paulina Zelitsky

A couple of weeks ago on Ukrainian Jewish Heritage, we aired a book review of the memoirs of a Jewish woman from Odessa. An engineer, who worked on a nuclear submarine station in Cuba during the height of The Cold War, shortly before a daring defection from the Soviet Union to Canada.

Her name is Paulina Zelitsky, and her two-volume memoir reads like a John le Carré spy thriller. Only it’s a true story.

When I reached out to her this week to get a photo for the blog post with the transcript on the Nash Holos website, Paulina dropped a bombshell, almost but not quite literally speaking, about an alarming development today that makes her story less a memoir than perhaps a prophecy.

Paulina Zelitsky defected in 1971 with her two young sons and later brought her family members. To say that she has been a contributing member of Canadian society since day one is an understatement of vast proportions. But that’s a story for another time. Today we’ll talk about her book and her life in Cuba, the former Soviet Union, and her harrowing defection to Canada. Paulina Zelitsky joins me now by phone from her home in Southern Ontario.

Pawlina: Paulina, welcome. Vitayu, thank you so much for coming on our show!

Paulina Zelitsky: I am so pleased to speak to you Paulette. Thank you.

Pawlina: Now you said that we’ve got sort of the same name. Now, you’re really Paulina… that’s your real name!

Paulina Zelitsky: You see my grandmother, she was Paulette, because she was born in France.

Pawlina: What? That is crazy.

Paulina Zelitsky: Yes, my grandmother. She was killed in a pogrom in Odessa.

Pawlina: Yes, that’s in your book.

Paulina Zelitsky: That’s right. And had a son. My father named me after her.

Pawlina: Okay.

Paulina Zelitsky: But he couldn’t give a French name in Soviet Union… Because then I would be growing up as an enemy of people. Everything that was foreign was an enemy. So he Russified it to Paulina.

Pawlina: That’s crazy because my real name is Paulette. It’s Pawlina on the radio because when I started this radio program back in 1990, I had two co-hosts, Yevhen and Bohdan. And then there’s Paulette. Well, what kind of a Ukrainian program person is this? I wanted a Ukrainian name too! And my Baba [grandmother] called me Pawlina. So I thought, okay, I’ll be Pawlina on the radio. So I’ll fit in with the other two guys that had Ukrainian names. That wasn’t anywhere near as dangerous and dire a situation as yours, but that’s just crazy. And here we are Pawlina and Paulina having a radio conversation!

Paulina Zelitsky: Yes. Yes. Indeed. It’s almost like in Canada we are all sisters.

Pawlina: Yeah. I have to tell you that after reading your book, I feel like I know you. Your writing style is incredible. It’s very personal. You weave in the technical details so well. There’s background information…it is a bit long, in two volumes. But I would say that’s not so much a criticism. You need that background context to understand what happened to you. That’s a huge story. And so it also relates to something—which is why we’re talking right now— that you told me a couple of days ago. What’s going on in the world right now in Cuba, is literally the third Cuban missile crisis. But before we get to that, can you just give our listeners who haven’t read the book, and maybe don’t know much about Cuba or Soviet history from that time at all, give us kind of an overview of what the story is—your story, what happened.

Paulina Zelitsky: Well, Cuba that I described is from the perspective of a young Soviet female engineer working there in late 1960s. At that time it was only at the beginning of Soviet satellite…because Cuba became already a Soviet satellite in earlier period in ’62. Remember, Caribbean Crisis?

Pawlina: Yes. Yeah. There was a threat of nuclear attack.

Paulina Zelitsky: Yes. It’s called Caribbean Crisis. Almost had terrible consequences because, probably if the accident would be realized the way it almost happened—it almost happened that way—we would not exist today to speak. Not you, not me, nor anybody else. You understand? The consequence of nuclear war is very different from any previous war because it exterminates all life. It’s impossible to survive.

Pawlina: And so you call it Caribbean crisis, I guess, in your part of the world where you were then. We called it the Cuban Missile Crisis. Narrowly averted, but from what I was reading—and I had no idea—Fidel Castro was a lunatic. He was a loose cannon. And it was him—it wasn’t, maybe, necessarily the Russians. Or was it?

Paulina Zelitsky: No, no, no. Russians were negotiating. You see, Khrushchev just wanted to get American missiles out of Turkey. I describe it in my book. One day resting in Crimea, at his dacha in Crimea, he suddenly realized that, over the horizon, there are American javelin missiles in Turkey. And he decided that he will get rid of them. That’s why he brought nuclear missiles to Cuba. And Kennedy had to remove javelin missiles from Turkey, in order to do this deal with Khrushchev. And the deal was that no more Soviet nuclear missiles will be brought to Cuba.

Pawlina: Right. That was détente. Yeah.

Paulina Zelitsky: Da, that was détente in ’62. But this détente was broken. When I came to Cuba in ’68 I started working with a group of Soviet designers. It was a Navy group to construct facilities for Soviet submarines that would come secretly, under the water, and have their base in Cienfuegos.

Pawlina: Yeah, in southern Cuba.

Paulina Zelitsky: It is southern Cuba, that’s right. It’s not so obvious, because it’s the other side of Cuba. It’s the only very deep bay in Cuba. There is no other bay as deep as Cienfuegos. Except the entrance channel. And it’s all very hard rock. So to excavate that entrance channel we spent some time. Two years.

Pawlina: Yeah, and you were what…

Paulina Zelitsky: And I was working with that group because I was in Cuba— not because I was sent by Soviet Union to Cuba to work on a nuclear base, a military nuclear base. Oh no. I came to Cuba with my Cuban ex-husband, I married a Cuban.

Pawlina: Yeah. You met in university and got married there and moved to Cuba.

Paulina Zelitsky

Paulina Zelitsky: Yeah. I met a student in my university. Whom I married. I truly fell in love with him. It wasn’t an arranged marriage, nothing like that. It was a romantic marriage. And after graduation, my husband, I, and our two children went to live and work in Cuba. I started working in Cuba with a group of civil engineers that were building a port in Cienfuegos for commercial cargo. The presence of this commercial port would kind of masquerade the existence of submarine facilities.

Pawlina: Right.

Paulina Zelitsky: Every time they would see any movement in the port and people would be removed—they were removed—from that area. They were told it was the construction of a commercial port. So I started working with that civil [engineering] group in the commercial port. But we were working in the same big hall in the Ministry of Transport. The Navy group was separated from us and we didn’t communicate at all with them. It was forbidden to communicate with them. Yeah. But what happened was that the Navy group lost their translator. The translator was arrested.

Pawlina: Arrested?

Paulina Zelitsky: Yeah. And this translator was my friend. I really had a very nice relationship with her. She was originally from Odessa herself. Yeah. She also was Jewish woman from Odessa. But her parents escaped during the Second World War and came to Cuba. And she became a professional translator. She later was brought to Soviet Union and trained, had security clearance, appropriate security clearance, to work with the Navy group. Suddenly, they arrested her! I don’t know what happened. I don’t know why they arrested her. But the Navy group then had no translator. But they needed a translator. And because there were about 40,000 troops in Cuba at the time—40,000!—they needed many translators.

Pawlina: Now just before you go on with that, the translator that they arrested, who you replaced, from Odessa, gave you something to read.

Paulina Zelitsky: Yes.

Pawlina: Did that plant the seed of defection in you?

Paulina Zelitsky: Yes, indeed very much, indeed. Because I never read Solzhenitzyn before. It was Solzhenitzyn, a very famous writer that wrote about the gulag. And of course it was prohibited in Soviet Union. So I never read it before. She gave me to read it in the Spanish language. So I had to use a dictionary, and word by word translating all for myself. Hiding from my husband, hiding from everybody, because it was forbidden. Forbidden fruit!

Pawlina: Wow!

Paulina Zelitsky: Yeah. And I was scared that she was arrested and now they will come and arrest me.

Pawlina: No kidding!

Paulina Zelitsky: Yeah. So after I was informed that I have to come to embassy—that they request my presence at the embassy officially—I was really scared. But when they came, they told me that they need me to help the Navy group. This is how I started working with that Navy group. I didn’t have security clearance, you see. Being Jewish, it’s difficult to get security clearance. And I didn’t have one.

Pawlina: Right. Plus you also avoided getting into the politics. You refused to join Komsomol…

Paulina Zelitsky: Yes, I refused to join all politics.

Pawlina: When you were in school, you daydreamed during the indoctrination sessions.

Paulina Zelitsky: I didn’t know if you remember that story, but when I was six years old, I almost sent my father and myself to gulag.

Pawlina: Yes. Yeah.

Paulina Zelitsky: This taught me a lesson. This and a spanking, too! My father gave me big spanking for that.

Pawlina: Yeah. Yeah.

Paulina Zelitsky: Um hmm. So that’s why, because from a very early age, I started learning that the wonderful life, our wonderful life in the Soviet Union, was a complete … it was a lie.

Pawlina: Yeah.

Paulina Zelitsky: We were prisoners. I understood. I understood because I experienced personally that all these meetings, all these political organizations—Young Pioneers, Komsomol, and the Communist Party—they are not only free tickets to a better career, you know?

Pawlina: Mm-hmm.

Paulina Zelitsky: And progressive lifestyle. No, no. They are also commitment to obey all orders and never to argue. Yeah. Never to have your own opinion. You only have to obey. And this is what happens today as well. I everywhere in Cuba, North Korea, all those countries that prefer political dictatorial system.

Pawlina: Mm-hmm. So you ended up then translating—yet y ou had no security clearance, but you were privy to this top secret information because you were translating.

Paulina Zelitsky: They had to. Because they couldn’t find a translator who would know terminology. I know all the construction marine terminology. I was working in it, right? On the civil side. But it’s still in the same field. So I was the one who knew the terminology in both languages. That’s why they used me. And they couldn’t find anybody else. So I started working with the Navy group and became privy to the kind of work they were doing. I would say that this was not my main drama. My main drama really was a request to denounce, to write reports. Actually every few weeks I had to submit a formal report about what my colleagues are thinking, doing and so on.

Paulina Zelitsky: They had to. Because they couldn’t find a translator who would know terminology. I know all the construction marine terminology. I was working in it, right? On the civil side. But it’s still in the same field. So I was the one who knew the terminology in both languages. That’s why they used me. And they couldn’t find anybody else. So I started working with the Navy group and became privy to the kind of work they were doing. I would say that this was not my main drama. My main drama really was a request to denounce, to write reports. Actually every few weeks I had to submit a formal report about what my colleagues are thinking, doing and so on.

Paulina Zelitsky: They had to. Because they couldn’t find a translator who would know terminology. I know all the construction marine terminology. I was working in it, right? On the civil side. But it’s still in the same field. So I was the one who knew the terminology in both languages. That’s why they used me. And they couldn’t find anybody else. So I started working with the Navy group and became privy to the kind of work they were doing. I would say that this was not my main drama. My main drama really was a request to denounce, to write reports. Actually every few weeks I had to submit a formal report about what my colleagues are thinking, doing and so on.

Pawlina: Yikes.

Paulina Zelitsky: My Soviet colleagues. And I couldn’t force myself to do that.

Pawlina: Wow. So you were supposed to snitch and make up things if necessary.

Paulina Zelitsky: Everybody was supposed to do that. Everyone. We all know that those Soviets that worked abroad—I don’t know about today—but in that period they all had to write (it was obligatory)—they had to submit, by such a date, reports about their colleagues. And I couldn’t force myself to do that. At all.

Pawlina: You were chirpy—you said everybody’s great. I am thankful to work with such wonderful people.

Paulina Zelitsky: Yes.I was writing about their jokes you know? About their hairstyles, whatever I could imagine to put on paper.

Pawlina: You’re a real rebel and that sure comes out in your book.

Paulina Zelitsky: I would think you would act the same way if you would been in my place.

Pawlina: Oh, a lot of people weren’t. I mean you—you’re a rarity because as you say, so many of your colleagues lived in fear and they capitulated. You didn’t.

Paulina Zelitsky: It’s really true, and I paid price for it.

Pawlina: You did. You did. But you worked through your fear and you did it.

Paulina Zelitsky: But one thing I should tell you. I was not brave. I was scared to death.

Pawlina: Oh well for sure, of course. But what they say about courage is that you’re afraid, but you do it anyways. You work through the fear and you…

Paulina Zelitsky: You have to, yeah. You have to force yourself. Exactly.

Pawlina: And so you had personal things going on in your life too. Your marriage was starting to get a little rocky. And an old family friend that you trusted hit on you. And you escaped being raped.

Paulina Zelitsky: Exactly, by him. Can you imagine? He was my substitute father.

Pawlina: Yeah, your father’s friend. Yeah. You know what, that’s such a common story for women. It’s happened to me too. I mean, it’s always takes you by surprise. Like … what? Yeah. You know, like you’re old enough to be my father and my grandfather and you won’t. What?

Paulina Zelitsky: Exactly. Plus, you probably would sympathize with me. I couldn’t tell about that to anyone.

Pawlina: Oh no. Well, in those days it would endanger your career. Yeah, that’s true. What am I saying? I was the same. I kept it to myself. It’s not something you talk about, because then you’re the one that suffers.

Paulina Zelitsky: Exactly. Exactly. Plus, when I spoke to my father about this, I was endangering his health. Because he almost had a heart attack. And I was afraid to tell my husband because my husband could react violently. I wouldn’t want him to do that. But what happened is, my supervisor, who almost raped me—I didn’t let him to… I fought!

Pawlina: Thanks to your dad. He taught you the kick!

Paulina Zelitsky: Exactly. This was a very handy kick. But I was afraid I killed him, with the kick!

Pawlina: Oh!

Paulina Zelitsky: So when it happened, he was scared that I would denounce him. So he went to the embassy before me and denounced me.

Pawlina: Yeah, preemptive strike. Yeah!

Paulina Zelitsky: Preemptive strike. Yes. So I was in big trouble. Plus my notes. I never wrote those reports. I decided, alright, get out in time or I will end up in prison. So I better go.

Pawlina: So then you started to seriously look at defection. You chose Canada. You knew nothing about it. Not a word of English. Never heard a word of English. But you decided Canada. And a fueling stop in Gander. And you—the first time was unsuccessful. You did it twice! You tried twice.

Paulina Zelitsky: Twice. Yes. First thing they caught me!

Pawlina: I’m speaking with Paulina Zelitsky, author of the book, The Sea is Only Knee Deep. Her personal story of growing up Jewish in the Soviet Ukraine, working in Cuba at a Naval base during the second Cuban Missile Crisis and her famous defection to Canada in 1971. In part two Paulina will tell us about her harrowing escape from the Soviet Union to Canada, and will also explain why she believes, based on her experience during the second Cuban Missile Crisis, that a third Cuban Missile Crisis has begun.

Join us next week for part two of this interview with Paulina Zelitsky, author of The Sea is Only Knee Deep.

I’m Pawlina, producer and host of Nash Holos Ukrainian Roots Radio. Until next time, Shalom!


Ukrainian Jewish Heritage is brought to you by The Ukrainian Jewish Encounter based in Toronto, Ontario. To find out more visit their website (here) and follow them on Facebook and Twitter.




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