Isaak Boleac and Hilda Balkon, about 1953
My cousin Esther recently discovered a treasure: a letter written by her father about his family and their life before coming to Canada. Isaak Boleac (1927-2007) was one of my dad’s three cousins who were our only relatives in Vancouver when I was growing up. Isaak tells the story of an outsider being embraced by Russian Mennonites, then enduring through much upheaval.
Isaak’s father, Dimitri “Johann” Boleacu, arrived in Russia from Romania as a prisoner of the first world war. He was welcomed by the Mennonites in Friedensfeld, Sagradovka, working as a barrel-maker and marrying my dad’s aunt Agathe Graewe. But Dimitri noticed the increasing danger there and received permission for the family to leave the country, thus avoiding the fate of many young men of the settlement who were taken away by the Russians.
It wouldn’t be the last time that the family had to move.
I have translated Isaak’s letter with the help of DeepL; the original is in the German language version of this blog post. Isaak’s obituary follows.
Below: Photo of Dimitri and Agathe with children Johann, Isaak, Ana and Tina, 1930s
8 August 1990
Isaak (Fritz) Boleac
2745-164th St., Surrey, B.C.
V4B 4Z5 Canada
I'd like to try to put together something of a life story of our parents. It would be easier if my two sisters were here; Anna and Tina unfortunately are still in Romania.
[My brother] Hans (Johann), who volunteered for the air force in 1942 when we lived in Jena, Thuringia, at 17 Wagnergasse, was separated from his parents because of the war.
I was also separated from our family after I was called up in February 1944. The questions which we cannot answer or specify and which were important to the immigration authorities were certainly satisfactorily answered by our parents, before the naturalization office in Mährisch-Kromau [now Moravský Krumlov, Czech Republic] on 21 July 1941.
Unfortunately, we (mother and children) have not met our grandparents (father's side). We do not even have the grandfather's date of birth. His name was Ivan (Johann) Boleac(u). Because he was unfortunately a slave of alcohol, he could not take care of the family. Therefore he did not live long. The good grandmother, Katherina Boleac(u) born in? Fălticeni, Suceava, Romania, had a very hard life.
Grandmother was forced to give Dimitri away, but because his twin sister died, she quickly took him back. Because of great poverty, Father had only little schooling and was dependent on himself from very early on. He learned the craft of barrel-making (cooper).
Through the aftermath of the First World War, Dimitri came to Russia. He worked with the German Mennonites, who were called to Russia by the Empress Katherine. With them he came to the greatest experience of his whole life. From an ecclesiastical Orthodox, he became a living, believing Christian.
His first wife (née Richards) died without children.
In 1924, he married Agathe Graewe, born on 6 April 1904 in Friedensfeld, Ukraine, Russia (German colony Sagradovka). Mother's parents were:
[Their son] Johann (Hans) was born on 29 March 1925 in Friedensfeld, Ukraine. On 28 May 1927, Isaak [the writer of this story] was born in Friedensfeld, Ukraine, Russia.
In 1928, Father and his family migrated to South Siberia on the river Amur in the hope of improving our lives. On 6 July 1929, Anna was born in Schoensee, Siberia, Russia [Savitaya, Amur settlement]. Father worked in a fishery that was far away from the family. We lived very modestly.
Father decided (probably in 1930) to return to Friedensfeld, Ukraine. Many were dispossessed, including grandfather Graewe. The poverty was great. We lived in a little house with a clay roof. Father was the cooper of this area. He made many wooden barrels and casks.
On 11 Nov. 1931, Tina (Ekaterina) was born in Friedensfeld. Now Father was moved with the thought to move to Romania. The communist government caused him a lot of difficulties. They were not well-disposed towards the German Mennonites. Because Father had Romanian nationality, they could not keep him, but they didn’t want to let his wife and children leave with him. [They received permission from Moscow for the family to leave.]
After we buried our Lydia, who was the latest to be born, we still had many difficulties crossing the border. As Aunt Katherine [Graewe] Derksen told me in 1989, it was January 1935 when we arrived in Romania [likely Moldova]. The girl who was then born in Romania did not stay alive for long.
Our place of residence was now Iasi, the [unofficial] capital of Moldova. Father had a Jewish employer in his profession. It was better for us now. Father found a German Protestant school and church. Anna and I (Isaak) were accepted. Mother disliked the Romanian language. On 18 Aug. 1938 Daniel was born in Iasi, Moldova.
After that we moved to Dobruja by the Black Sea. Mother liked it much better. Only a few people were not German in the village of Mamuslia [Căscioarele], Constanța County [in Romania]. Father borrowed money and started his own business. Soon we were debt-free. We were much better off. Father's brother was also employed in the workshop. Many barrels had to be made.
Then came the resettlement of all Germans. Father welcomed it, because he liked to travel. Via Belgrade we went to Mährisch-Kromau, in the district of Znaim/Niederdonau. We now landed in the resettlement camp. Willie, who was just born in Romania, died in 1940.
The date of 21 July 1941 was an important day for our family. We became [German] citizens.
Wilhelm, who had already been "on the way," was born two months and 23 days later on 14 Oct. 1941 here in Mährisch-Kromau [now Moravský Krumlov, Czech Republic], Znaim, Niederdonau, after our naturalization. Lieselotte was born on 27 May 1943 in Jena, Thuringia. Peter was born on 16 Nov. 1947 in Corasinti, Banat after the forced deportation to Romania.
My naturalization was confirmed on 20 Dec. 1984 by the regulatory office of the state capital of Hanover. This letter is in my possession. After naturalisation, some young men were called up for the Wehrmacht.
Father worked in a jam factory. We had few worries. Hans was temporarily in the country. From Mährisch-Kromau, our family went through the transit camp shortly after Bad Blankenburg, then to Jena, Thuringia. It became our home in 1941. We got the little house at 17 Wagnergasse.
Above: 17 Wagnergasse, Jena in 2018
Father worked at the cooperage, then at the Saale train station. Hans worked at the Schott glass factory and enjoyed it. He soon volunteered to join the airmen.
Surprised by an air raid
On 27 May 1943 the youngest daughter, Lieselotte, was born in Jena. On that very day, we were surprised with an air raid. Our house was also damaged. Hans (Johann) had a short vacation.
Hans Plett, the oldest son of mother's sister Anna, surprised us enormously as a German soldier. Father hadn't recognized him.
In February 1944, I (Isaak) was called up. I was just in the middle of my apprenticeship as a cooper.
After a short R.A.D. [Reichsarbeitsdienst] and anti-aircraft training, we went to Berlin. The parents visited me briefly in spring 1944 in Halle-Leuna. It would be twenty years before I could see them again.
Father was buried in the air raid on Jena, but thank God, he got away with only a light head wound. Father was still supposed to go to the Volkssturm (emergency army) but was spared.
The end of the war was approaching. The Americans occupied Jena, but withdrew again and let in the Russians. It was 1945. Unfortunately, there was no more opportunity to escape.
With little luggage, our family was sent to Romania, completely against their will. When they arrived, they had neither board nor lodging. They were considered followers of Hitler. They were in a very difficult situation.
They also didn’t know whether their two sons, who were in the Wehrmacht, were still alive. Johann was captured by the Russians in Austria. After 4 ½ years he managed to come to Hannover to Isaak. For me it was a big surprise. The parents, who had prayed a lot for us, thanked God again and again for our preservation.
Isaak, who at the end belonged to the Theodor Koerner infantry division, was briefly captured in the west. This was at the beginning of May 1945. We prisoners were still all distributed among the farms in the district of Braunschweig. We were released from the army in December (in Wolfenbuettel).
Until the end of March I worked as a farmhand in Schlewecke, Badenstein and Mahlum, in the Gandersheim district. Until the end of January 1949 in Bockenem a. Harz as a cooper apprentice, then until autumn 1952 in the Kaiser-Brewery in Hannover-Ricklingen. The address was Oberstraße 10a.
The parents and siblings in Romania always had to be helped. It seemed to us in Canada that Father was too much of a burden. Also our beginning was not easy. They kept asking us to do everything we could to bring about a reunion in the West. Promises were always made. Applications and entry papers had to be paid for repeatedly.
Johann went to Gronau, Westphalia, married there and moved to Canada in 1950. Isaak followed at the end of 1952 and stayed with Johann, who already lived in Vancouver, British Columbia. The beginning in Canada was not easy, but it was worth it.
In Feb. 1952, we tried to achieve a family reunion through the Bavarian Red Cross. Unfortunately it was unsuccessful. Of the descendants of Johann, the parents only saw Dieter, the oldest son, who visited them when they were still alive. Daniel, the son of Isaak, only found his grandparents' grave in Cuvin in 1989.
Isaak's first visit was in 1965, when he saw 18-year-old Peter for the first time. The second visit was in the summer of 1974. Half a year later, Father died on 15 January 1975 (photograph date). Mother was weak. She lived until 1981; Tina looked after her faithfully.
When Johann was in Russian captivity, he didn’t disclose that he had his parents in Romania. Therefore he couldn’t visit them on the way after he was released in 1950. He didn’t want to take the chance. In East Germany, they tried to persuade him to stay, but his goal remained firm. He wanted to go to Hannover to see Isaak.
Only after 23 years did he [Johann] see his parents and siblings again. In 1973 he visited them for the second time. In Germany he could visit Aunt Neta [Graewe], mother's oldest sister, Aunt Maria Graewe, Johann Friesen, Peter Plett in Hochheim-am-Main [Neta’s son] and other relatives. Aug. 1990 was the third time that he was in Europe for a visit.
Anna is married to Michael [Mihai] Acatrinei in Iasi. They have 6 children. Tina is married to Abraham [Avram] Popescu in Arad. Daniel is also married in Arad, Banat, and has a daughter.
Wilhelm is now in Neuwied. We are hopeful that he will reside there. Our cousin Anna Thiessen is very committed to him. He was born shortly after the naturalization of our family in Mährisch-Kromau. Aunt Margerete [Graewe] Buhler in Neuwied and Aunt Katherina [Graewe] Derksen, mother's sisters, are glad to have seen him. Willie now has the opportunity to visit and get to know all relatives in Germany. The ones in Canada of course also wish to see him. In 1984 he was not able to come to visit.
Lieselotte is married to Konstantin Nistor in Arad. Daughter Camelia[-Manuela] is currently still studying medicine. Peter & Ana Boleac are in Arad and have four children. It looks very poor for them.
All the loved ones I am writing about here, [my son] Daniel and I were able to see and talk to in the summer of 1989.
Also Jakob Plett in Schwäbisch Gmünd with all his loved ones. He is the son of mother's sister Anna [Graewe]. [Cousins] Peter Plett and Heinrich (Isaak) Graewe are here with us in Canada. When my son Daniel became very ill in Romania, I told Tina that we had to go to Jakob Plett as soon as possible. We arrived at midnight.
We could visit Maria, the daughter of Uncle Isaak Graewe, in Espelkamp. Of our parents, we only found the grave, but near Cologne and Saarburg we found Aunt Katharine [Graewe] Derksen and Aunt Gretel [Graewe] Buhler with relatives. It was a special joy. It is a pity that not all relatives from Canada were there.
In the last few days I read some old letters from the parents. At the end they sometimes write: "If we don't meet again on earth, we'll meet in the Eternal Home." May this wish of the parents be true not only for our relatives, but also for all those who want to join us.
Above: Isaak with Aunt Maria (Graewe) Friesen and grandson David in Surrey, B.C., 1983
Above: Isaak and Hilda with relatives in Germany, 1989
standing: (not in order) Johann Friesen, Daniel Boleac (Isaak's son), Abraham Graewe,
Walter Buehler, Johann Buehler, Linda Friesen, Maria (Graewe) Friesen
seated: Maria Graewe (wife of Abraham), Tante Katya (Graewe) Derksen, Isaak Boleac
Isaak died in White Rock, B.C. on 28 Jan. 2007. His daughter Esther (Boleac) Woolf read his obituary at the funeral. Some new information has been added from our research.
Dad was born May 28, 1927 in Friedensfeld, Sagradovka, Russia to Dimitru and Agathe (Graewe) Boleac. He was the second oldest of 11 children.
The family was forced to move several times. They moved to Siberia in 1928, and then back to Friedensfeld, then Romania, Moldova and Germany.
Dad went into the German workforce, and then in 1944 at age 16, Dad was taken to Berlin to be in the military service. He saw terrible things in the war. He was a prisoner of war of the Americans, then the English, until December 1945. During his imprisonment, he was dispersed among farms to do labour.
After the war, Dad worked on a German farm for 2 ½ years. He said this was the best place to be because there was always enough food.
He moved to Hanover, Germany in 1949, where he lived in a Baptist hostel for young refugees and worked as a cooper. He was reunited there with his older brother, John, after being separated in the war. His parents, brothers and sisters were sent back to Romania. Dad’s mother Agathe told him and his brother John to stay in Germany, knowing it would bring a better life for them, even though it meant splitting up the family. She also encouraged them to go to Canada when the opportunity arose.
On Nov 26, 1952, Dad came to Canada by ship on the S.S. Arosa Kulm. He was sponsored by his brother John, who was already in Vancouver. John had arrived on Nov. 23, 1950.
Dad helped start the Bethel Pentecostal Church (now Bethel International Church) in Vancouver. The church, founded in 1953, focused on reaching out to the many new German immigrants.
He and Mom (Hilda Balkon) married there on Feb. 27, 1954. They had first met in Hanover, Germany, but she had another good friend. The Balkons arrived in Lethbridge, Alberta in April 1951. When Dad learned that Hilda was in Canada and single, he began writing to her. After accepting his written marriage proposal, she arrived in Vancouver.
By March of 1953, Dad had found work with Gordon Young, a truck trailer service in Vancouver. In 1955 he was able to practice his trade as a cooper, first for Sweeney Cooperage and then for Thomas Adams Distillers. In 1957, he started building boats at Northwest Plastics and Shipyard.
In 1961, Dad began twelve years at a plywood factory, Evan’s Products, and its associated company, Savona Timber. In November 1974, he began 17 ½ years of service as a custodian for the Burnaby School District, before retiring.
I (Esther) am the youngest of five children. Dad enjoyed taking us for drives, visiting friends or going to parks to give Mom a break. Kate’s Park, Stanley Park and Queen Elizabeth Park were favourite destinations. He taught me to ice skate on the ponds at Queen Elizabeth Park. It was fun skating through the paths where he had shovelled the snow from the ice. Holding his hand while I skated gave me the most confidence and I would skate the fastest. Dad would also take us up to Mount Seymour to go tobogganing. To this day, we still love the snow. He’d also take us to watch the Abbotsford Airshow, and he even took pictures of the pilot that ejected, and burning jet pieces after a jet crashed in 1972.
Once in a while, Dad would stop at Dairy Queen and buy us ice cream cones. That was a real treat. Whenever I’d see a Dairy Queen, I always hoped we’d stop. Dad taught us all how to ride our bikes, grand-children included. He enjoyed bike-riding, even when he was in his seventies.
We lived in Vancouver until 1979, then we moved to Surrey. Dad was able to fulfill his dream of building a house. Dad always liked building things and he also liked working outside. He would pick cherries from wild cherry trees, climbing higher than anyone would dare.
Dad could fix anything. I always had a list for him when he came over. He was always happy to help anyone, whether it was fixing things, moving or driving.
Dad also enjoyed travelling and went back to visit his family in Europe four times. The second-last time, he went with his eldest son, Dan. They came back so used to speaking German, it was hard to switch back to English. It meant a lot to Dad to be able to go with Dan.
When Dad retired in 1992, he enjoyed helping Walt and Marcine build their house, cleaning up after the trades, and doing errands and odd jobs.
By this time, his fifth grandchild had been born. He loved his grandchildren. When they were babies, if I wanted to hold one of them, I’d go looking for Dad, because that’s who would have them. He was always ready to give them a ride anywhere or to babysit with Mom. You’d just have to ask and he’d be there.
Dad enjoyed having his family together for dinners. We would also get together as a family every Sunday. These times became very precious to him as he realized how much his family loved him.
Dad was always strong and fit, and resisted seeing a doctor. He used a lot of natural remedies to deal with the pain that was developing. By the time Mom insisted that he see the doctor, they found he had colon cancer and it was too late. He then delayed surgery to remove the tumour as there were too many wild cherries to pick in July. He had no trouble climbing ladders to get the bountiful food. His surgeon removed the tumour in October, but it was not a cure.
I was able to visit Dad often at Peace Arch Hospital in White Rock, as I worked nearby. These were precious times together. Dad was not one to talk much about his feelings, but he told me he loved me very much. He also shared how grateful he was for everything that his children had done for him while he was sick. He took Mom’s hand and thanked her for taking care of him during this difficult time.
We are very thankful for the time that we had to convey our love to him. He blessed us in many ways. We miss him terribly already.
Esther (Boleac) Wolff
P.S. After Dad passed away, Mom had a dream that she and Dad were praying together, a deeper prayer than she had ever experienced with Dad before. Jesus' presence was with them in a very strong way. Mom was still worried about how she would manage without Dad. She had another dream where she experienced a bright light and an extreme peace that she couldn't describe. She knew that she was in God's hand, and everything would be okay.
Hilda lived until Dec. 5, 2014. She and Isaak are buried in the Valley View Cemetery in Surrey, B.C. Their descendants live in British Columbia.
Isaak and Hilda with family, Christmas 2004
Isaak picking wild cherries
Irene Plett is a writer, poet and animal lover living in South Surrey, British Columbia, Canada.