Dimitri and Agathe with children (in birth order):
Anna, Tina, Daniel, Willy, Liselotte and Peter in Romania, ca. 1950
My dad’s aunt Agathe Graewe wrote from Jena, Germany after the city was bombed in 1945. The family later wrote from another sort of war zone, after they were forced to move to communist Romania. I’ve also included my dad’s story of their legendary romance.
Meet Agathe and Dumitru
Agathe Graewe (1904-1981, #1448241) and her husband Dumitru “Johann” Boleac (1896-1975, #1448242) found themselves in Jena, Germany, after escaping Russia for Romania. They had lived in Friedensfeld, Sagradovka, Agathe’s birthplace, and briefly in Siberia, but conditions were worsening in Mennonite settlements. In the 1930s, many men were taken away to slave camps or executed. Dumitru avoided that fate after he obtained permission for his family to leave for his country of origin, Romania.
After Germany invaded Romania in 1940, Agathe and Dumitru resettled in Jena, Germany at 17 Wagnergasse, from where Agathe wrote the first letter below. They lived in the little house with their eight surviving children. Dumitru worked as a cooper and then at the Saale train station.
The home was the scene of a joyful reunion with Agathe’s sister Anna, my dad’s mother. Anna’s husband had died in Russia after surviving a slave labour Gulag. Anna had moved to Poland from Russia in 1943, but conditions there deteriorated, especially after the oldest sons were drafted into the army. After Anna prayed for relief, the Red Cross was able to help her and her five young children to join her sister Agathe in Jena.
But air raid sirens began to sound every night as Jena suffered repeated bombings. Agathe’s daughter Liselotte was born on the same day as an air raid damaged their home on 27 May 1943. Dumitru amazingly survived another bombing where he was buried in rubble for two days, described by Anna’s son, Jakob Plett:
One night when my uncle, Johann Boljak, was at work in the building yard, air raid sirens sounded again. He and the other colleagues present were told to go to the basement and all to lie on the floor. But he listened to another voice and kept standing. When the bombs hit the building yard, the rubble fell and buried everyone under it. Only Uncle Boljak survived and was able to free himself after two days.
He came home on the third day. At that time we were still living in Jena and I can still see it today. He came in, his head bandaged and injured. He didn't greet anyone but said that together we should first thank God. Then he greeted everyone. God had heard the prayers of his wife and children and brought him back home safe. Uncle Boljak was a good preacher.
After Anna prayed for relief from the bombings, she was able to move with her youngest children to the outlying village of Krippendorf. An important move for my family, as that’s where my dad later met my mother!
When the war was over, Jena became part of East Germany under Russian rule. Those found to be born in Russia were sent back to slave labour Gulags, where many like Anna perished. There was another fate for Agathe and her family: Dumitru’s homeland of Romania again saved their lives when they were forced to leave Jena for Romania.
But there was much poverty in Romania, where the communist leadership was also problematic. Those with a German background were also targets of discrimination, which is explored in Herta Mueller’s Nobel prize-winning book, The Hunger Angel.
All telephone lines were tapped. Letters to or from other countries were opened and read, if they arrived at all. Raids by secret police would happen in the middle of the night. The 1980s were the worst. Party members then had a quota of how many neighbours they reported on, accusing them of doing things that were against the state.
Even basic food items became scarce. Everything was rationed. An adult was allowed only one liter (1.05 quart) of sunflower oil, one kg (2 pounds 3 oz.) of sugar, and one kg of meat per month. If you saw a line-up in front of a shop, everyone joined the line. You didn’t know what was being sold there, but whatever it was, you needed it. Gas and electricity were cut at random times every day.
The war service of Agathe’s eldest sons, John and Isaak, had separated the family, but allowed the two to forge a new path to Canada. Their help kept the family warm for many cold winters. At first they sent packages, but after the goods were tampered with, those deliveries had to stop. Then they sent money to Romania by bank transfer. The money had to sit in the bank for three months until a coupon would be sent, which could then be used to buy products. If the products were available, and in the limited quantities that were allowed.
John and Isaak tried to bring their parents to Canada, but it was not to be. Dumitru also tried to move his family to Germany. When he arrived at the Securitate for his interview, he was beaten and told that he would be jailed if he tried to leave the country again.
But Dumitru continued to be a kind, compassionate man of faith, lovingly remembered by his grandchildren for Christmas visits as the family “Santa,” as he conjured up small gifts for all the children and opened his arms for cuddles.
Dumitru died in Cuvin, Banat, Romania (now Kovin, South Banat District, Vojvodina, Serbia) on 15 Jan 1975; Agathe on 16 June 1981. They are buried there together.
- Irene Plett
My Romanian uncle’s romance
My father, Peter Plett, explains how Agathe and Dumitru came to be married in Friedensfeld, Sagradovka.
It was because of my uncle, Dumitru “Johann” Boleac, that I ended up in Jena, Germany, where I met my first wife and the mother of my children. The story of Johann’s romance with my aunt was legendary.
A Romanian, Johann was captured by the Russians during the First World War. They required him to work for several years in Russia before he could go home if he wanted to. That’s how he came to our Mennonite settlement to work. He was a specialist in making and repairing barrels of any size, and was allowed to order hard oak wood to produce them. The villagers used his barrels to store cucumber and watermelon pickles, and even wine. Johann was originally Orthodox Catholic, but converted and joined the church and fit right in.
He married, but his first wife, nee Richards, died within a year. Then he was alone.
The church decided that Johann should remarry. My grandfather Isaak Graewe later told us about his matchmaking efforts. He picked up Johann one day and said they were going for a ride.
Johann asked him, “Where are you taking me?”
Isaak answered, “Oh, there’s a woman in this other village who we think would be good for you to marry.”
Johann said, “But I’m not in love with that woman. I’m in love with your Agathe.” Agathe was one of Isaak’s daughters, and my aunt.
“Does Agathe know that?”
They turned around and went home. Isaak asked, “Agathe, is this true?” She said yes. He asked, “Do you want to marry him?” She said yes. So they set the wedding.
In 1935, Johann was informed that there was a danger that he would be taken away to a Russian Gulag. He went to Moscow and received permission to return to Romania with his family.
My aunt Aganete, Agathe’s sister, escorted them all the way to the border. She returned alone. She was a courageous woman.
Johann and Agathe settled in Romania, but after Germany invaded the country in 1940, they relocated to eastern Germany. Both were fluent in the German language. Johann worked for a railroad in Jena, and was well off enough to buy their house at 17 Wagnergasse.
My mother and younger sisters and brothers later followed them to Jena. It was there where I looked for my family after the war, finding something completely unexpected.
We survived a bombing
Agathe wrote this letter from Jena, Germany shortly after it was bombed. The original text of all letters is in the German language version of this blog post. I translated them with the help of Deep L.
posted 12 Feb. 1945 from 17 Wagnergasse, Jena, Germany
to Worker I. Boleac, Berlin
11 Feb. 1945
I want to write a few lines to you because you will be worried because you will have heard the news that Jena and Weimar have been attacked. Thank God we all remained unharmed. In Jena there are more than 100 dead. Nothing happened to our [home in] Wagnergasse.
But we can’t write that we are doing well. We don’t know the whereabouts of Peter’s parents and my sister Tina [Katharine “Katya” Graewe] Derksen [Katya survived].
Wishing you all the best and God’s blessings. Warm greetings from father and sisters and brothers and Peter.
Isaak’s notes: received on Feb. 25th.
Buhl[er] died … [paper torn] bicycle, then came together.
Answers to prayer
On New Year’s Eve of 1949, Dumitru wrote of his joy that his son John was released from the Gulag, where he was imprisoned for nearly five years. Dumitru urges John to commit himself to the faith that is hinted at in one of John’s postcards from the Gulag. An aunt had told John about the daily prayers of his parents that had kept him alive. The truth of my uncle Jakob’s statement, that Dumitru was a good preacher, shines through in this letter.
Cuvin, [Romania] 31 Dec. 1949
Dear John and Isaak,
A greeting of love first of all. We are all, thank God, healthy and we are doing mediocrely but better than last year. We have had to go through a lot too, but God be praised, he has brought us through it. Faith must be tested. We want to be people who are not of this world. We will always wander until we have reached the eternal home; then we will rest in the Father’s house, where peace and joy will be forever.
We have received both letters. Our joy is great that you, dear John, have been released [from a Soviet Gulag]. We wrote to you a lot in Russia, but you didn’t receive everything. We were short of money here and so I wrote to you a lot, but you only received very little. But now it looked like God's hand would be grasped, and saying it is good. We also didn't get all the mail from you, a lot of it was lost.
But we received a postcard where you, dear John, wrote to us that you received a letter from our sister Margaret, saying that she wrote to you that our prayers, which I and your mother prayed to God for you and Isaak every day, were a wall around you that kept you alive. This gratitude is commanded only by the merciful God, whom we must not forget to praise and thank.
And first dear John, if you want well-being, please, please become converted to God, and believe that Jesus accepts sinners and leads them to the right path. Then you, dear John, will be a happy John, and Jesus will give you everything you need to be blessed. The verse of a song says: “I can't get richer anywhere than I am already in Jesus” [from a hymn by Salomon Liscovius, written about 1672].
First please, dear John, write us a letter about where you have been all over Russia, and what you have learned about our relatives, and how you have lived lately. Where you parted from Alexander Kirlik [who happened to have a sister, Maria, whom John later married], and whether he is also at home; also about the comrade from Peregu Mare, south Arad [County], please write where you parted from him.
You have here a suit of fine fabric and a coat. Do you have a shortage of clothes, or have you brought some from Russia? Write us everything exactly.
We cannot come to Germany for the time being. They took away all our papers and told us that we are real citizens as of October 1949, and that we have all the rights in Romania. So we must continue to pray that God will bring together our torn families.
We spent Christmas well. We had enough cake. We wish you a blessed new year. Please rush us photography to be sure. Send greetings to the family of Sergei Kolig.
Your parents, the Boleacs
Agathe’s record of family birthdays helped to solve a genealogical puzzle.
Cuvin, [Romania], 17 May 1951
Have received your dear letter with great joy. Many thanks. I wish you God's rich blessing for your 24th birthday and also for your further life. And what is of great importance, that many jewels will shine in your crown. Do you understand me? [“Be shepherds of God’s flock that is under your care, watching over them … And when the Chief Shepherd appears, you will receive the crown of glory that will never fade away.” I Peter 5:2, 4 NIV]
Yesterday dad was at A. Zimmer's and brought us news that hit us. Your father’s father [Ivan (Johann) Boleacu] is in the hospital, sick with rheumatism. They want to give us as much as we need. I would like to travel far, but we don't have any papers, so we're not allowed to go anywhere.
Another great pleasure, Bieber has come directly from captivity, you can write to John. We still want to go there. He lives in the village next to us.
Now I will write you our birth dates:
Dimitru Boleac 18 Feb. 1896
Agathe 6 April 1904
Johann 29 March 1925
Isaak 28 May 1927
Anna 7 June 1929
Tina 11 Nov. 1931
Daniel 18 Aug. 1938
Wilhelm 14 Oct. 1941
Lieselotte 27 May 1943
Peter 16 Nov. 1947
In the hope that we will soon come ourselves, I’ll conclude thanking you again. We greet and kiss you all,
News from your aunts
It was marvellous to read about Agathe’s sisters in this letter. I learned about Aganete’s fourth husband, and yet more children that she helped by becoming their stepmother. Aganete was widowed three times earlier, and in her third marriage, took ten stepchildren into her care. Her story is told in “A Woman of Courage: Aganete Graewe.”
Cuvin, 23 May 1956
My dear children Isaak and Hilda,
I finally want to write you a letter. But before I continue to write, I wish you God's blessing and support in all things.
Thank you very much for sending us the address for Isaak Graewe’s mother [Maria Richert Graewe #1035941]. Now I am so glad, I have received a message, that is, an answer from your aunt Aganete and aunt Katya. Oh how glad I was to receive a letter from them! One letter on Sunday May 13th, the other on May 14th, and I had written on May 1st. It went quickly.
Aunt Aganete [#1192981] has been married to Gerhard Dueck for 4 years. Her children are all grown up and married, except the two youngest. She lives 62 km away from the children she adopted. One has to look for a mother like that who takes on children in need. Mr. Dueck also has two more children at home. Marie Dueck is married and her husband died in the fall of 1955, leaving three children. Now she writes that she has the smallest one with her almost always.
Aunt Katya [#1417302] had to suffer a lot. Her husband, Heinrich Derksen [#1417254], had to do penance from 1948 to October 1955. Two of their children died. She writes that her daughter Tina [#1417251] was laid to rest in the forest. The father gone and the mother ill. But I am glad that she writes, “my siblings have helped me a lot.”
Your aunt Anna [1896-1947, #1397891] and her daughter Anna [1928-1951, #1405608] died [in a Russian Gulag]. Peter’s mother and sister.
Heinrich Friesen [#1417412], the husband of Aunt Marie [1907-1972, #1417411], also died [he was taken away by the Russians]. They hope to get out of there [likely a Russian Gulag]. She gives me courage. She wrote a beautiful poem: “Hoffnung ist der Wanderstab von der Wiege bis zum Grab” (Hope is the walking stick from the cradle to the grave.) If they can hope from there, I think we should not lose heart either.
With this letter, I’m also sending one to R. [Romania?]. I’m glad that ... much has changed and now they have everything they need. Aunt Neta even has a cow that gives 10 liters of milk a day, and they have a lot of potatoes. They drink as much milk as they want. We have only one goat that gives milk, and the young only give milk in the spring, then we also drink more milk than now.
It has finally become warm. Winter only started at the beginning of March, and lasted a long time, so everything was sown late. But lettuce is now already old at my place. We have already chopped down the potato plants. Everything grows beautifully. Only a strip of grapes was battered by hail. It was so very cold that the landlord’s large walnut tree and two large grafted apricot trees were frozen. The winter was very hard, but we thank God that no one was so sick that they had to be served….
A warm greeting to all of you from Mother.
Get us out of here
Agathe shares her fervent wish to join her sons in Canada in the two letters below.
28 June 1956
Dear Isaak and Hilda,
A few more lines to you. God's peace as a greeting. And now I am writing to you about very serious things. Papa was at the American Consul, who told him that you can ask to get us out. Well, you didn’t buy a car; now do what you can, likely it will be expensive. He told dad, “we will bring you out by plane.” You and John, be as quick as you can. It is very difficult for us to wait. We lack patience, and as the rest of the saying goes.
Daniel has just come home. One more week, then he has vacation, then goes to work. Willy is also at home, has one more month of apprenticeship, then he comes home too. The others are all at work, except Peti is with me during the day.
Now may the Lord bless you and your little ones, and especially give good health to Hilda and the little ones.
[written on side] Greetings to all from all of us.
[undated; ca. 1956]
Dear John and Marie,
Wishing you the peace of God first of all. Now writing the second letter to you. You’re probably always working. Well, we would like to come to you and help you. But first you have to help us to get out. Dad went to the American Consul and he told him that you can ask for us to come out. And then they have to let us out from here, that’s the order.
If you and Isaac have so much to get us out, and the dear God helps us to get there, then after we recover, we all want to pay you everything. Then we will make up for everything that we’ve looted from you, and you should have peace.
Wishing you and your little ones very good health and well-being. And in the hope of seeing you again, I close my writing. May God bless you. Warm greetings and kisses to you,
Dear children in the distance
Agathe shares a snapshot of daily life in 1958 Romania. Loving support shows up in times of need, where Agathe and Dumitru are the receivers, and at other times the givers. I also like that she sends greetings to my father and another nephew, Henry Graewe.
Cuvin, 20 March 1958
Dear children in the distance [Isaak and Hilda],
After a long time I too want to get serious and write some lines. We are healthy, except Tina is still taking air every two weeks. Anna is also healthy, and her little daughter. Now our longing is even greater. You two are far away, Anna is also far. She is filled with longing. We want to visit them on May 1st, if God is willing.
We also got a little one from our goat today. Around one hour ago it went into the room searching for food as it was hungry. It is still too cold in the stable. Outside there is still snow on the ground in some places. It snowed in February and March, but wasn’t so very cold.
We thank God for everything and that He has brought us through the winter. There is enough bread to buy, also everything else. If only you have money, you can live. We have always continued to eat bread. But flour had become [scarce] and was sent to us from brothers and sisters from the Dobrotscha. Father sent them a few little barrels. And then a package with cheese and bacon arrived….
[Daughter Tina was not well.] Until the end of January, father brought wood from the factory, and we made her room very warm with an iron stove, and she could do whatever she wanted. She only had to get up from bed and go to the sewing machine. She earned many leu [Romanian currency], bought things for herself and knitted some things. She spun 1 kilogram [2 pounds 3 oz.] of wool, and also bought and knitted finished wool. Since I have been heating the other stove with shavings again, she is knitting in bed. We aren’t happy that she is doing so much. She should be very quiet and work less, and for eating, buy herself a hen. We can’t keep chickens here, we have no yard.
Now in the evening I talked to her. She was very happy that we wrote to you about money to put into place our travel to Germany. She does not doubt that you will do this. Write to us soon if you could and want to, then we could receive money here. I think it would be best to ask Adam, you must have his address.
Received your letters. Daniel comes home every Sunday. From Arad [to Cuvin] and back it costs 6 leu. From Cuvin to Arad and back, it’s 10. Willy still has a few months to go, then he’s also finished. Lotti is at home helping her mother, and is a runner for Tina and also for us. She’s also learning to sew with Tina. Peti was sick last week with the measles. It was very unusual for us that Peti stayed in bed.
I haven’t been to our church in Arad since Thanksgiving in the autumn. For Thanksgiving, Father and I also attended a Semlack [or Lemlack], a German congregation. I’m very happy when I hear my mother tongue, and it’s so pleasant to linger with such dear brothers and sisters.
We thank you warmly for the letters and photos which you sent us. We’re also happy to see photos of Peter Plett’s family. Now Henry Graewe needs to send his, and I think he will soon…. Are you all healthy? Also John?
Warm greetings and kisses from your mother.
Anna Boleac Acatrinei (1929-2004) wrote this moving letter shortly after the death of her father, Dumitru. I hope that it provided comfort to remember loved ones, even my dad and another cousin, Henry Graewe.
Iasi [Romania], 23 Feb. 1975
Dear brother and family,
I received your letter in December, thanks very much for that. I was at home in August, everyone was, and Lidia took me on a three week vacation, but time passed so quickly. I was with my parents for two weeks, three days with Lotti, one day with Tina and one day with Dani.
It could be seen at that time that Father could no longer live. He had written to you and didn’t receive an answer until the telegram message was received that father had died.
I still arrived at the right time. I arrived at 9 a.m. and the funeral was at 2 p.m. I will never forget January 15, 1975. Stayed only two days. The children are all at school and Mihai is at work. Everything was recorded by Willy on audio tape. The separation hurts.
How are you and your dear children doing? How is Hilda? I hope well. Thank God for all his loving faithfulness. I felt almost the same as Hilda, when I returned from Arad; now I feel better again. All our sighs and dreams have come true, all his pain has come to an end. It was so hard in the last weeks. Lotti had taken a vacation and was at home until his end. Mother was better off health-wise. Dani also came from Bucharest….
How are John and his loved ones? Greetings to Peter Plett and Henry Graewe, and to you all,
your sister, Anna, and family.
[Note:] Received a letter from Mother yesterday. Lotte, Tina and everyone came for father's birthday [Feb. 18] and took pictures at the grave. Hopefully you have already received mail from them and pictures of the funeral.
All letters shared here were preserved by Agathe’s son, Isaak Boleac, and then Isaak's daughter, Esther Boleac Wolff, who kindly shared them with me. The translations are mine, with the help of DeepL.
Agathe’s great-granddaughter, a newfound cousin who prefers not to be named, shared fascinating details about life in communist Romania, and how the family in Canada helped them to survive until the fall of communism in 1989 and beyond.
My father, Peter Plett, is an entertaining and enlightening source of personal and family recollections, and is delighted that I can share our family history here.
For more about Isaak Boleac and his family (including Agathe and Dumitru), see Isaak’s Story.
For more about John Boleak, see John Boleak’s Story.
Irene Plett is a writer, poet and animal lover living in South Surrey, British Columbia, Canada.