Reflections on Oral History Interviews from Prague Spring Refugees


As the Research Intern here at the Canadian Museum of Immigration at Pier 21, as well as a History and Masters of Library and Information Studies graduate, I have had plenty of opportunities to engage with historical information. Additionally, as the granddaughter of Dutch immigrants who came to Canada after the Second World War, there’s nothing I love more than hearing people’s personal histories! However, oral histories are still relatively new to me, which has made working with them that much more exciting. Oral histories at the Museum are recorded life history interviews with a focus on immigration. They have allowed me to better understand the different perspectives, conflicting accounts, and various effects that immigration can have on both individuals and families, especially when comparing them to accounts from other sources and subject experts. Most recently, I have reviewed some of the oral history interviews from those who came to Canada from the former Czechoslovakia after the 1968 Warsaw Pact Invasion that suppressed a period of political and economic liberalization during the same year, known as the Prague Spring. This has allowed me to reflect on the similarities and differences of shared personal histories.

Diversity of Lived Experiences: Achieving a Richer Understanding of Prague Spring Refugees

When I began listening to these interviews, I looked for the similarities that tied them all together. Instead, the common thread that I discovered was how unique every person’s departure and arrival story was, even when examining a moment of history as specific as the Prague Spring. Veronika Martenova Charles defected in Gander, Newfoundland, during a plane refuel while touring with her band. She was nineteen years old, and since she had not planned to immigrate, she came with nothing but a small bag and only two sentences of English – “I would like to stay in Canada,” and “I don't want to go back on the plane.”[1] Meanwhile, Jan Smid left the country by participating in a ski patrol competition in Yugoslavia, Barbara Sherriff’s family got out by faking the necessary letter of invitation, and Magdalena Krondl’s family received visas at the Canadian embassy in Vienna after being dismissed from her work because of her father’s “capitalist” background.[2] All of these people were affected by the same moment in history, and yet every story is completely different.

Learning about these different experiences of a shared event helps us to understand the complexity of the refugee or immigrant experience. Oral historian Michael Frisch notes that traditionally, “how” has played a more prominent role in history than “why.”[3] Yet, discussing why individuals made particular choices or felt certain emotions may lead to a more comprehensive historical understanding. Frisch further points out that one does not need to be a major player to be a participant in a historical event. In fact, by obtaining recollections from people who would not normally be recorded in widely available historical texts, we can achieve a richer understanding of a time period.[4] By listening to and promoting oral histories from the immigrants who were affected by events like the Prague Spring, from band members (Veronika Charles) to PhD holders (Magdalena Krondl), these oral histories allow us to access the “whys,” and to hear them from people who can stretch our understanding beyond the typically recorded history. Appreciating the differences in each story from the event becomes their (and our) collective strength.

This is not to say that there are no overarching similarities in the Prague Spring oral histories. They tell their stories with humor and a level of comfort that one does not see as often in new refugees, or from those who prefer not to talk about their traumatic experiences. By comparing interviews from the former Czechoslovakia to oral histories in the museum from more recent newcomers, I noticed that most immigrants from Czechoslovakia describe their departure and arrival stories with the benefit of the time that has passed.

I have been able to connect these reflections to my personal experiences as the granddaughter of Dutch immigrants. I recently had the opportunity to sit with Museum alumnus and volunteer George Zwaagstra, and listen to some of his memories as a new Canadian from the Netherlands. I was struck both by how much he reminded me of the story of my grandfather, and how many aspects of their stories were different. They both arrived from the Netherlands shortly after the Second World War, they were both affected by the German occupation, and yet both came to Canada for very different reasons. Again, I would not be able to get a full understanding of Dutch immigration to Canada after the Second World War without hearing a range of accounts.

Conclusion: The Importance of Each Oral History to the Broader Landscapes of Immigration History

When I started working with the Prague Spring oral histories, knowing that I would eventually write this blog, I watched for every minor similarity I could find. Instead, what I discovered was how poignant each story became in its own way - how every person’s story was an entirely different journey, even though it appeared similar at a glance. More than anything, this has shown me how important each individual story is to the broader landscape of immigration history. The Prague Spring, just like any other historical event, cannot be defined by its similarities. Instead, we should also examine its differences to comprehend the wide-reaching impact for so many.

  1. Oral History with Veronika Martenova Charles, interviewed by Emily Burton, 12 June 2018, Toronto, ON, Canadian Museum of Immigration at Pier 21 (hereafter CMI) Collection (18.06.12VMC).
  2. Oral History with Jan Smid, interviewed by Emily Burton, 12 June 2018, Toronto, ON, CMI Collection (18.06.12JS); Oral History with Barbara Sherriff, interviewed by Emily Burton, 11 June 11 2018, Toronto, ON, CMI Collection (18.06.11BS); Oral History with Magdalena Krondl, interviewed by Emily Burton, 10 June 2018, Toronto, ON, CMI Collection (18.06.10MK).
  3. Michael Frisch, A Shared History (Albany: State University of New York Press), 15-16.
  4. Frisch, 163.