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Professor seeks historical gold on audiotape

Wants recordings of refugees' stories

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A history professor at the University of Winnipeg is asking residents to search their basements and attics for hidden treasure.

But Prof. Alexander Freund, the chair in German-Canadian studies at the university, isn't looking for gold or jewels -- he's hoping to find tapes of interviews with refugees who came to Manitoba after the Second World War and during the Cold War.

Freund is leading a project to digitize and archive the history of refugees in the province.

"We're very convinced there are interviews out there," he said in an interview. "We don't know how many."

Freund and his team are specifically looking for audiotapes of refugees telling their stories, because the researchers have the means to turn those tapes into digital files, though they will accept videos as well.

Recording people telling their stories became a popular practice in the 1970s, Freund said. Most of these interviews would have been conducted during the 1970s, 1980s and 1990s.

"(With) most of the oral histories that have been conducted, usually the cassette tapes were then put into shoeboxes and put into people's attics or basements," he said.

The taped interviews may not be formal, sit-down sessions. The research team is looking for any audio record of a refugee talking about his or her experiences.

"It may be groups, community groups like churches, that did those interviews, but it may also be individuals who maybe just have one tape with a father or a mother," he said. "We're trying to basically create an inventory of all the oral histories that are in people's private collections."

The research team also wants to conduct followup interviews, but it's a difficult task, Freund said, because many of the refugees who were interviewed on tape would now be old and may have died.

Freund said his team is looking for 20 refugees who have been interviewed on tape before and are willing to be interviewed again.

"We're also interested in tracing changes over time in terms of how people remember their experiences and how they tell their stories," he said.

The researchers would also like to speak with those refugees' families to understand how these stories change across generations.

The team has had little luck looking through Manitoba's archives. They've found one case of a person interviewed at two different times and about 10 other people whom they can interview again, Freund said.

Freund's work is part of a larger project attempting to trace the history of all refugees in Manitoba. While other disciplines have researched refugees who came to Manitoba after 1945, Freund said there has been little work done on the history of refugees in the province.

"We really don't know anything about the history of refugees, (such as) where they come from and what brought them here, and sort of the long-term development over half a century of people coming to Manitoba as refugees," he said.

Anyone in possession of audiotapes who would like to digitize the recordings or who would permit Freund to include the tapes in his project can contact project manager Elizabeth Krahn at 775-9045 or at

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition March 5, 2012 B5

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