Legendary Burka family finds strength in skating

A decision made on the spur of the moment, under pain of disaster and tragedy, made all the difference for Ellen Burka.

Dutch-born and very, very quietly Jewish, she had been herded into a concentration camp and asked to record her occupation. She could have written “school girl,” but she scribbled: “figure skating champion of The Netherlands.”

Those words saved her life.

The German commander of the camp was “a figure skating groupie,” Burka said on Tuesday in Toronto, where she was being feted as an inductee into the Jewish International Sports Hall of Fame, along with her world figure skating champion daughter Petra Burka. “He loved figure skating,” she said.

Because of it, Burka enjoyed privileges that others didn’t. She was allowed to work on a farm and was allowed to do some housekeeping. One day, all of the women at her camp were sent to the Auschwitz death camp. Except for Burka.

Burka survived two concentration camps. Now 92, still a spark plug and too tiny to be seen behind a podium, Burka clambered aboard a fitness step to face a crowd of figure skating who’s who and enthused, as if she was directing her Theatre on Ice: “This is absolutely overwhelming for me. I never expected it. I didn’t even know about this until six weeks ago.”

Ellen was actually inducted into the Jewish Sports Hall of Fame in 2010, but, being that it was in Israel, and too far away, she did not attend. Petra, the 1965 world champion and the first woman to land a triple jump, was inducted in 2012.

“I had no idea how I got into that,” Ellen said. “I completely forgot about it.” That is, until she got an email six weeks ago and there it was, notice of a special induction ceremony at the Toronto Cricket, Skating and Curling Club where Burka had worked for so long. Behind the scenes was Toronto entrepreneur and philanthropist Sidney Greenberg, a former basketball player who was inducted himself into the hall years ago for making “a significant contribution to society through sport.” Greenberg is instrumental in programs offered at Canada House, a Canadian-founded arena in the poor border town of Metulla, Israel that brings Arabs and Jewish children together through play, specifically through hockey.

The Burkas might have been inducted sooner, but nobody seemed to know about their heritage. Ellen had kept her Jewishness quiet for many years, not even telling Petra and sister Astra until they were 16 and 18. As a single mother in Toronto, she feared she wouldn’t get work as a skating coach if people knew. When she was a youngster in The Netherlands and passionately learning how to skate, Ellen was turned back from a rink one day when she encountered a sign that said Jews weren’t allowed. She was puzzled. Her life became difficult after that.

Her story was compelling, Greenberg said. Ellen reluctantly allowed daughter Astra to make Skate to Survive, a documentary about the first 44 years of her life back in 2008, but as time has passed, she speaks more and more about her experiences.

Ellen and Petra are only the sixth and seventh Canadians to be inducted into the Jewish Sports Hall, following Cecil Hart (hockey), Lew Hayman (football), Fred Oberlander (wrestling), Fanny Rosenfeld (track and field) and Louis Rubenstein, considered the founder of the sort of modern figure skating – the artistic kind – that made Burka’s heart pump.

There are lots of figure skaters in this hall, too, aside from the Burkas and Rubenstein: Alain Calmat (France), Sarah Hughes (United States), Lili Kronberger (Hungary), Emilia Rotter (Hungary), Laszlo Szollas (Hungary) and Irina Slutskaia (Russia).

Burka lived and became an innovative force, just enough that the sport changed forever. She was ahead of her time, making it commonplace to train artistic movement every week – Theatre on Ice – that attracted skaters such as Toller Cranston, John Curry, and Dorothy Hamill to Toronto to work. And her daughter, Petra, changed the sport, too, as the first woman to land a triple jump. Without initially knowing anything about her mother’s struggle or the fate of her grandparents (who died in a concentration camp), Petra seemed to inherit the will to fight for survival, too.

“This is really quite special,” Petra said of the ceremony. “I didn’t expect this kind of reception. I really expected the medal to arrive in the mail.”

Not so. The literati of the sport poured into the reception area: Donald Jackson, Debi Wilkes, Sandra Bezic, Josee Chouinard, Brian Orser, Maria Jelinek, Frances Dafoe, Tracey Wainman, Tracy Wilson. The Consul General of Israel, D.J. Schneeweissm, had wise words from a sage: “We should never forget the past, but we should never allow it to limit us.”

“She was more than a skating coach,” said Bezic, who first met Ellen, a proud and confident woman, 50 years ago. “Training with Mrs. Burka was not for the faint of heart,” Bezic said. “She was tough and she expected her students to be tough. Now I fully understand and appreciate why.

“As a coach, she was a contradiction in terms,” Bezic said. “She was a strict disciplinarian, but she also valued free spirit.” Ellen educated Bezic about music, the inspiration behind it, and the nuances of it, enough that Bezic became one of the great choreographers of the sport.

Wainman finds it poignant that her career has come full circle with Ellen, who coached her to become a Canadian senior bronze medalist when she was only 12. Now Wainman is a coach. “Mrs. Burka and I always had a great relationship,” Wainman said. “She was somebody that really understood what I was going through at all times and could relate to it. And she always really brought the best out in me.”

Still, today, if Wainman has a coaching question, she consults Ellen. In the spring, the Hall of Famer (Skate Canada Hall of Fame, Canadian Sports Hall of Fame, Order of Canada) came to the York Region Skating Academy to look at some of Wainman’s students. “It was really special for me,” Wainman said.

And Wainman passes along what she learned from Ellen. “She was a very hard trainer and I consider myself a hard trainer,” Wainman said. She was only 10 when she participated in Ellen’s Theatre on Ice, something many clubs have now adopted. The intent: choreography isn’t just about steps. It’s about expressing what is inside of you. That’s the world according to Burka, saved by her declaration to still guide the hand of skaters.

Beverley Smith

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