By Janis Rosen
Skating coach Ellen Burka, a legendary figure in the Canadian figure skating community, passed away yesterday at the age of 95.
As a young skater at the Toronto Cricket Curling and Skating club, I was always in awe of her. She loomed large in the rink and always made her presence known. She yelled, laughed, made faces and out-diva’ed any diva skater that crossed her path. She also coached the likes Toller Cranston, Lynn Nightengale and the Bezics, Sandra and Val. These were the country’s superstars, the elite in the mid ’70s and “Mrs. Burka,” as she was always known, was the one who helped take them to their highest level in the sport.
As it turned out, there was far more to her story.
It was Rosh Hashanah and I was at “the club” in the early afternoon for a practice. I was just starting competitive skating, not yet at a level where I would be considered as one of her students. I didn’t think she knew my name. As I walked past the snack bar, Mrs. Burka was sitting alone nearby. “Janny,” Mrs. Burka called out. Only my mother would call me that. “Sit down.” She pointed to an empty chair; I sat. She avoided eye contact as she wished me a happy new year. Needless to say, I was surprised. I didn’t think Mrs. Burka was Jewish. Nobody did. How did she know it was Rosh Hashanah?
Then she began. “They took her away. An old lady, they took her…” She spoke in broken segments, and my 11-year old self didn’t really understand what she was saying, except that she was Jewish. That I remembered, but didn’t tell anyone.
It wasn’t until years later that I learned she was referring to her 83-year-old grandmother, who lived in Amsterdam, Holland. During the Holocaust, Mrs. Burka and her family were sent to Westerbork transit camp in Germany, and her grandmother and parents were soon exterminated in the Sobibor concentration camp.
Born Ellen Danby, she was already a champion skater in Europe at a young age, but her career was cut short by the horrors of that time for the Europeon Jewish population. When the Nazis began to restrict Jews from public places she was she was not allowed on her beloved rink. It devastated her.
Mrs. Burka was eventually sent from Westerbork to the Theresienstadt concentration camp. In the concentration camp she managed to find ways to skate. She used her talents to amuse the Nazi guards and would perform for them. It’s likely what kept her alive and able to survive what six million did not.
At the end of the war, she married Jan Burka, a Czech artist she met in that same concentration camp. She continued to skate after the war and became a Dutch champion in 1946 at the age of 25, repeating the feat the following year. Shortly after, the couple moved to Toronto with two small daughters, Astra and Petra. They divorced by the mid-50s and when Jan left Mrs. Burka became a single mother. She raised her two daughters in the Anglican church, deciding to keep her past hidden, a secret that I would later discover.
In the meantime, she coached her own daughter, Petra, to a World Championship win in 1965, Canada’s first ladies world champ since Barbara Ann Scott nearly 20 years before. Mrs. Burka became a fixture at the Toronto Cricket Skating and Curling Club, coaching so many champions, including Dorothy Hamill, Elvis Stojko, Patrick Chan, and Tracey Wainman.
A few years after our encounter on Rosh Hashonah, I was fortunate enough to get the opportunity to train with her. It was never easy. She was blunt and demanding. But, sure enough, I landed jumps I never thought I could. She was an amazing technician, and taught me to tighten up my stance during rotation. Voila! Double axel. Mrs. Burka also inspired skaters to use the music to guide their performance, to not just hear it but feel it.
I never spoke about what she shared with me. But years later, after watching her daughter Astra’s documentary about her mother, Skate to Survive, I contemplated all that this woman endured and accomplished. She skated for the Nazis and survived the Holocaust; she coached her daughter to the World Championship, along with countless others. In 1978 she was made a member of the Order of Canada and, in 1996, was inducted into Canadas Hall of Fame.
But it wasn’t until 2008 when Skate to Survive premiered at Toronto Jewish Film Festival, that her amazing story was told in full. Indeed, an extraordinary woman.