Skating legend hid her Jewish past
For Ellen Burka, figure skating not only provided a lengthy career as a successful coach and mentor, it saved her life.
Recently inducted in the International Jewish Sports Hall of Fame in Israel, Burka kept her Jewish roots a secret for years. She was lucky to survive the Holocaust, and when she immigrated to Canada in 1951, she found anti-Semitism all around her. As a Jew, she wouldn’t have been accepted into the social clubs where top skaters trained, so she opted to pass as a Christian. She had her daughters, Astra and Petra, baptized as Anglicans. Petra went on to become world figure skating champion in 1965.
Ellen, now 92, never told her children of their Jewish heritage, that their grandparents had been deported to the Nazi death camp of Sobibor, where they were murdered, nor that other relatives met a similar fate. Instead, she told them they had been killed in a car accident.
“I did not want to tell my children that their grandparents were gassed. It’s a terrible thing to tell them.
“I had to protect them,” said Burka, who now lives in Toronto.
Burka would have met the same fate as her parents but for her excellence as a figure skater. Deported from her native Holland to the Westerbork transit camp, she was told to fill out a form setting out her occupation. Brash and proud of her achievements, she wrote, “Figure skating champion of the Netherlands.”
It was not an idle boast. Before the war, she had been a tremendous skater, a natural who was pretty much self-taught. Starting out on wooden skates, “I learned it very fast,” she said. Copying what she saw others do, she taught herself sit spins, camel spins and other skating moves.
By the time she arrived at Westerbork, she could accurately describe herself as a champion.
To her great good fortune, the commandant of the camp, Albert Konrad Gemmeker, was a skating aficionado. When he was told there was a champion figure skater in the camp, he had her taken aside. Breaking with standard practice, he sent to Amsterdam to retrieve her skates and costumes, and he had her perform for Nazi officials on frozen ponds near the camp.
When she was not performing, she was sent to work on a farm, and later she was given a job as a housekeeper for the camp architect. She never wanted for food.
“I was saved because I was a figure skater,” she said.
Burka, who still keeps busy mentoring young skaters in Toronto, was later transported to Theresienstadt, and she was there when the war ended.
After walking home to Holland, she resumed her skating career. She won the 1946 and 1947 Dutch women’s championships. She also worked as a choreographer and teacher, and she organized the first-ever ice show in Holland.
Life was pretty good, yet her husband, Jan, was nervous. “He was afraid the Russians would invade Holland, and so he shlepped me to Canada.”
“I came here and I thought I’d never skate again. I didn’t know they had rinks here.”
A newcomer to the skating community, she had to start at the bottom. As she entered the Canadian figure skating scene, she brought with her the revolutionary styles she had developed in Holland. A dancer since the age of five, she asked her students to move to the music, to express themselves. That just wasn’t done at the time, she said.
Her student Toller Cranston epitomized the Burka style, skating expressively and emotionally and winning an Olympic bronze medal in 1976. With Cranston, Burka originated the idea of “theatre on ice,” in which creative dance expression played a prominent role.
Altogether, she coached 26 Canadian world championship and Olympic medalists. A legend in the skating community, she has been enshrined in Canada’s Sports Hall of Fame.
All the while, Burka kept her Jewish past a secret. Her daughters learned of it when they were in their late teens. It became public knowledge a few years ago when Astra made a film, Skate to Survive, about the first 44 years of her mother’s life.
Representing the International Jewish Sports Hall of Fame at an event inducting Ellen and Petra Burka, Israel’s consul general in Toronto, DJ Schneeweiss, described Ellen as a survivor who had enriched Canadian life.
Injecting a note of humour into the proceedings, Schneeweiss said the Jewish calendar is full of festivals that can be been summed up as,“They tried to kill us, they didn’t succeed, let’s eat.”
In Burka’s case, he said, it should be, “They tried to kill us, they didn’t succeed, let’s skate.”
Skating not only saved Burka, it continues to be a centrepiece of her life.