TORONTO — Petra Burka was 18 before she learned what really happened to her grandparents. Till then, she had been under the illusion they had been killed in a car crash. That was the story her parents had told her, to protect her from the sad reality of their deaths.
As Dutch Jews, both grandparents were deported, along with her mother, Ellen, to the Westerbork transit camp in northeastern Holland. Some 100,000 people, mostly Jews, passed through the camp en route to Nazi murder camps in the east. Her grandparents were among nearly 35,000 sent to Sobibor, where they were likely gassed on arrival.
“I didn’t know about my background because my mom and dad were guarded about it,” said Petra, 66, who was raised as an Anglican.
Like her mother, a figure skating champion, Petra was a natural skater who taught herself many of the impressive moves that laid the foundation for her world championship win in 1965.
She took up skating at seven – late by today’s standards – and taught herself jumps and spins. While her mother taught others, she and Astra fooled around on the ice, getting better and better. She didn’t get a formal lesson until she was 11.
“I taught myself the double axel by watching others,” Petra said.
When she performed, “as an encore I would do 10 in a row. I was a very good jumper. I loved to jump,” she said.
Prior to the 1962 Canadian Championships, she practised and landed a triple jump – a salchow. She developed it, she said, when she found she was having a hard time winning the championship. The jump would put her over the top.
“I wanted to be noticed and do something very difficult,” she said.
No woman had ever landed a triple. It was her ticket to the Worlds, where she finished fourth. She was 16.
“It was considered unladylike at the time,” Petra said. “I did it confidently. I was a good competitor. My mother trained me well.”
Her mother was “a survivor and a fighter. I became a fighter. That’s why I became a world champion,” she said.