In the 1960s, Canadians were captivated by the graceful athleticism of Canadian skating champion Petra Burka. Coached by her mother, Ellen, Petra conquered world figure skating in 1965 (our first world champion since Barbara Ann Scott in 1947) and won the bronze medal in the ’64 Olympics.
Famous for her record-breaking triple salchow, Petra now consults for Skate Canada, discovering young talent.
Petra’s success was but the tip of the iceberg in the Burka family story. A 2008 documentary, Skate to Survive, written and directed by Petra’s sister, Astra, tells the extraordinary story of their mother, Ellen Danby Burka, who survived Nazism to create a new life for herself and her girls in Canada.
The film, Astra’s third, focuses on Ellen’s dynamic personality while shedding light on her history. A champion skater and choreographer in her native Holland, Ellen kept important truths about her past from her daughters until they were in their teens.
When it was suggested that Astra make a film about her mother, she seized the opportunity. “I poured over all the pictures and wanted to do something with them creatively. I wanted to tell stories about my family’s past from found objects. It has been a very wonderful journey, and I am happy that these stories are being seen,” Astra said.
Ellen’s story is beautifully told. Archival footage is balanced with scenes from the present, as Ellen tells her story in comfortable surroundings, joined by her childhood friend Elsbeth. We witness this close friendship between two Dutch girls, one Jewish and one Christian, both besotted with skating. Elsbeth tells us that the day the Nazis came for Ellen and her family, she too was threatened with arrest. Elsbeth’s father kept Ellen’s family’s keepsakes safe during the war.
Ellen lost her parents and grandmother in the Holocaust, but her older sister survived by going underground. Ellen met artist Jan Burka, whose drawings appear in the film, at Theresienstadt. After the war, the couple married and immigrated to Canada. When they settled in Toronto, Ellen saw pervasive anti-Semitism and “restricted” private clubs, and decided to keep her past a secret. After the couple divorced, she worked hard as a coach and raised her girls alone.
“My sister Petra and I always felt there were family secrets,” Astra says. “When my mother told me [her story] at 16 years, I was old enough to understand what had happened. It was strange to be raised in Canada with no mention of relatives or any family history. My mother said my grandparents died in a car accident. When you’re young, you accept and don’t question.”
The documentary is a multi-faceted gem of esthetics, character, and politics. Now an octogenarian, Ellen is still coaching young skaters – in addition to Petra, Toller Cranston is another famous pupil who uses the dance moves that she pioneered in the figure skating world.
She speaks honestly about the dangerous years under the Nazis that were followed by a tough emotional and financial adjustment to Toronto, yet these experiences neither limit nor define her.
“Most people are inspired by Ellen’s energy,” Astra says, “and realize that one can succeed in life if one is determined to do so. Her typical saying is, ‘If there’s a will there’s a way.’”
After Skate to Survive, Astra realized that she had another story to tell.
When she was in Israel in 2008 to present Skate to Survive at a Film Festival in Ashkelon, she was invited to Yad Vashem for a private screening.
“As I entered the display of Theresienstadt, I saw a huge blow-up of one of my father’s drawings… and started crying. It really upset me. After leaving the memorial, I went to the art gallery exhibit of paintings done by artists during the Holocaust. The first display I looked at was a display of artists’ tools used to make drawings during the war. I read the label – they belonged to my father.”
Moved by the experience, Astra made another film, Painting Daddy, which, focuses on the paintings Jan Burka created at Theresienstadt and how this experience influenced his life as an artist. The Burka family history now seems complete.
Astra Burka`s short film, Painting Daddy, is scheduled air on TV this spring. Skate to Survive is available for sale at www.ruthfilms.com.