It feels like a seismic shift, the death of Ellen Burka on Sept. 12.
Yes, she was 95 years old, so she left us eons of spirit, of blunt observations, of tough love, of excellence, of great parties.
But it’s a wonder that Miss Ellen lived to 95, especially when she faced death in concentration camps during World War II when she was so young. We could have lost her more than 60 years ago, and we would never have known her interpretative, artistic vision. We would never have seen Petra Burka, and Toller Cranston or Strawberry Ice. You shudder when you see how close she was to not living much past 25. So, we’ve had 70 years of this treat of nature.
For my obituary on her, written for my old alma mater, The Globe and Mail, and posted Sept. 24, click here:
I loved what Sandra Bezic once told me: that training with Mrs. Burka (as everyone called her) was “not for the faint of heart.” But as soon as people discovered a secret that she kept for years – that she was a Holocaust survivor and Jewish – they understood. To see the documentary, “Skate to Survive,” directed by Burka’s daughter, Astra, click on this link:
The documentary helped Burka come to terms with her past, but she was, in the beginning, a reluctant participant of the film. And even after it was finally released, she told me: “Sure, I was a Holocaust survivor, but who cares? Many others are, too.”
Still, the stories are compelling. Burka’s husband, Jan, who died in the south of France in 2009 at age 85 – he had a long life too, after surviving the same camp that his future wife did – testified for two hours about his experience in the Theresienstadt camp in his native Czechoslovakia. I stumbled on it only last week. And here it is:
Ellen Burka had to become frighteningly pragmatic. She watched her parents board a cattle car enroute to a death camp in 1943, her mother so upset that she disappeared into the darkness of the car, her father looking out, just staring, staring. Then she returned to her work in the field, in a peat bog. “You lived with it,” she said. “It was either your turn or not. It wasn’t my turn.” In those desperate times, you can’t destroy yourself with thoughts. But in the telling of it years later, you could almost see the inward take of her breath and how heavily it still rested upon her brow when the memories came back.
She told her young daughters, Petra and Astra, that her own parents had died in a car crash rather than reveal the horrifying truth.
Out of all these horrible ashes, rose Burka’s undeniable spirit. In Toronto, and working as a figure skating coach, she worked very long days, driving from rink to rink, even to Dundas, Ont., to coach a young Donald Knight (eventually the 1965 world bronze medalist) and then as daughter Petra showed promise, getting her into the Cricket Club (pencilling her in as an Anglican) by driving back and forth twice a day, to pick her up and take her back and forth to school. On trips abroad, Burka had to deal in cash. Women weren’t allowed credit cards in those days. One day, when she was a bit short, she and Petra dined on beans.
She is known for many things. The 1976 Olympic champion Dorothy Hamill used to show up at the Cricket Club to work under Burka. In her book, “On and Off The Ice,” Hamill wrote that “I was immediately drawn to this large, warm-hearted woman dressed in a gigantic red topcoat and woolen mittens. She had curly blonde hair and peered through her spectacles at us with an air of mild surprise.” Burka insisted that even Hamill start with stroking classes. Hamill flunked her first stroking test with Burka. Generally, Burka said, stroking is not taught correctly.
And when it came time for the 1976 Olympics, it was Burka that reset Hamill’s long program, found new music for a slow part and choreographed her short program, too. To this day, Hamill is known for her exquisite glide. And she was a performer, no doubt aided by Burka’s Wednesday night “Theatre on Ice” classes. Burka started them in 1973, staging two classes a week (one a seminar, one a workshop) for eight weeks.
Another benefactor of those Theatre on Ice classes was Tracey Wainman, who competed at the 1980 world championships in Dortmund when she was only 12, and who won her first Canadian senior title at age 13. Wainman was a tiny, charismatic sprite, a star from the start. She was only 10 when she participated in those classes. In other words, she learned that choreography wasn’t just about steps. It was all about what was inside a person and how the inside came outside.
“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 out the best in me.”
Wainman has come full circle. She’s now a coach, and would for years always turn to Burka if she had a question. When Burka came to the York Region Skating Academy to look at some of Wainman’s students one time, Wainman felt it really special. Wainman considers herself a tough coach, too, passing on the Burka mystique.
If Burka had a claim to fame, it was in bringing Theatre on Ice to fruition via the flexible body and mind of Toller Cranston. She first met him when he was 13, she comforted him later when he bombed at the Canadian figure skating championships, and then he begged her to coach him. Burka wasted no time in telling him she didn’t like his music, that he needed to get fit and lose weight. (After his first run through at the club, he had steam coming off his hair, Burka said. She’d never seen that before.) And that he didn’t dress properly on the ice. “He was wearing a brown jumpsuit with a zipper from here to here and a belt, and everything was hanging out,” Burka said. “It was disgusting. He wasn’t a taste maven back then.”
Cranston took off his boots and left. “Okay, that was a short lesson,” Burka thought.
But two days later, he returned and said: “Mrs. Burka, I will do anything you tell me.”
Cranston was later to describe Burka as a woman with boundless energy, who got bored easily.
“In some strange way, we needed each other,” Cranston said once. They were “as inseparable as Tweededum and Tweedledee,” he said in one of his books. “Together we were a formidable pair which intimated and terrified most people. At least that’s what I hoped,” he wrote.
Burka remembers him as “a nice boy” while he skated with her. “He was totally dedicated to skating and painting,” she said after Cranston died at age 65 two years ago. “He had hardly any friends. He skated and he went to his studio and put on the music and painted.”
They had something in common: both were artists. Their conversations didn’t always revolve around skating. They could talk about music and art. They went to art galleries and museums together when they went to other countries. But when Cranston retired from skating and began to earn money in shows, he became more difficult, Burka said. He started to bleach his hair. “The first time I saw him, I burst out laughing,” said Burka, never one to shy away from honesty. “I said: ‘What the hell did you do with your hair?’ And he understood.” Cranston was loyal to her.
When he went broke, Burka helped him out. But he changed.
In the 10 years before Cranston died, they hardly spoke to each other. From time to time, Cranston alienated people close to him. Burka was just one of them. When he was in San Miguel, “he could behave sometimes very badly,” she said. “I don’t know what happened. I don’t know what made him alienate himself from all these people.”
The silence between them was a mystery to Burka and she felt badly about the ways he had adopted. “But he always talked about me with glowing words, and he totally believed in me,” she said. “He never said one bad word about me. He was very thankful about the whole thing that I had done for him.”
On his first full morning with Burka at the Cricket Club, Cranston showed up at 7 a.m. for compulsory figure practice. He arrived with a huge portfolio of his work. She had no idea that he was an artist. He had no idea that she was, too. She was amazed at his work. And when Cranston told her that he had been thrown out by two landlords who didn’t want to smell turpentine anymore and had no place to go, Burka offered up a downstairs studio in her home for a week. He stayed seven years.
Only two years ago, Dutch television heard about Burka’s story, and invited her to come back to The Netherlands to do a documentary of her dramatic life. Millions watched it when it was released in January of 2015. While in The Netherlands, Burka stayed in a hotel that overlooked her old family home in Amsterdam.
Although she was such an icon in the skating world, Burka’s final word was always: “It’s just skating.”
“It’s not the oncology ward at Sick Kids,” said Karen Preston, who became an Olympian under Burka. “Yes, you want to be the best skater you can be, but at the end of the day, the skating fades, the triple flip goes away. It’s your life lessons that you are left with.
“That’s my Ellen,” she said.