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Ellen Burka


Theatre on Ice: How Ellen Burka revolutionized Canadian Skating

In 1940, as a young eighteen-year-old Jewish woman, Ellen Burka was a first-hand witness of the German invasion and take-over of the Netherlands. The Nazi rule that she lived under was horrendous, and she was eventually moved to Westerbrook transit camp where she and other Jews lived and waited before being sent to concentration camps. In the most harrowing of experiences, Ellen waved to her parents from afar as their cattle car disappeared into the distance. They were headed to Sobibor extermination camp in occupied Poland, and it was the last time she would see her parents. It was a truly great feat to survive the atrocities of the Holocaust.

After the War had ended, Ellen moved to Canada and started her life anew. She was a competitive skater in Holland and put those skills to good use as coach in Toronto, to support to her two young girls. Berka coached Petra, one of her daughters, to international skating success, including a bronze medal at the 1964 Olympic Winter Games.

Far from just an excellent coach, Burka single-handedly shaped her adopted country by re-imagining Canadian skating that was, at the time, rigid and restrained in its movement. Instead, she infused the sport with an expressive and emotional dimension that elevated skating to a true art form. She coached the well-known skating star Toller Cranston to multiple Canadian skating titles, as well as a bronze Olympic medal through more impassioned performances. For instance, Burka instructed Cranston to use his hands above his head, which was not something men had been doing up to that time.

Ellen instructed her skaters to "listen to the music, think what you feel, and try and interpret it on the ice." A true visionary, Ellen Burka shaped Canadian culture by creating theatre on ice.

photograph of Ellen Burka in figure skating position
Ellen Burka was born in Amsterdam, Holland and learned to skate using Dutch wooden skates on an outdoor pond. She was one of the best figure skaters in Holland when World War Two started, which as she said "ended everything". She was placed in a concentration camp where she performed for Nazi officials. She immigrated with her family to Canada in 1950. Canada was a big culture shock to her, finding it 'stark and alien'. She did not even know that Toronto had skating clubs. Her courage and adaptability on meeting the challenges of her new life led her to a remarkable career.
Collection: Skate Canada

head and shoulders  photograph of Ellen Burka
Ellen Burka had done some coaching in Holland and her first formal skating job in Canada was teaching young skaters technique and choreography. She had dance training in Holland so it easy to teach choreography and how to listen to the music. Through her leadership she brought success to Canadian figure skaters, producing 26 medallists at the World and Olympic levels, including her daughter Petra.
Collection: Skate Canada

photograph of Ellen Burka at home
Ellen Burka, along with her student Toller Cranston, is widely regarded as having changed the face of men's figure skating. Artistic interpretation was a new direction started by her. She used Toller as a tool and he accepted it. He was not afraid to move his body or make outrageous moves on the ice. Her creativity and vision helped to bring a new perspective to figure skating.
Collection: Canada's Sports Hall of Fame

Photograph of Ellen Burka with daughter Petra
Ellen Burka coached at the Lakeshore Skating Club in Toronto, a blue-collar club, where she found the skaters to be hard workers. One of her favourite protégés was her daughter Petra, who she coached to a World Championship and an Olympic bronze medal. Her philosophy as a coach was to be the best she could be in order to produce the best and that as a coach you continue to learn and be open to new ideas.
Collection: Skate Canada

photograph of Petra Burka in skating position
Petra Burka was born in Amsterdam, Holland and came to Canada at the age of four. As a child she accompanied her mother Ellen to the skating rink where she was a coach. Petra started skating on her own and taught herself to do a double Axel jump by watching other skaters. While jumping was natural to her she worked harder than others to achieve the same success with her school figures. Setting a goal of achieving success in this area made her a stronger all-round skater.
Collection: Canada's Sports Hall of Fame

bronze Olympic medal on red and white ribbon)
Petra Burka won this bronze medal in ladies' figure skating at the 1964 Olympic Winter Games in Innsbruck. She had gone to the Games as the Canadian Champion and, after seeing her competitors skate, was confident of winning a medal. She was a strong competitor, always wanting to be better. She considered it to be an honour to compete for her country and that she won the medal for Canadians.
Collection: Canada's Sports Hall of Fame

gold World Championship medal on multicolour ribbon
This is Petra Burka's gold medal from the 1965 World Championships. She is credited with being the first woman to land a triple jump in competition. She achieved this at the 1962 Canadian Championships and again at the 1965 World Championships when she did a triple Salchow jump. At this time women did not do triple jumps as it wasn't considered ladylike. Her resourcefulness and courage in attempting something that had not been done before led the way for other female skaters to achieve more in their careers.
Collection: Canada's Sports Hall of Fame

gold sash with World Figuring Skating Lady Champion)
Petra remembers winning a bronze medal at the 1964 World Championships as being one of her best skates. The next year she was the World Champion winning both the figures and the free skate. This is her World Champion sash which she wore with pride. Her perseverance throughout the years and her ability take each defeat as part of a learning curve helped to create a champion.
Collection: Canada's Sports Hall of Fame

photograph of Maria and Otto Jelinek at practice session
Maria and Otto Jelinek were born in Prague, Czechoslovakia during World War Two but fled with their family to Canada after the communist takeover of their country in 1948. They had learned to skate in their home country and soon after arriving in Canada they joined a skating club. They never planned to have a competitive career but found that as they reached the elite levels they wanted to do better and better. Their passion and competitive edge made them World Champions.
Collection: Skate Canada

photograph of Otto Jelinek lifting his sister Maria while skating
Otto and Maria Jelinek always skated together as youngsters as they were close in age. They literally leaned on one other and supported each other. Each had to learn to become strong individual skaters because of the individual jumps but they also learned how to skate as a team. They were innovators and were the first team to perform lifts with several rotations. Their objective was to enjoy skating and learn disciple: "Once you learn that discipline in sports, you can carry that over into the rest of your life".
Collection: Skate Canada

photograph of Maria and Otto Jelinek skating on outdoor rink
The Jelineks were faced with a difficult decision in 1961 as the World Championships were scheduled for Prague. Although they held Canadian citizenship there was a strong possibility that they would be held by the Communist government. The International Skating Union (ISU) had to intervene on their behalf to get a guarantee for their safe return. Sadly the Championships had to be cancelled when the entire American team was killed in a plane crash. The next year Maria and Otto went to Prague, where they showed their courage and excellence as they performed under intense public scrutiny. When they won the World Championship they felt they had done it as proud Canadians.
Collection: Canada's Sports Hall of Fame

photograph of Maria and Otto Jelinek skating in ethnic costumes
The Jelineks had a profound impact when they skated in their home country. They had escaped from Communism and were the first Czechs to come back since the Iron Curtain went up. Otto remembers: "It was far more than a sport and a World Championship; it was a breath of freedom coming back. We were skating for Canada and the whole country knew that. But for the Czechoslovakian people we were skating for them. They saw freedom in Maria and me".
Collection: Canada's Sports Hall of Fame

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