Ellen Burka

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Ellen Burka
Ellen Burka portrait.jpg
Ellen Burka-Danby, photographed c. 1990
Personal information
Alternative names Ellen Danby
Country represented Netherlands
Born (1921-08-11)August 11, 1921
Amsterdam, Netherlands
Died September 12, 2016(2016-09-12) (aged 95)
Toronto, Ontario, Canada

Ellen Burka CM (née Danby; August 11, 1921 – September 12, 2016) was a Canadian-Dutch figure skater and coach. She became Member of the Order of Canada in 1978 and was inducted into Canada's Sports Hall of Fame in 1996.

Personal life[edit]

Ellen Danby was born in Amsterdam, Netherlands, to Jewish parents who met in England.[1] She learned German and English at home and Dutch and French in school.[1] In the spring of 1943, she and her family were sent to Westerbork transit camp.[1] Ellen had herself registered at Westerbork as the 'Dutch National Figure Skating Champion', at that time such a championship did not exist, the first official one to be held in 1951. Westerbork's commander, Albert Konrad Gemmeker, was very interested in figure skating and ordered for Ellen's skates and apparel to be sent to the camp. There she was allowed to practice on the frozen pond. Ellen also gave culinary advice at Gemmeker's home and it was the commander's female companion who made sure Ellen was not sent to Sobibor but to Theresienstadt instead. Her parents and grandmother were sent to Sobibor extermination camp[2] only to be killed there.

Danby met Czech-born artist, Jan Burka, at Theresienstadt concentration camp. After liberation of the camp by the Soviet Union Army the two walked from Theresienstadt (near Prague) to Ellen's hometown Amsterdam (about 900 kilometres/560 miles) in just 2 weeks time to get married on non-communist soil.[3][1] The family moved to Toronto, Ontario, Canada in 1950.[2] Ellen and Jan Burka divorced in the mid-1950s.[1] She raised her two daughters, Petra and Astra, in the Anglican Church and told them of her background when they were in their late teens.[3][4] She died in Toronto on September 12, 2016.[5][6]


Burka was Dutch National Champion in 1946 and 1947 before becoming a coach in Toronto. Finding Canadian figure skating to be rigid and technical, she decided to blend it with ballet and modern dance, and introduced more imaginative choreography.[1]

She coached her daughter Petra Burka[7] to a bronze medal for Canada at the 1964 Olympics and to the gold at the 1965 World Championships. In 1968, she became the coach of Toller Cranston, who won six Canadian national titles and the 1976 Olympic bronze medal.[1] She also coached Dorothy Hamill, Elvis Stojko, Sandra Bezic / Val Bezic, Patrick Chan, Tracey Wainman,[8] Christopher Bowman and many other world and Olympic competitors.[9]

In 1978, Burka was made Member of the Order of Canada "For elevating skating to an art form and for imaginative choreography on the ice"[10] In 1996, she was inducted into Canada's Sports Hall of Fame.[11] She was also inducted into the Canadian Figure Skating Hall of Fame, the Etobicoke Sports Hall of Fame and the International Jewish Sports Hall of Fame (October 2013).[12]

A documentary about Ellen Burka, Skate to Survive, was directed by her daughter Astra and premiered at the Toronto Jewish Film Festival in May 2008.[3] Virtually unknown in her native Netherlands, her life story was captured in Andere Tijden Sport, a sports history program on Dutch national public TV, in January 2015. For this documentary, she returned to Amsterdam to visit her former family home and the Westerbork transit camp.[13]

Burka taught at the Toronto Cricket, Skating and Curling Club and at The Granite Club in Toronto, Ontario.[citation needed]


  1. ^ a b c d e f g Fitz-Gerald, Sean (October 15, 2013). "'A legend': Meet the Canadian figure skating coach who survived the Holocaust, revolutionized her sport and still works at 92". National Post. 
  2. ^ a b "ELECTED MEMBERS: ELLEN BURKA". International Jewish Sports Hall of Fame. Archived from the original on May 12, 2013. 
  3. ^ a b c "Famed coach skated under the radar of anti-Semitism". Jewish Tribune. November 25, 2008. Archived from the original on 2013-10-15. 
  4. ^ Lungen, Paul (October 21, 2013). "Skating legend hid her Jewish past". The Canadian Jewish News. 
  5. ^ "Skating Community Mourning the Loss of Hall of Fame Coach Ellen Burka". Skate Canada. September 13, 2016. 
  6. ^ "Kunstrijdster Ellen Burka-Danby (95) overleden" [Figure skater Ellen Burka-Danby (95) has died]. Nederlandse Omroep Stichting (in Dutch). September 13, 2016. 
  7. ^ "WHERE ARE THEY NOW: PETRA BURKA". The Globe and Mail. TSN.ca. May 18, 2009. 
  8. ^ Graham, Hugh (April 2006). "Ice Storm". Toronto Life. Archived from the original on February 5, 2012. 
  9. ^ Hersh, Phil (October 21, 1990). "Bowman changes style, not essence". Chicago Tribune. Baltimore Sun. 
  10. ^ Order of Canada citation
  11. ^ "Ellen Burka". Canada's Sports Hall of Fame. 
  12. ^ "Ellen Burka dies at age 95: Hall of Fame figure skating coach survived the Holocaust, revolutionized her sport and kept working in her 90s". Retrieved 2016-09-13. 
  13. ^ "Ellen Burka, overleven op kunstschaatsen" [Ellen Burka and skating] (in Dutch). Nederlandse Omroep Stichting. 11 January 2015.