The few remaining survivors of the Holocaust are those who grew up in concentration camps. One of them is Kansas City’s Sonia Warshawski, the subject of a new documentary called “Big Sonia,” co-directed by her grand-daughter Leah Warshawski and Todd Soliday. Making it a family project helped in getting Sonia and her children, including the co-director’s father, comfortable in talking about what it was like to have Holocaust survivor parents. Their father, Sonia’s late husband John, could make concentration camp stories funny by telling an anecdote about sneaking a potato, but he also had night terrors that shook up his children and kept them from inviting friends to sleep over. The toughness that made them survivors meant that they could be more demanding than encouraging. Sonia says that not having her own mother to set an example and give advice left her feeling isolated and bereft. But another generation later, Sonia’s granddaughter has some perspective and this is a perceptive story with some unexpected twists.
One thing she is not is big, at least physically. Sonia is barely four feet eight inches tall. But she has a big life and a very big personality. She still drives herself to work every day, the steering wheel covered in animal-print fabric (she loves animal print, explaining that it never goes out of style). Her work is at her late husband’s tailor shop, where she does alterations and sells vintage and restored clothes and jewelry. In a fictional film, the metaphor would be considered too obvious, but it is reality that her little store is the last business in a huge, echoing, empty shopping mall. And that she gets evicted.
What sets this film apart is seeing how Sonia responds to being a displaced person once again. This time, she has options. She could retire. Her family would be happy. But the little tailor shop is who she is, her connection with her late husband and with the customers who have become a part of her extended family. In one of the film’s most touching scenes, one of them brings her fifth-grade daughter into the shop, dressed like a Polish peasant, to show her award-winning essay about Sonia and the trophy she won for writing it. She wrote:
A hero to me is someone who treats others fairly, and does things selflessly to make a difference in the world like Sonia. My hero spent her teenage years enduring horrible treatment, and persecution that could have made her angry with the world but instead it made her message of love stronger.
The film’s most surprising twist has Sonia visiting the local prison to talk to inmates. What brought them together was the unexpected of connections. A woman who worked on a program that has sharply reduced recidivism heard on a television news story about Sonia’s eviction that the Holocaust survivor begins each day as the inmates begin each meeting, reading the Optimist’s Creed, including:
To be just as enthusiastic about the success of others as you are about your own. To forget the mistakes of the past and press on to the greater achievements of the future. To wear a cheerful countenance at all times and give every living creature you meet a smile. To give so much time to the improvement of yourself that you have no time to criticize others.
The comments by the prisoners about how Sonia has inspired them are deeply moving. “It takes people who’ve been through something to reach people who are going through something,” one of them says. We in the audience feel that, too.