This column originally ran on The Star’s Opinion page in April, when “Big Sonia” screened at the Kansas City Film Festival. It opens Friday at the Glenwood Arts for a theatrical run. Friday’s shows are sold out.
You know that saying, “I lived to tell the tale”?
Holocaust survivor Sonia Warshawski, who was dragged out of her hiding place under some floorboards in her attic in the Midzyrzec ghetto at age 13, forced to shovel the remains of her people for use as fertilizer at Bergen-Belsen and shot in the chest even as the camp was liberated, has in recent years come to believe that is exactly why she lived.
It’s why at 91 she still works six days a week in the Overland Park shop where she’s as much a life coach as a tailor, and still speaks everywhere she’s invited, often hearing about deep wounds after talking about hers.
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After the local premiere of the documentary “Big Sonia” — she’s 4 feet, 8 inches tall — at the Kansas City Film Festival, a man in the audience stood up and said he remembered seeing newsreels from the time Sonia was being shipped off from her home in Poland in a cattle car. “The problem is,” the man said, genocide is “still going on today.”
And it is, but so is Sonia. Who it is impossible to see, in all of her ferocious, broken, big-haired, leopard-print-loving, truth-speaking determination without thinking, “Take that, Hitler, and all your tiny little progeny.”
The movie, from her granddaughter Leah Warshawki and son-in-law Todd Soliday, speaks to us here and now because the world hasn’t changed, but we still can.
Everywhere she goes, people ask her about forgiveness: How, Sonia? How do we do that? When you’ve watched your mother standing in line outside the gas chamber, she tells them, that’s no longer your problem but is up to God. What she focuses on instead is loving the people who are in front of her so that hate can’t get hold of her. Could there be a more urgent message?
In “Big Sonia,” a man serving a life sentence in the Lansing Correctional Facility tells her that when he sees that number the Nazis tattooed on her arm, he thinks maybe having a number sewn on your prison jumpsuit is not so insurmountable. He and other convicts hug her, and more than one cries.
During a visit to a local school, she consoles another young man who is in tears because he never met his father: “You’re going to be a strong fellow; you’ll see.”
“The main thing,” she advises students, “is not to close your eyes” to wrongs. Even if speaking out is not enough, she says in a quieter moment.
The documentary, six years in the making, in no way obscures the darkness that followed Sonia to this country and to Kansas City in 1948. Of course it seeped into the home she made with her late husband, John, who had also survived Bergen-Belsen, and their three children, all of whom appear on camera and talk about how their father loved to joke but also screamed in his sleep and how their mother was often hard on them.
I can’t deny that I’m damaged, Sonia says in the film, or that I have to stay busy to keep from thinking too much. For comfort, she sleeps with what’s left of an orange scarf that was her mother’s inside her pillowcase. In 2014, when she lost the lease on her shop at Metcalf South, she did think about retiring, but then, no, started over in a new store on 95th Street.
It was only after hearing the Holocaust denied that she began telling her story publicly. And after Sonia left the auditorium to meet those already waiting to have a picture taken with her, daughter Debbie Warshawski suggested bearing witness had made it possible for her to enjoy this chapter the most: “Here she is 91, and it might be the best years of her life.”