Once again, Sonia Warshawski will be one of the last.
One might think the impending closing of the cavernous Metcalf South Shopping Center, home to her tailor shop, would be nothing more than a petty inconvenience to a woman who endured one of the great tragedies of modern history.
“Bless your heart, it’s true. I talk to myself like this,” said Warshawski, 88.
Shrunk with age to 4 feet 10 inches, she wears a thin line of crimson lipstick, never leaves home without her brown hair done up in a bouffant of curls and still speaks in the lilting Polish accent of her youth. “I say to myself, ‘Hey, Sonia, they came in, the Germans and one day, everything is gone.’
Without hesitation, the proprietor for 33 years of John’s Tailoring Alterations pulled up the left sleeve of her blouse to reveal the blue tattoo the Nazis inked there:
Here is a woman who at 15 survived the ghetto of Miedzyrzec before being ripped from her family and herded into a cattle car to stand atop heaps of bodies. Starved close to death inside the Majdanek concentration camp, she watched as her own mother marched off, arm in arm with other mothers, to the gas chambers.
“I shall never forget in my life, this was the last time I saw her,” Warshawski said, her voice catching.
She witnessed children hanged and prisoners torn to pieces by German shepherds. In the fields, Warshawski spread the ashes of the dead.
“As fertilizer,” she said.
Later, at Auschwitz-Birkenau, Warshawski found herself face to face with Josef Mengele, the Nazi doctor who experimented on children and prisoners, but survived his “selections” to the gas chambers and was sent on a winter death march to Bergen-Belsen. On a day in April 1945, as English troops swept in to liberate the camp, a German soldier shot Warshawski in the chest.
After 21/2 years in the camps, she survived that, too.
“I was only 18,” she said.
After all that, it would seem odd to consider the closing of a tiny tailoring shop a major upheaval.
Yet, for Warshawski, it is.
Each time she speaks of shutting down the store, once owned by her late husband, John, and her indecision about what to do next, she brings herself close to tears.
“So many years, this is all I know,” she said. “Let me tell you, you don’t know how many friends, how many friends I’ve made in this place.”
To be sure, the massive, 600,000-square-foot mall at 95th Street and Metcalf Avenue in Overland Park, a place Warshawski remembers bustling with shoppers, sits all but silent now, a casualty to changing tastes and fortunes.
Other than a smattering of mall walkers, its corridors are mostly vacant. Starting in early July, after Warshawski and the handful of remaining tenants leave, only Sears will remain open, in its own building. So will the Glenwood Arts Theater, at least for now, because it has its own entrance separate from the mall. What will become of the land and space remains unclear.
If Warshawski’s shop were only about commerce, maybe closing it forever would be easier. But it’s more.
“I’d say it’s
to my mother,” said Regina Kort, 65, the middle of Warshawski’s three children. “It definitely gives her a sense of purpose. And it’s the biggest thing she’s worried about. She has always had a reason to get up in the morning and get dressed.”
So it has been, every week, six days a week, for decades.
Warshawski tucks her small frame into her big Oldsmobile 98, barely seeing over the dashboard, and drives to the shop, where from 9 a.m. to past 5 she answers the phones, helps customers and chalks slacks and skirts and jackets. A couple of part-time seamstresses do the cutting and sewing.
Please tell me what you want, she says to a customer, in to alter slacks. You want to cuff or what? Plain? Plain, absolutely.
The place is as much a parlor as a shop, barely 10 paces from wall to wall and flush with racks of pants and vests, jackets and dresses.
A loveseat, pillows and a three-way mirror occupy one wall and corner. Art and photography students sometimes come in to capture images of scores of spools of colored threads set on pegs.
Then there are the flowers and plants: fading tulips from her garden, dried and silk bouquets, nine potted plants outside the entrance.
“To me,” Warshawski said, “people who are rushing in the morning, they don’t see the beauty God gives us free.”
High on the wall across from the entrance hangs a 3-foot poster of the Ten Commandments. Another of equal size, The Optimist Creed, hangs above the doorway. “Promise yourself,” it begins, “to be so strong that nothing can disturb your peace of mind.”
Most special, a framed black-and-white photograph of Warshawski’s husband hangs over the loveseat. A Holocaust survivor himself, John Warshawski died 27 years ago at age 70 after suffering from Alzheimer’s.
“He was happy-go-lucky,” Warshawski said, patting the picture.
John Warshawski is young in the photo, late 20s, with thin, sharp features, bright eyes, a sweeping grin and a fedora set at a rakish angle. Taken after the war in Germany, the photo captures the time not long after he and Sonia were newlyweds, having met and fallen in love at the Bergen-Belsen displaced persons camp, where Holocaust survivors were gathered after liberation.
“Even when things were sometimes not so good,” Warshawski said, “ John always said, ‘Everything is fine.’ That’s the way he was.”
Warshawski acknowledged she is far less that way.
“Very serious, very serious person,” said Kort, her daughter. “It was always interesting because my father was the total opposite, although they were both survivors.”
During her husband’s illness, and in the years since he has passed, it’s from the shop that Sonia Warshawski has drawn not only friends but also strength and a connection to the larger world.
“We always knew Sonia should be a reality show,” said Leah Warshawski, 35, one of Sonia’s five grandchildren. “She is a people person. She has such a big personality.”
A documentary filmmaker based in Seattle, Leah Warshawski and her husband, Todd Soliday, 44, were in Kansas City recently gathering footage for a documentary, “Big Sonia,” that they have been working on periodically since 2011. The story, they said, is one of modern-day survival — how a tiny woman, time and again, after facing her own death and then that of her husband, is nonetheless able to reinvent herself and find hope and meaning in life.
“It’s not just a tailoring shop where people come in for alterations,” Leah Warshawski said. “It’s a place where people come for life lessons.”
It’s also one of the places where Warshawski — emboldened to combat anti-Semitism and to refute those who deny the Holocaust was real — has made it her mission to tell her story.
A pile of bookmarks sits near the register. They bear Warshawski’s photo along with images of barbed wire, the number tattooed on her left forearm, and a poem about Auschwitz-Birkenau that she wrote in the hospital after the war. It begins:
In the dusk of night / What a terrible sight / Five chimneys are blasting
The opportunity to tell her story to even larger groups began after 1993, when Warshawski’s brother-in-law, Isak Federman, helped co-found the Midwest Center for Holocaust Education, located inside the Jewish Community Center in Overland Park, with his friend Jack Mandelbaum.
Federman met his future wife, Ann — John Warshawski’s sister — in the same displaced persons camp at Bergen-Belsen after the war. Between 1946 and 1948, they would all eventually make their way to Kansas City to build businesses, raise families and start anew.
Now, it seems, Sonia Warshawski must start anew again.
Around five times a month, sometimes more over the last 15 years, her daughter Kort drives her to churches, schools and other venues to tell the story of the camps on behalf of the Midwest Center. Today, she is one of about 65 known Holocaust survivors still living in the Kansas City area, said Jean Zeldin, the center’s executive director. The Midwest Center this year has been releasing their stories in text and video on its website,
Some family members have suggested to Warshawski that perhaps it’s time to give up the business, to just retire and devote her time to other matters, such as giving more presentations about the Holocaust.
In her graphic talk, she shares much: the deportations from the ghetto, the selections in front of Mengele, watching her mother march to her death. She also talks of how her brother, Gadale, and father escaped the ghetto just before deportation but were later found and shot. And she offers hope in the tale of her sister Mania, who also managed to flee into the woods and survived with the help of partisans. She now lives in Israel.
Part of Warshawski toys with the idea of opening a shop someplace else. She has explored a few spots.
“It is hard decision for me,” she said. “I still have in me the fire, love to be busy. And you know, I am doing it for so many, many years.”
Whatever the choice, Kort said, she knows it will be her mother’s own.
“It’s not really scary for me,” she said, “because I’m convinced she will reinvent herself. She is a tough person, no question. All the survivors have that in common.”