Film Review: Big Sonia

An original, nuanced portrait of a Holocaust survivor who runs a tailor shop in an otherwise abandoned Kansas City mall and serves as a motivational speaker in schools and prisons.
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To judge by the response to 91-year-old Sonia Warshawski’s account of her Holocaust experiences, she has hit a profound chord among those who knew nothing (or virtually nothing) about the period. In one instance she’s speaking to Kansas City high-school students; in another it is prison inmates at Lansing’s Correctional Facility who are part of a program that’s attempting to address bullying and high recidivism rates among convicts.

Sonia is a motivational speaker and her purpose is not to rehash the past—though her talk serves as a necessary history lesson—but rather to show how it’s possible to go on and thrive in the aftermath of the most unspeakable horrors. Two images continue to torment her. In one she is 13, living in Miedzyrzec, Poland and watching from an attic window as her neighbors are rounded up for deportation to the camps. Later, her own family would be uncovered, her father and brother taken away and never heard from again. But even more memorable is the indelible picture of her mother being tapped for death at Bergen-Belsen, where those who were told to go to the right were saved (at least temporarily), while those who were ordered to the left were marched off to the gas chamber. Sonia was 17 at the time. To this day she goes to bed clutching her mother’s tattered scarf.

Big Soniais an intimate and somewhat off-the-beaten-path portrait of a feisty, good-humored yet deeply haunted, petite woman who loves animal prints and sports a big hairdo. Most of the time she’s running her late husband’s tailor shop in a moribund Kansas City mall where she is the last tenant standing. Indeed, during the course of the documentary she receives an eviction notice. The prospect of closing down her beloved store is not easy. Nostalgia plays its role. Her husband John (also a Holocaust survivor) launched the business 35 years ago. She has established wonderful relationships with her customers who adore her and, most central, coming to work has given her something to do six days a week and thus kept at bay the torturous recollections that she suspects will overwhelm her when she turns off the shop’s lights for the last time.

Directed by her granddaughter Leah Warshawski and Todd Soliday, the film also speaks to the intergenerational impact of the Holocaust. It includes personal one-on-one interviews with Sonia’s American-born adult children, Regina, Debbie and Morrie (Leah’s father), all of whom admit it was not easy growing up in the Warshawski home. The atmosphere was oppressive and sad. Sonia was especially critical of her only son prompting him to move to another state after college. He’s still angry and wounded. When he reads a poem he wrote that he hasn’t look at in years—it is part of a collection written by the children of Holocaust survivors—he cannot get through it and breaks down in tears.

Nothing is leaned on or heavy-handed. For example, as Sonia arranges flowers, we see her tattooed numbers. They’re only partially visible beneath her sleeve and viewed in passing. The shock is that much greater in their almost matter-of-fact presentation.

I do, however, have one quibble: the use of animated snippets to dramatize Holocaust scenes. It’s understandable that the filmmakers wanted to avoid overly familiar archival footage. Audiences are saturated with it. Still, the animations are jarring and add nothing.

But for the most part, the work is subtle, mercifully devoid of pat, easy answers. Asked if she can forgive what happened to her, Sonia says that’s not her job. It’s up to a higher authority. That resonates on many levels. It’s brilliant.

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