That’s why her granddaughter, film producer/director Leah Warshawski, has begun shooting a documentary called Big Sonia to share the tenacious octogenarian’s incredible life story with the next generation.
Born in Poland in 1925, Sonia (whose testimony is in the Visual History Archive) was sent to multiple concentration camps including Auschwitz-Birkenau, and her mother died in Majdanek. On liberation day, she was shot through the chest, but survived and immigrated to the United States with her new husband, John, who she met at a displaced persons camp.
Today, Sonia runs her late husband’s tailoring shop in Kansas City, John’s Tailoring, and insists on driving herself to work every day. She is one of the last Holocaust survivors in Kansas City and still speaks to schools about her experiences.
Her shop is the last store open in a run-down mall and it’s uncertain if Sonia will be able to keep it open. Warshawski said Sonia’s work day mostly means “holding court,” and giving advice to friends and customers.
“Her shop is a beacon of hope and this great place where you go in and it’s got the Ten Commandments on the counter and she charges differently every time you go in there and she only accepts cash and personal checks,” Warshawski said.
Warshawski, who is co-directing the film with her husband, Todd Soliday, said they wanted to make a documentary about Sonia so that her story may continue to be told long after she and the last survivors are gone. Rather than focus on her past, the film will illustrate the impact she has on people today – a “modern-day survival story,” she said. Warshawski and Soliday want to make it lighter and relatable to teenagers because Sonia is “hilarious.”
“She’s a unique character in a dying generation,” she said. “We’re trying to show the impact she has in the modern world and how people can learn from her experiences. How do we keep the stories going and inspire people so [the Holocaust] doesn’t happen again when nobody’s around to talk about it?”
Warshawski is currently fundraising in order to start filming Big Sonia in earnest. The filmmakers need to take advantage of all the time they have left with Sonia.
Their goal is to show the film in schools so that kids can learn about the impact of bullying and discrimination and be inspired by Sonia’s endearing personality.
“She has a way with people. People trust her with their stories and after she tells her story, she’s the most popular person. She just has this aura about her and we’ve seen it transform teenagers,” Warshawski said. After her speaking engagements at school, students are asked to relate her experiences to their own lives and families and “they’ve just been brought to tears,” she said.
With Big Sonia, the filmmakers hope to open up new conversations about how Sonia’s experiences in the past are relatable for the modern day. They plan to use humor as an entry-way into some difficult conversations.
“How often do you get to talk about the Holocaust and other horrific things and actually laugh about it?” Warshawski said. “We want to use humor to open up a conversation.”
To find out more about Big Sonia and make a donation, please visit http://bigsonia.com.
(Photo: Sonia, middle, with co-directors Todd Soliday and Leah Warshawski)
Check out the original post on the USC Shoah Foundatin Institute’s website.