Often, the most significant things — the treasures that surround us — come into focus only when pointed out by others or by a camera!
Case in point: Meet “Grandma” Sonia.
Sonia Warshawski, 86 years young, may just be one of Kansas City’s most popular Jewish personalities. She’s often recognized on the street by clients of her tailoring shop (Marilyn Maye is a loyal fan) which is tucked into a basement corner at Metcalf South Shopping Center. Her culinary prowess for creating annual holiday specialties is lauded by friends and family. Her indefatigable energy for shopping — and schmoozing — is legendary.
Lately, however, Sonia has added a more personal, powerful and public feather to her cap. She and daughter Regina Kort have been visiting local middle/high schools, churches and other organizations to share the heartfelt, horrific stories of Sonia’s teenage years spent in the Majdanek and Auschwitz concentration camps. For future generations, Sonia has said, it’s a way of giving back and never forgetting.
Enter: Granddaughter Leah.
Based in Seattle, 33-year-old Leah Warshawski, with partner and fiancé Todd Soliday, are freelance producers/directors whose clients include Microsoft, Amazon, Starbucks, National Geographic and television shows such as “Lost.” (The team is currently working on a documentary about the “Hillywood” Film Festival in Rwanda.)
Growing up (mostly) in St. Louis, Leah saw her extended family frequently, but it was a pilgrimage to Sonia’s 85th birthday celebration in Kansas City that inspired her to begin filming the story of the woman she calls “her hero.”
“Everyone in our family (including Sonia) has always felt that she needs her own show. Funders and audiences are looking for ‘character-driven’ documentaries, and Sonia is one of the most interesting characters I know. I have always wanted to do this but now we have a limited window while Sonia is still healthy and strong enough to go into work every day,” Leah said.
“I’ve not been impressed with recent documentaries about the Holocaust and survivors. I feel it’s time to make a different film that younger generations can relate to. What is out there now — at least for educators — is very clinical. Why not make something that makes you laugh and want to be a better person after you’ve watched it?” she continued.
Ironically, Leah’s maternal/paternal grandparents did not willingly elaborate on their Holocaust experiences until the late 1970s when the floodgates — and memories — were unlocked through audio recordings of seven family member survivors (parents, in-laws, aunts and uncles). The interviews, shepherded over three years by Sonia’s son, Morrie, serve as stark and chilling testaments to the power of the human spirit.
“As a parent, I wasn’t sure at the time if any of the family history was truly ‘sinking in’ with our two young daughters. Now, with a film in tow, I realize I should have known better!” Morrie said.
“I think my Mom thinks we were not paying attention, but we were,” said Leah. “When I was 12, I transcribed some of the oral histories — that was my first time listening to the stories of Sonia and John (Warshawski). The strange thing is I feel like people in our family really didn’t want to talk about it. I’m sure it was too painful, so we got little glimpses of it but never any of the full stories. Or maybe I just never asked. Maybe I was too scared to know the full story.”
“It’s different hearing the stories as an adult. You look at this tiny woman and listen to what she went through — and the details — and it’s hard. It always makes me think about Dad and how it must have been difficult to grow up with parents who survived. I hope that we can do justice to Sonia by making a film about her. We also want to make sure that her stories are not forgotten, and film seems to be the best way to do that for now,” Leah said.
Filming, editing and most important, securing the necessary funds, is slated to take approximately two years to complete. Footage from two of five scheduled trips to Kansas City, including one just last week, is in the can. The documentary is estimated to cost $500,000 and is targeted to high-end media markets such as HBO and PBS.
“Our film is a personal, tragic and timely documentary profiling a unique character from a dying generation,” said Leah.
“Standing tall at 4 feet 8 inches, Sonia is the only local survivor who is still speaking to groups on a regular basis. Her enormous personality and fragile frame masks the horrors she once endured. At age 15, she watched her mother disappear behind gas chamber doors. Her teenage years were a blur of concentration camps and death marches. On liberation day, she was shot through the chest but miraculously survived. Her story has become her purpose.”
“Grandma Sonia is the ultimate survivor, a bridge between cultures and generations. Our film interweaves her past and present life using first-person narrative and stories from her family and friends — full of humor, love and what we affectionately call ‘Sonia-isms.’ Along the way, we learn valuable life lessons from a woman you can barely see over the steering wheel, yet insists on driving herself to work,” Leah said.
“Her story must never be forgotten.”
For more information about the film, email Leah at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Evy Simon Warshawski is a performing arts consultant and arts writer based in Napa, Calif. She met her husband, Morrie, in Kansas City when they both were members of AZA and BBG. They will soon celebrate their 43rd wedding anniversary.
Read the original article as posted in the Kansas City Jewish Chronicle.