Sonia is an older woman, seated in a bright pink top on the sofa, next to her is a bright green pillow that says "whatever"
Sonia Warshawski in the documentary “Big Sonia”

Tiny woman with a huge personality will win you over in Jewish film fest doc

Sonia Warshawski never spoke about her life while her children were growing up.

Regina, Morrie, and Debbie never heard about the girl from Miedzyrzec, Poland, who was 13 years old when the war broke out. They never heard about a cut-out in the floor where Sonia and her family hid. They never heard about how the Nazis came with German shepherds and sniffed them all out. And they never heard about the last time Sonia saw her father or brother, or how she watched her mother march toward her death.

Now, thanks to Sonia’s granddaughter, thousands of people are hearing these stories in “Big Sonia,” a feature-length documentary playing at film festivals throughout the country, including the San Francisco Jewish Film Festival.

The film will screen Saturday, July 22 at the CineArts at Palo Alto Square, Sunday, July 23, at the Castro Theatre in San Francisco and July 30 at the Albany Twin in the East Bay.

One of the film’s two directors is Sonia’s granddaughter, Leah Warshawski, who is the daughter of Napa resident Morrie Warshawski. The title, Leah says, perfectly reflects her now 91-year-old grandmother’s personality.

“There are a lot of things that are ‘big’ about Sonia,” she notes, joking about the one exception — her 4-foot-8 height. “Her hair, her car, her personality and her impact on the world. Her story of what happened during the war, and how she is living her life now, is having an effect on her kids, her kids’ kids and thousands upon thousands of people. It has become exponential.”

Moreover, the 2016 film is off to a heady start, having won awards in the Barcelona International Film Festival (grand jury prize for best documentary), the Cleveland International Film Festival (audience choice award for best film) and the Napa Valley Film Festival (audience and jury awardsfor documentary). It also won best documentary in Jewish film festivals in Philadelphia and Seattle, and as of early this week, had an impressive 9.3 user rating on IMDb.

While it may seem so at first blush, “Big Sonia” is not a Holocaust film, the Seattle-based Leah Warshawski insists. Rather, it’s a story about family, perseverance and the relationship between survivors and their children. It is about intergenerational trauma, bullying and love conquering hate. It is about a fashionista who loves cheetah prints and who has devoted her life to a tailor shop in Kansas City she once shared with her husband, John, a fellow survivor who passed away 12 years ago.

“The film amplifies her story, but it’s not about Sonia,” Leah explains. “That’s the one element of the film we grappled with the most — the complicated nature of Sonia. How much trauma and drama do we show? People are looking for a hero. She is a hero, but she is also wounded and her wounds have affected generations. The reality is she is human and has faults.”

Hardly a reluctant star when filming began six years ago, the grandmother of five and great-grandmother of three only began telling her story 15 years ago. Now, it seems, she can’t stop.

With daughter Regina at her side to set the historical stage, Sonia talks about the atrocities she endured and the life she built with John following their arrival in Kansas City. Whether looking out from the stage at an auditorium filled with school children or sitting on a folding chair amongst prison inmates who are moved to tears, the nonagenarian captivates her audiences and, in turn, receives the adoration she craves — as well as hundreds of thank-you notes.

“The common message,” says Leah of Sonia’s fan mail, “seems to be from teens who say, ‘I won’t take my parents for granted.’ They relate her story to their own family. Sonia sees the impact and is now on a mission. She understands that it’s bigger than her.”

As important as the public attention the film has garnered is the conversations is has opened up for the Warshawski family.

“What is gratifying for us is when [Sonia’s children] Regina, dad [Morrie] and Debbie come to a screening and everyone wants to talk to them,” says Leah, who is lined up to speak after the screenings in San Francisco and Palo Alto (alas, neither Sonia nor her children are on the docket). “They never thought anyone related to their experience.”

In the end, she believes the film is about anyone who has been through challenges. So what exactly helped “Big Sonia” overcome her challenges?

“The reality,” Leah says, “is that Sonia was young, strong and stubborn as hell.”

“Big Sonia” screens at 1:25 p.m. July 22 at CineArts, Palo Alto; 4:10 p.m. July 23 at Castro Theatre, S.F.; and 2 p.m. July 30 at Albany Twin, Albany. (Unrated, 93 minutes)

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