Tiny woman’s huge personality, perseverance win audience raves

By Elissa Einhorn, J. The Jewish News of Northern California

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 Shepherd dogs 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 which has played film festivals across the country. Dayton’s JCC Film Fest will show Big Sonia on April 30.

One of the film’s two directors is Sonia’s granddaughter, Leah Warshawski. The title, Leah says, perfectly reflects her now 92-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.”

The film has 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 awards for documentary). It also won best documentary in Jewish film festivals in Philadelphia and Seattle, and has an impressive 99 percent audience score at rottentomatoes.com.

Big Sonia is not a Holocaust film, the Seattle-based Leah insists. It’s 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 has devoted her life to a tailor shop in Kansas City that she once shared with her husband, John, a fellow survivor who passed away 13 years ago.

“The film amplifies her story, but it’s not about Sonia,” Leah says. “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 seven years ago, the grandmother of five and great-grandmother of three only began telling her story 16 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 among 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.”

The JCC Film Fest presents Big Sonia at 7:15 p.m. on Monday, April 30 at The Neon, 130 E. 5th St., Dayton. After the movie, Temple Israel’s Rabbi Karen Bodney-Halasz — who grew up in Kansas City, Kan. — will share stories of Sonia and her shop. Tickets are available at the door, at jewishdayton.org, at the Boonshoft CJCE, 525 Versailles Dr., Centerville, or by calling Karen Steiger at 610-1555. 

To read the complete May 2018 Dayton Jewish Observer, click here.

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