Neely Swanson

“Big Sonia” – A giant in stature [MOVIE REVIEW]

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Sonia at the Wheel. Photo courtesy of Gloria Baker Feinstein.

by Neely Swanson

“Big Sonia,” a documentary and labor of love by Leah Warshawski (Sonia’s granddaughter) and Todd Soliday, is a tribute to an unsung heroine with secrets to reveal for the better good and secrets to withhold for her own sake.

Sonia Warshawski, 92, still goes to work every day at John’s Tailoring, an establishment founded by her late husband John, and the last remaining shop in a now defunct Overland Park, Kansas shopping mall. Her customers, loyal to the core, have been coming for the excellent tailoring and nuggets of advice she gives out free of charge, and to view her sale rack fashion finds. As Sonia says, “animal prints never go out of style;” and they certainly haven’t in her shop.

But recently, encouraged and accompanied by her daughter Regina, Sonia travels to local schools to give talks on her painful journey as a Holocaust survivor and her ability to look beyond the pain and find that which is positive. If Regina has regrets, it is that she had not been more curious earlier about her parents’ history and especially since she is no longer able to talk to her late father. Regina is determined to carry on her mother’s work when she is no longer able.   

Sonia’s descent into hell began when she was the same age as her core audience, 13, and this, perhaps, is what involves them so deeply in her story. Quietly, Sonia talks of the pain, the hate, the horrors she saw, including witnessing her mother’s march to the gas chamber. She wants to emphasize that even though she witnessed things no one should ever be allowed to see and lost everything near and dear to her, she came out determined never to hate because it was irrational hate that made the Holocaust possible. The students are awestruck, recognizing that their problems are minor and surmountable compared to what Sonia went through.

Invited to a prison to give her presentation, her tale inspires the incarcerated men, many of whom wallowed in their own stories of woe and mistreatment. Until their encounter with Sonia and her message of transcendence, they felt that they would never find the strength to succeed in a world where the odds seem so stacked against them. Sonia has become their touchstone and inspiration and they face the prospect of life on the outside with renewed hope.

Sonia married another survivor, John Warshawski, and together they made their way to the middle of the country, the unlikely state of Kansas where John used the skills he had learned from his father to build his tailoring business.

The death of John several years before was just another in the long line of losses for Sonia but she determined to carry on and continued to weave herself into the fabric of Overland Park. For many of her neighbors and clients, she is the only Jew they know. They cherish her and her homespun wisdom.

 

Sonia on the Couch. Photo courtesy of Gloria Baker Feinstein.

Faced with eviction from the shop that has been her salvation, her neighbors and customers band together to find her another space, this time in an office building eventually destined for the same fate as the shopping center, so that she can continue doing the tailoring and selling she loves.

Men and women much younger than Sonia’s 91 would find such a move daunting; not Sonia – this is her happy ending and we live it with her. She will not be defined by her losses; Sonia has chosen her pathway and she will live it the best she can. That, in a nutshell, is Sonia’s lesson to us – do not let the trauma of the past define you, use what you have and what you know to make yourself stronger. That, and wear more leopard skin prints.

Opening Friday December 8 at the Laemmle Music Hall in Beverly Hills and Laemmle Town Center in Encino.

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