For 35 years, Sonia Warshawski has owned and operated the same small Kansas City tailor shop she opened with her long-deceased husband, John. Though her store is the last to remain open inside a mall that’s falling apart, the 91-year-old continues to work six days a week, remaining as busy as ever thanks to her indomitable spirit and large, loyal clientele. So as to keep John’s dream alive, Sonia persists against growing and indifferent capitalist forces that threaten to cancel her lease and potentially drive her into retirement. But closing her shop is an especially frightening prospect for the feisty Sonia, not because her work provides her income, but because it’s part of a daily routine that continues to help her cope with the tortuous memories of her experiences as a young girl in Poland during Hitler’s invasion.
Big Sonia is an intimate and delicately measured documentary that attempts to grapple with two Sonias: the 13-year-old girl who survived internment at various concentration camps and the aging seamstress now fiercely determined to use the experiences of her horrific past to educate and inspire others in her community. All the while, Sonia fights to prevent those same memories from consuming her. Directed by Todd Soliday and Sonia’s granddaughter, Leah Warshawski, Big Sonia carries with it a whiff of hagiography in all the effusive praise and respect it doles out to its lovable subject, but the film also doesn’t shy away from presenting Sonia in a negative light, particularly in the myriad ways her massive trauma continues to adversely affect her relationships with her children.
Cinema has rarely mined the consequences of being a child of a Holocaust survivor and Big Sonia adeptly explores how, in many cases, losing much of one’s family led many survivors to put undue pressures on their future children. Sonia’s eldest, Regina, describes the tumultuous relationship between her mother and her brother, Morrie, who, as the only male child in their family, took the brunt of Sonia’s belittling and criticism for not being an even better student than he already was. Of course, all she wanted was for all her children was the financial security that would give them stability in the future, but her unreasonable demands ultimately drove Morrie to move out of state after college. Over time, Morrie grew to understand his mother, and in a particularly moving passage, he takes out an old collection of poems by children of Holocaust survivors. He begins to read his own poem, which he’s not looked at in decades, and after making it most of the way through, he suddenly breaks down in tears, unable to continue. It’s a chilling reminder of how the reverberations of tragedy can stretch across generations and leave wounds that, no matter how much time has passed, will never heal.
Outside of its analysis of intergenerational trauma, Big Sonia is structured in a way that bumps the tragic and demoralizing up against the comic and inspirational. The documentary captures the horrific nature of the events in Sonia’s past while paying tribute to her willingness to discuss those experiences in a way that breeds acceptance and compassion in the face of hatred and intolerance. Warshawski and Soliday draw constant parallels that attempt to reconcile Sonia’s past with her present, bringing her terrifying ordeals at the concentration camps to life via animated vignettes in one moment and showing the nonagenarian delivering an impassioned speech at a local high school in the next. Sonia’s past constantly looms over her, yet despite the weight of her horrific memories, she remains full of spunk, bringing laughter and joy to those with whom she converses.
Despite her age, Sonia continues to open herself up to the public, attempting to preserve the truths of the Holocaust in a culture where neo-Nazism and white supremacy are on the rise. Scenes where she discusses watching her mother led to her death in a gas chamber are stomach-churning, yet it’s remarkable how she morphs her trauma into an instrument of learning. And the impact her stories have on others is undeniable, as evidenced by a high school student who’s inspired to start her own non-profit and several prison inmates involved in a group to prevent recidivism. At a mere 4’8”, Sonia is a tiny woman, but she has a big heart and strong resolve and embodies the potential of perseverance and of working to transform the damage caused by trauma into lasting social change. And while Sonia preaches the importance of remembering truly horrific acts, she also knows all too well that the world needs more than thoughts and prayers to avoid future catastrophes.