Not everyone who survived the Holocaust is cut out to bear witness on it for the rest of us.
Some never got over the trauma, never wanted to mention it, even to family, never wore short sleeves so that others could see the numbers tattooed on their arms.
“A normal person would not understand” these “horrible, horrible things,” many might say.
That was Sonia Warshawski for much of her life. A Polish Jew who survived three death camps, as a teen, she married another survivor, emigrated to Kansas City and with her husband, John, ran a tailoring shop there. They raised their kids, who didn’t want to ask about the “hell” they’d been through, even though John would wail in his sleep.
“I keep myself busy,” Sonia says to this day, 92 and still driving her ancient Oldsmobile to work, tailoring to fiercely loyal customers. The work “keeps me from thinking about it.”
But as Sonia became “the last Holocaust survivor in town” able to speak, she took it on herself to do just that. The tiny Polish woman whom her granddaughter (filmmaker Leah Warshawski) nicknamed “Big Sonia” is the subject of a moving, engaging documentary that asks a very hard question. As the last of these survivors is silenced by age and death, who will bear witness?
Leah and co-director Todd Soliday build this genial, unsurprising film around a long public radio interview with Sonia, their own interview with her, animated needlepoint illustrations inspired by Sonia’s way of using that hobby to remember, and her many public speaking engagements, in and around Kansas City.
We meet fellow survivors and her children, who recall how ashamed they could get when they realized they were giving a parent who had been “in hell” a hard time. And we see Sonia speak to high school kids, who break down in tears, to prison inmates who admit, “She’s a LOT tougher than I am.”
Sonia figures “if I can reach their hearts,” maybe some of these touch-and-go audience members will “make a change in their lives.” Whatever else she offers in her stories of Auschwitz, Bergen-Belsen and Majdanek, she stands as a testament to human survival, the ability to recover and carry on.
Conveniently, the film offers one last struggle facing this woman who has literally seen it all. The last tenant in a dead shopping mall, she faces eviction. If you think that can stop her, you haven’t been reading along as carefully as I’d hope.
The animation is the one novel element to this, a familiar sort of film on a most familiar subject. But the movie lets its subject — Sonia — be its strength, and if you’ve ever had the privilege of meeting a survivor willing to talk about what they experienced, you know how smart that decision was.
I’ve interviewed several over the years, and like Sonia, it seems like every city I’ve lived in had that one person willing to talk, in heavily-accented English, and could hold you spellbound with just an image painted with words.
As the last of these, the toughest humans among us, finally die off, films like this will be our main resource against deniers, our last reminder that tiny women like “Big Sonia” experienced the unbelievable, and lived only to tell the future what happened.
MPAA Rating: unrated, with Holocaust descriptions and imagery
Cast: Sonia Warshawski, her siblings, children and grandchildren
Credits:Directed byTodd Soliday, Leah Warshawski. An Argot release.