Some of us choose to record our family histories in books, photos, audio recordings or through other creative media. Our eldest daughter, Leah Warshawski (and husband Todd Soliday), opted for a more arduous challenge — a documentary film about her grandmother (and my mother-in-law)!
Six years in the making, “Big Sonia” will have its West Coast premiere and compete in the feature documentaries category over the course of the Napa Valley Film Festival, with screenings on Nov. 9, 11, 12 and 13 at four different Napa Valley locations. (For times and ticket information, visit napavalleyfilmfest.org or call 707 226-7500.)
The film’s subject, Sonia Warshawski, who turns a sprightly 91 while at the festival, may just be one of Kansas City’s most popular personalities. Standing tall at 4 feet, 8 inches, she’s often recognized on the streets of her adopted home town. Sonia’s culinary prowess for creating annual holiday delicacies, especially homemade gefilte fish, is lauded by friends and family. Also legendary —her indefatigable stamina for shopping and schmoozing!
For the past few years, Sonia has added a more personal, powerful and public feather to her cap. She and her daughter Regina Kort have been speaking at middle/high schools, churches, community centers, corporations and prisons in the greater Kansas City area to share the heartfelt, horrific stories of her teenage years spent in the Majdanek and Auschwitz concentration camps.
“For future generations, Sonia has said, “it’s a way of giving back and never forgetting.”
Growing up in St. Louis, Leah saw her extended family frequently, but it was a pilgrimage to Sonia’s 85th birthday celebration and Todd’s validation that Sonia’s story is indeed unique that inspired her to begin filming.
“Everyone in our family (including Sonia) has always felt that she needs her own show,” Leah explained. “Funders and audiences are looking for ‘character-driven’ documentaries, and Sonia is one of the most interesting characters I know. I have always wanted to do this but now we have a limited window while she is still healthy and strong enough to go into work every day.
“I felt it was time to make a different film that younger generations could relate to. What is out there now – at least for educators – is very clinical. Why not make something that makes you laugh and want to be a better person after you’ve watched it?”
“Because she is a survivor, a lot of people are quick to call ‘Big Sonia’ a ‘Jewish film,’” Leah continued, “but we’ve chosen to interweave themes about history, inter-generational trauma, the death of American retail, resilience and redemption.”
Ironically, Leah’s maternal/paternal grandparents did not willingly elaborate on their Holocaust experiences until the late 1970s when the floodgates — and memories — were unlocked through audio recordings of seven family member survivors (parents, in-laws, aunts and uncles). The interviews, shepherded over three years by Sonia’s son, my husband Morrie, serve as stark and chilling testaments to the power of the human spirit.
“I think my parents thought my sister and I were not paying attention, but we were,” said Leah. “When I was 12, I transcribed some of the oral histories – that was my first time listening to the stories of Sonia and John (Warshawski). The strange thing was I felt that people in our family really didn’t want to talk about it. I’m sure it was too painful, so we got little glimpses of it but never any of the full stories. Or maybe I just never asked. Maybe I was too scared to know the full story.”
“It’s different hearing the stories as an adult. You look at this tiny woman and listen to what she went through — and the details — and it’s hard. It always makes me think about how it must have been difficult to grow up with parents who survived. This film has become about much more than just Sonia, and we’re thrilled that audiences relate her trauma – and that of her family – to their own lives. We also want to make sure that Sonia’s stories are not forgotten, and film seems to be the best way to do that for now.”