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Living Holocaust Survivor Subject Of Documentary At Jewish Film Fest

Sonia at the wheel of her Oldsmobile
Gloria Baker Feinstein

90-something Sonia Warshawski is a character. She’s less than five feet tall and drives a pink Buick with a large leopard print steering wheel. Warshawski is also one of the last living Holocaust survivors. She’s the subject of the award-winning documentary “Big Sonia” which will be shown at this year’s Southwest Michigan Jewish Film Festival

Sonia at her shop John's Tailoring at Metcalf South Mall
Credit Gloria Baker Feinstein
Sonia at her shop John's Tailoring at Metcalf South Mall

The screening will be on Sunday, October 29th at 2 p.m. at Celebration Cinema in Portage.

The film festival has purchased the rights to show unlimited educational screenings of "Big Sonia." So organizers hope to show the film at schools in the southwest Michigan area as well.

Student tickets are discounted at $5.

Todd Soliday directed the film with his wife Leah Warshawski, Sonia’s granddaughter. Soliday says they didn’t want to make just another Holocaust film.

“It’s undeniable the significance of Sonia’s past but we really wanted to make a film that’s relatable today, to an audience today," he says.

"Sonia’s charisma and her spunk and her diva-ness makes her a dynamic character that we knew we could draw a broad audience in.”

When Sonia was 13, the Nazis invaded her hometown in Poland and forced her family into a ghetto.

Later her family was torn apart when the Nazis sent Jews in the ghetto to death camps. Soliday says as Sonia and her mother boarded the train, her father and two siblings tried to escape: 

“Unfortunately for her father and brother, they were captured and murdered shortly thereafter. Her sister, Manya, managed to fall in with the partisans and survived the war in the forests and they were reunited after the war. Sonia and her mom ended up in a death camp called Majdanek. It’s there that Sonia lost her mom and saw her walking to the gas chamber and saw her for the last time there. And for the rest of the war Sonia was alone.”

Sonia was transferred to two other death camps before the war ended - Auschwitz and Bergen-Belsen. The day her camp was liberated, Sonia was shot. Soliday says the bullet went through her chest, barely missing her heart and lungs.

“Sonia being Sonia, she survived. She should have died many many many times,” he says.

Fast forward several decades and Sonia is living in Kansas City, Missouri, working in the tailor shop she started about 35 years ago with her late husband.

“I keep myself always busy and this helps me not to think so much about what I went through," Sonia says in the film.

Until about 15 years ago, Soliday says Sonia didn’t talk about her experience in the Holocaust - not even to her own children. Her daughter, Regina, encouraged tell her story:

“At the same time Sonia was becoming aware of Holocaust deniers in the news, Regina was feeling a pull to record her story and find out exactly what happened. So it was really kind of a combination of Sonia realizing that her story would be lost if she doesn’t speak out and Regina really wanting to honor her mother’s story.”

Soliday says the documentary follows Sonia as she shares her experiences with local high school students and inmates in prison.

Meanwhile, Sonia faces a new challenge. She finds out that the mall where her shop is located is closing.

“She’s a tough lady and she claims she has a sixth sense for sussing out tricky situations and that’s really what our movie is about," says Soliday.

You can see the documentary “Big Sonia” Sunday at 2 p.m. at Celebration Cinema in Portage. It’s part of this year’s Southwest Michigan Jewish Film Festival.

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