The first scene of Big Sonia introduces a woman with vivid red lipstick who acts like any Jewish grandmother getting in the car with her granddaughter — reminding the latter to put a sweater on or she’ll be cold, and magically pulling chocolate bars out of her purse.
Using animation and interviews, the documentary is a feature on Sonia Warshawski, a 4-foot-8 pistol with a penchant for leopard print who is one of the few remaining Holocaust survivors in the Kansas City area.
She was nearly 14, living in Poland when the war broke out. Her younger sister escaped to the forest and lived with partisans, but she and her mother were captured; she never saw her brother or father again.
At 17, she watched her mother disappear behind gas chamber doors. On liberation day, Warshawski, who survived three concentration camps, was accidentally shot through the chest, yet miraculously survived.
Throughout the film, she drives her Oldsmobile (with a leopard print steering wheel); blows out candles on her 90th birthday cake; fits customers in the tailor shop named for her late husband — who was also a survivor — that she’s kept alive while the mall in which it’s housed closed; and shares her story with a room of middle schoolers.
Big Sonia will screen during an event with Hadassah Greater Philadelphia on March 27 at 7 p.m. at Montgomery County Community College as part of its Lively Arts Series.
For Hadassah Greater Philadelphia President Michele Foster, the event is a way to honor Holocaust survivors and their stories.
“I just feel that for us, it’s a Holocaust remembrance event because our survivors are moving into their 90s, most of them,” Foster said, “so we’re not really going to have their stories and even people speaking too much longer.
“And given what just happened in Poland,” she added, referencing the controversial law recently passed that outlaws blaming the country for any crimes committed during the Holocaust, “you can see that people are quite anxious to wipe it from their memory. So I feel like the event is a sign of respect for the people and their stories, but also to remind people that it really happened.”
The film itself was a family affair. While Sonia Warshawski noted in the film that she was hesitant to tell her family her story, the documentary was made by Leah Warshawski, her granddaughter. She will join the screening as well as Rita B. Ross, a Holocaust survivor and author of Running from Home: A Memoir.
In a 2016 interview with womenandhollywood.com, Leah Warshawski described her grandmother as “a diva, Holocaust survivor and national treasure who is making a big impact.”
“Our film explores how trauma affects families, and how one tiny lady inspires people of all ages and cultures to live every day to its fullest,” she said. “The core question our film explores is, ‘Will you let your past define you?’”
For Foster, the importance of the event is also tied to the rise of anti-Semitism.
She pointed to the latest audit released by the Anti-Defamation League, which discovered anti-Semitic occurrences nationwide were almost 60 percent higher in 2017 than 2016 — and 71 percent higher in Pennsylvania alone.
“When you couple that with the Holocaust, you kind of see that it’s really easy for that kind of growth in anti-Semitism to occur,” Foster said.
Hadassah held an event in November 2017 with state Rep. Kevin Boyle and ADL officials that explored recent incidents of anti-Semitism and showed a film that centered on BDS on college campuses.
Foster also participated in a panel discussion that month at Congregations of Shaare Shamayim as Boyle hosted a House Democratic Committee Hearing at the synagogue.
“All these events just serve to educate people about what’s really going on, and to highlight where we are today, which isn’t in such a good place in my opinion,” she said.
She hopes to attract younger attendees as well, to remind them of how important these stories are.
“I grew up with the Holocaust,” Foster said, “and it was very real to me, but I don’t think it’s as real to kids growing up today as it was to our generation.
“We owe the survivors the respect of hearing their stories,” she added, “and doing it at a time when we won’t probably be able to hear the actual stories anymore and as a reminder, because anti-Semitism is on the rise so exponentially. It’s good for people to remember how easy it was for things to change.”
For Leah Warshawski, sharing her grandmother’s story was important as she is part of that generation.
“Sonia is an engaging character in a dying generation. She can draw audiences into larger, universal themes,” she said in the interview. “We want people to think about their own families, personal trauma and whether they are living life to its fullest despite whatever has happened in the past.”
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