As a young girl growing up in Kansas City, Leah Warshawski would look at the tattoo on her grandmother’s arm and wonder what it meant. That’s because Sonia didn’t speak about the Holocaust and all she endured. But six years ago, as a 33-year-old, accomplished filmmaker, Leah realized that Sonia was one of the last remaining survivors in a dying generation, and the story of the truly extraordinary life she’s lived and the big impact she continues to make needed to be told. With ‘Big Sonia’ finished and winning every festival it enters, Leah is now on a mission to get this very personal documentary and its powerful universal message in theaters everywhere… and all the way to the Academy Awards. But she can’t do it alone.
To say Sonia Warshawski has an incredible story is a gross understatement. At 15, she watched her mother go to the gas chamber. She survived three concentration camps and countless death marches by relying on what she calls her “sixth sense”. On liberation day, Sonia was shot through the chest, and the bullet missed her heart by an inch – miraculously she survived, again.
“Hoping to be a bridge between cultures and generations, Sonia, a wounded healer, openly describes her tragic and horrific past, and asks people to be better.”
Now 91 years old, Sonia is currently one of the last living Holocaust survivors in Kansas City. She drives herself to work six days a week to run her late husband’s beloved shop, John’s Tailoring, where there’s always a steady stream of customers (of all ages, races, and cultures) waiting to see her… and talk to her. And unlike when Leah was a girl, Sonia now talks publicly about her wartime experience – to schools, prisons, churches – and anyone who will listen. Hoping to be a bridge between cultures and generations, Sonia openly describes her tragic and horrific past, and asks people to be better.
Leah and her husband Todd Soliday began filming with Sonia, a diva and a true character, in 2011. The original plan was to make a short, but when Sonia received an eviction notice to vacate her legendary tailor shop, which had been a community fixture at the Metcalf South Mall for over 30 years, she was forced to confront yet another hurdle. As all the meaningful layers and themes of her life – resilience, aging with purpose, inter-generational trauma, the death of modern American retail, and survival against all odds – started to emerge before the camera they knew ‘Big Sonia’ was meant to be a feature documentary.
“Sonia was feeling like the world hasn’t changed much since her teenage years – the bullying, the discrimination, the hate – and she was extremely frustrated that the important lessons we should all be taking from the past are being ignored,” Leah shared with WYSK. “Hearing her and knowing that within our lifetime all of the survivors will be gone, Todd and I were determined make this film. We knew the impact her story would have if it was told in a really big way, and we had to do it before anything happened to her health.”
Interweaving Sonia’s past and present using first-person narrative with stories from family, friends, and people she’s had a direct impact on, ‘Big Sonia’ made its festival premiere in late 2016 and has won 8 film awards, to date. The filmmakers describe it as “a ‘non-Holocaust, Holocaust movie’ – packed with lessons that are important and relevant now, more than ever.”
A testament to what Leah calls the “Sonia Effect”, the film has been selling out every screening they host, and audiences do not want to leave after the credits roll. So to make the biggest impact they can, Leah and Todd want to get ‘Big Sonia’ in as many movie theaters and communities as possible beginning this fall. A wide audience release will also help them achieve their ultimate goal: to have ‘Big Sonia’ eligible for an Academy Award.
To accomplish both requires BIG money, so they’ve launched a crowdfunding campaign with the hope that others will recognize the importance of preserving this history and be inspired to rally behind Sonia, a woman who, at 91 years young, is still not giving up on her dream of being big movie star.
Of her determined mission, Leah said, “We believe Sonia’s impact is unique. It’s not just her history, it’s all the different types of people she inspires to change their lives after meeting her. She’s a wounded healer who I’m proud to call my grandmother.”