2017 Milwaukee Film Festival alum "Big Sonia" is currently showing at The Times Cinema.
2017 Milwaukee Film Festival alum "Big Sonia" is currently showing at The Times Cinema.

Milwaukee Film Festival alum "Big Sonia" is a lovely little gem

Death surrounds 91-year-old Sonia Warshawski.

The tailor shop she’s run for more than three decades – inherited after her husband passed away from Alzheimer’s – is the lone remaining tenant in Metcalf South Shopping Center, a once-teeming mall turned into a "ghost palace." Those ghosts, however, pale in comparison to the ones that follow her from her harrowing experience as a young Polish girl, witnessing most of her family die in the Holocaust while suffering and narrowly holding onto her own life through three Nazi concentration camps.

Yet Warshawski still manages to sees the light and color above the dark clouds, to greet her customers with warmth (and her filmmakers with a breakfast of chocolate bars) and to turn her childhood horrors into hope and education for others as the last living, outspoken survivor of the Holocaust in the Kansas City area. And the documentary "Big Sonia" – an alum of the 2017 Milwaukee Film Festival, now screening at The Times Cinema – warmly takes after that bright spirit, paying touching tribute to its haunted but unhindered petite powerhouse of a subject.

In addition to her tailor shop, Warshawski’s other work involves touring the area with her daughter Regina telling her story to others, and her documentary – co-directed by Leah Warshawski, Sonia’s granddaughter – follows in her family’s footsteps. Using interviews with Sonia, animation and her painfully clear-eyed memories, "Big Sonia" recounts her experience as a Polish teen, hiding from the Nazis in an attic before she and her mother were discovered and sent to Majdanek concentration camp.

Her mother would be murdered there (her only other surviving family was her younger sister, who now lives in Israel) while Sonia would be further condemned to Auschwitz-Birkenau and Bergen-Belsen, surviving brutal beatings, bullets and the emotional trauma of the unfathomable.

Despite the rather blandly childish animation aiding her story (they’re prompted by its su…