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 subject’s bored workplace doodles but resemble more a bottom-rung PBS kids show – an odd fit for the material), Sonia’s experience is painful, powerful and, in the end, inspiring – especially as she uses her horrendous childhood to help others, from high schoolers learning how to heal to ex-cons looking for optimism and hope behind bars.

The most inspiration in "Big Sonia" is just profiling the bright and undimmed optimistic personality its title character remains more than a half century later, making an impact in the world rather than recoiling from it. Outside her outreach work, even just her joyful presence is heartening, lively preaching the good word of animal print fabric – including a leopard print pillow emblazoned with a simple motto: "Whatever" – and gefilte fish (especially the gel!), quirks Leah and fellow director Todd Soliday nicely capture without overplaying into caricature.

While her tale of survival is obviously compelling, "Big Sonia" really hits home when it comes home to the next generation of Warshawskis (perhaps unsurprising since its co-director is one of them). With clear eyes and a tender heart, the doc talks with Sonia and her three children about the honest struggles of living in a house of survivors – the guilt, the pressure, the unspoken curtain of sadness hanging over a home that’s seen the worst of the world. It’s a perspective on the Holocaust rarely discussed – as Sonia notes, our knowledge of depression or PTSD was almost non-existent back then – and one that adds another layer of intimate, nuanced and profound humanity on this story of true human strength.

As far as an actual plot, "Big Sonia" admittedly comes up a little short. The impending closing of the ghost mall Sonia’s shop calls home is the closest the doc comes to a true narrative, but while compelling, it’s half-glimpsed sporadically through the film’s slightly padded 93-minute running time. It does, however, provide the perfect, sweet little button to this sweet little documentary, proving that while death may be undefeated, Sonia – whether it’s her store, her memories or herself – refuses to go without a fight. 

"Big Sonia": *** out of ****

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