Big Sonia 2016
Distributed by Passion River Films, 154 Mt. Bethel Rd., Warren, NJ 07059; 732-321-0711
Produced by Inflatable Film; True Production
Directed by Leah Warshawski and Todd Soliday
DVD, color, 88 min.
High School - General Adult
Jewish Holocaust 1939-1945
Date Entered: 04/23/2018Reviewed by Sheila Intner, Professor Emerita, Graduate School of Library & Information Science, Simmons College GSLIS at Mt. Holyoke, South Hadley, MA
The film opens with scenes of a defunct mall where Sonia Warshawski, now a senior citizen living in Kansas City, plies a bustling tailoring shop. We see her arrive at the shop in an empty mall, arrange bunches of flowers, supplies, and tools, and, when she opens the door, greet customers with enthusiasm, giving each one attention and advice with obvious affection. Her shop is about to follow the rest into oblivion when she receives an eviction notice.
Approaching her 90s, Sonia has never forgotten about her experiences during World War II. She decides she must speak out about it, although she has not done so before. She and her husband, John, who is now dead, did not speak about the war with their children, though the tattooed number on her arm spoke volumes. Sonia and John raised their family with love. Her daughters and son speak about her dedication to them, especially precious since she lost everyone else in the war.
The title is a pun, because “big” Sonia is actually less than five feet tall, but she packs a wallop as she recounts memories of living in war-torn Poland during World War II. In studio interviews and scenes of her presentations in Kansas City, Big Sonia tells her story. As a teenager, she hides from the Nazis with her mother and sister. They are caught and are being sent to Maidenek, but her sister escapes into the woods before Sonia and her mother are forced to board a train for the camp. Later, the two are sent to Auschwitz, where Sonia watches as her mother is sent to the ovens. Animation is used to visualize these experiences, making the film more palatable for younger viewers than archival photographs of starving prisoners, vicious beatings, and showerheads spewing poison gas. Sonia is shot as Allied soldiers overtake the camp when the war ends; but, as she says simply, “I made it.”
Sonia not only survives, she refuses to be defeated. She marries, has children, and creates a loving household. She and her husband build a thriving business. Now, in her old age, she wants to speak out. She goes to schools, speaking in classrooms and auditoriums. She goes to a local prison and speaks to the inmates there. She makes this film. Her message to them all is twofold: first, she educates people about what happened to her and others persecuted by the Nazis so it is never forgotten and, second, she imparts her philosophy that rejecting hate and revenge, and believing in herself is the key to achieving happiness in life after all she went through.
The final scenes of the film show Sonia closing her shop and driving away into retirement. She is an inspiring role model, even though the production is uneven and often leaves much to be desired. Sonia is indomitable, and nothing can obscure that from our view.