The colorful owner of a thriving tailor shop located in an abandoned mall brings life, humor and hope to her customers. But the story of Sonia Warshawski doesn’t end there. The historical documentary “Big Sonia,” a snapshot of her life, is screening Sunday during Holocaust Remembrance Week at Colorado College’s Celeste Theater.
The documentary took an unexpected turn after filming began. At first, filmmakers thought it would be a short film about the tailoring shop and Sonia’s vibrant personality. But then the unexpected happened.
Warshawski doesn’t hide the tattooed number on her left forearm, forcibly put there during her teen years spent in three different Nazi concentration camps. For years as an inspirational public speaker at schools and prisons, the 93 year-old shared her story and urged others to “put love in their hearts” toward others to overcome trauma.
But when her shop, John’s Tailoring, received an eviction notice during filming, the petite yet strong woman was faced with understanding and undergoing another level of personal healing.
The documentary explores Warshawski’s life changes and choices after the eviction notice and is much more than a Holocaust film, her daughter Regina Kort said, for it depicts an additional theme of inter-generational trauma. The question of the film is whether or not the health and mutual support in Warshawski’s life can carry her forward into further growth and recovery.
The shop has been her reason for getting up in the morning, and the way she keeps busy to block dark memories from intruding on the present. The threat of losing the shop brought old wounds and fears to the forefront.
Warshawski’s shop, by all accounts, was a hub of community and a healing meeting place, described in a news clip as being “like a bar without the booze.” It was a place where Warshawski listened to people’s stories, told her own and doled out what the family called “the best advice you never asked for.”
Leah Warshawski, “Big Sonia” co-filmmaker and Warshawski’s granddaughter, wrote of her discovery of how her grandmother’s war experiences trickled down familialy.
Leah became aware of the impact of “the trauma suffered not just by Sonia, but by my aunts and father, who had survived the trauma of a household gripped by grief and loss. (In addition), I began to see ways in which Sonia’s pain had branded me, the grandchild of refugees, and the child of a parent who’d long grappled with his own mother’s pain.”
Inter-generational trauma occurs when unacknowledged trauma is carried forward and given to the next generation, however unconsciously, and never healed or resolved.
Kort said the decision was made while developing the film to use — instead of stock photos from the era — an animator who delicately but vividly created visuals of living incidents from Warshawski’s life, beginning at age 13 when she was tragically separated from her mother, and continuing through her teen years in the camps. The professionally animated material helps tell the story but is not re-traumatizing, therefore also useful for classrooms in an abbreviated version.
Reviewer Derek Smith of Slant Magazine declared “Big Sonia” “bumps the tragic and demoralizing up against the comic and inspirational.”
Bringing “Big Sonia” to Colorado Springs has been in itself one “coincidence” and one human connection after another, Temple Shalom’s Beth Byer said.
Paralleling the unfolding story in the film, Byer said at an October solidarity service at Temple Shalom after the Tree of Life synagogue shooting in Pittsburgh, two women from First Christian Church who knew of the film approached Byer. They wanted to do an interfaith screening event for the community to promote peace and understanding. One thing led to another, and The Greenberg Center for Learning and Tolerance then became involved. Next, someone involved with Hillel, the Jewish student group at Colorado College, recognized the screening would coincide with some programming he wanted to do; and a collaborative effort was born.
“We’re so excited to bring this to the community,” Byer said.
After the screening, Will Stoller-Lee of Fuller Theological Seminary and the Windrider Film Forum will moderate an audience question and answer session, with Warshawski’s daughter Regina Kort and SuEllen Fried, a mental health and anti-bullying social activist and adviser to the film.