The tagline for the film Big Sonia is “Holocaust survivor. Grandma. Diva.” True that, but she’s also quite the Holocaust scholar, fluent in a dizzying amount of books, films, articles, and other accounts of what Sonia repeatedly and accurately calls “unbelievable.” Like many of us but even more so, Sonia Warshawski has been grappling with all the big questions regarding the Holocaust for a long time: How and why could this happen? What does it mean? Who embodied the worst of humanity and the best? What does not never forgetting mean in our everyday lives?
When it comes to the question of how someone survives the Holocaust and makes a new life in a new land after losing most of her family and finding her home community in Poland what she called “a ghost town,” Sonia embodies the answers. I got to witness this first-hand when she showed up as a student in my Osher class, “Triumph and Terror: How Two Men Survived Nazi Horrors.” The three-session class in Prairie Village, KS, based on my book, Needle in the Bone: How a Holocaust Survivor and Polish Resistance Fighter Beat the Odds and Found Each Other, focuses on both the Holocaust and Polish and Jewish resistance movements. While I usually mainly explore this history through the lives of Lou (a Holocaust survivor) and Jarek (a Polish resistance fighter) who met in Lawrence, Kansas and became best friends, Sonia brought us a new dimension (through her experience and scholarship) of the Holocaust and the Jewish Resistance.
Bedecked in a leopard print coat and dressed to the nines, and well under five feet tall, Sonia is a 94-year-old force of nature. She’s also a vital voice in the wilderness calling for never forgetting or forgiving, but always moving ahead with love. She sat in the front row, and within a short time, I was handing her the mic at regular intervals because of what she had to say as an eye witness, survivor, and fierce advocate for Holocaust education.
Sonia was born in Międzyrzec, Poland, actually just down the road from where some of Jarek’s family lived in Biala Podlaska. She was only 17 years old when the Nazis invaded the ghetto where she was hiding with her family, forcing her and her mother to go to Majdanek, one of the death camps. Big Sonia, the award-winning and spectacular film directed by her granddaughter Leah Warshawski and Todd Soliday uses animated illustrations, based on Sonia’s artful doodling, to show the excruciating moment her mother was ripped away from her to go to the gas chamber. Only Sonia and her younger sister, against all odds, survived, along with a small orange scarf from her mother that Sonia keeps in a plastic baggie under her pillow.
Sonia spoke eloquently about the role of the partisans (the Jewish resistance) helping her younger sister, who largely hid in the woods during the war, make it through these terrible years. She also told us of the times she was beaten, just as Bergen-Belsen was being liberated (after she spent startling time at Auschwitz-Birkenau), how she was shot. She hid among fallen bodies, endured terrible beatings, and even had to spread the ashes (some still holding bits of human bones) on fields as fertilizer. When I told the story of Lou’s needle in the bone — how he landed on something sharp one night but had to endure it, only to find out years later that he had a needle embedded in his heel — she nodded knowingly at me. She has carried her own needle in the bone for close to 80 years, and like Lou and many other survivors, she also found the strength and courage to start a new life, coming to Kansas City with her husband and their family-in-process in 1948.
It was one of the greatest honors of my life to be able to write about the stories of Lou and Jarek, then to find this is a gift that keeps moving, bringing me into deep and necessary conversation with others about the big questions at the heart of what it can mean to be human, at our best and at our worst. How do people go on after facing such annihilating forces and losing almost everything, everywhere, and everyone they know and love? Sonia answered this through the warmth, intelligence, and presence shone through all she shared with unflinching honesty.
Sonia also reminds us — and I get the sense she does this whether she’s talking to high school students, lifers in prison, or customers who come to the tailor shop her husband started that she still runs — about the importance of Tikkun Olam, repairing the broken world. She sees what’s happening clearly, particularly the rise of anti-Semitism and Holocaust deniers, and as she told the New York Times a few years ago, “….it’s a terrible hate what’s going on now. I hope that my speaking is a way of starting to repair the world, to change the direction for us.” May it be so, and may we all find the courage to repair the world however we can.
For more on Sonia, please see Big Sonia, now streaming on Amazon, read the New York Times article -“‘But It’s a Terrible Hate Going On Now‘” about her, listen to “A Conversation with Sonia Warshawski” hosted by the Kansas City Public Library. and watch her testimony with the Midwest Center for the Holocaust. You can also see my book Needle in the Bone here, and check out Jarek’s new book, Dance With Death: A Holistic View of Saving Polish Jews During the Holocaust. Top photo by Ken Lassman, bottom photo from Friends of Osher.