When Sonia Warshawski described Wednesday her experience during the Holocaust, there was a phrase she repeated often:
“I will never forget.”
Warshawski came to Columbia from Kansas City after a screening of her documentary, “Big Sonia,” which was co-directed by her granddaughter Leah Warshawski. Columbia Public Schools Foundation provided a grant that allowed Columbia middle schoolers and high schoolers to see the documentary for free.
The documentary follows 4-foot-8 Sonia Warshawski, 92, as she describes her Holocaust experience and attempts to keep her late husband’s store, John’s Tailoring & Alterations, from closing down. The film also includes animations of her.
“We wanted animation from Day One so we could reach a young audience,” Leah Warshawski said Monday. “Sonia should be the one who tells her own story.”
“Big Sonia” had a community screening on Monday with a Q&A from Leah Warshawski; Sonia Warshawski held a speaking engagement and meet-and-greet on Wednesday at Hickman High School.
“My greatest achievement is when I receive those letters from children,” Sonia Warshawski said Wednesday, “telling me, ‘You changed my life.’ Because seeing a survivor personally is different than reading about it in a book.”
Warshawski survived three death camps and being shot in the chest on liberation day in 1945. She and her younger sister were her family’s only survivors. Warshawski’s sister lived in the forest with partisan fighters during the Holocaust and now lives in Israel.
Warshawski and her mother were sent to Majdanek death camp in 1943. Warshawski said she couldn’t have survived Majdanek without her mother. She recounted her last interaction with her mother:
Josef Mengele, infamously known as the “Angel of Death,” was at Majdanek to perform a selection. He put Warshawski’s mother in the line for gas chambers and Warshawski in the line to go back to work. She wanted to go with her mother but was beaten back by a female SS guard.
“I saw my mama with a woman from my hometown,” Warshawski said of the next day. “The last time I saw her, she was going to the gas chambers.”
In the documentary, Warshawski shows the audience one of the only things she has left of her mother: a worn orange scarf that she keeps in her pillowcase. When she goes to sleep, her mother is with her, Warshawski said.
“The love of mothers is the highest power in this world,” she said Wednesday. “Love your parents, your father, your mother, especially. Respect them and listen to them.”
Interviews with Warshawski and her three children are interspersed throughout the film.
At one point in the film, Morrie Warshawski, Sonia Warshawski’s son, reads a poem he wrote titled “Sonia at 32” and breaks down on camera. That wasn’t supposed to be in the final film, Leah Warshawski said.
“Whenever I watch it, I cry,” Sonia Warshawski said Wednesday. “I never realized how deeply my children were affected.”
She began to speak publicly about her Holocaust experiences after she heard about deniers.
“I will not hate,” Sonia Warshawski said. “It will destroy me. But who am I to forgive? This has to come from a higher power.”
Supervising editor is Claire Mitzel.