Midway into “Big Sonia,” Sonia Warshawski, the outsize centerpiece of this poignant documentary, ushers viewers into her bedroom, lifts a pillow from the bed and extracts from its satin case a small plastic bag.
Inside is a coral scarf — a “shalek,” as the Polish-born Ms. Warshawski calls it — limp and riddled with moth holes. Yet to Ms. Warshawski, its beauty is somehow intact.
“You can see the color,” she said during a visit to New York last week. “It is so vivid.”
Over the years, Ms. Warshawski, who arrived for an interview at The New York Times wrapped in her signature faux leopard coat, has cultivated an eye for things colorful and vividly expressive. It is a gift she nurtured at John’s Tailoring, her basement shop in a now-defunct mall in Kansas City, Kan., where, for almost four decades, she nipped waistlines, tweaked seams and adjusted hems for her devoted clientele.
Like the scarf, it is a gift she inherited from her mother, a woman with an acute sense of style, who wore that little shawl to bring out the colors of a favorite blazer, flecked with orange, beige and brown. “She would have been a designer,” Ms. Warshawski said, “if she had made it.”
She did not. Like most of her large, extended family, Ms. Warshawski’s mother died in the Holocaust, and her daughter’s wrenching account of seeing her led to the gas chamber is central to the film.
She was 15 at the time, her fondness for books, nature and painting leaving her ill-equipped for the horrific events about to engulf her, a fate “difficult, if not impossible, for a normal person to understand,” she said repeatedly.
But for Ms. Warshawski, 92, the past remains vitally present. Three years ago, about to be evicted from the tailoring and dressmaking shop founded by her husband, a fellow survivor who died in 1990, she briefly considered retirement. Yet it wasn’t long before she discovered a renewed sense of purpose in telling her tale.
Her recollections are graphic and often unsparing. “You saw people dying, you picked up their rations,” she said the other day. Still raw are her memories of the so-called selections, in which prisoners pulled aside for labor were methodically parted from those destined for death.
Ms. Warshawski in New York City.CreditTodd Soliday
“At Auschwitz-Birkenau, it was Mengele, I think, who did the selections,” she said. “I still remember him with his white gloves and little stick pointing this one to the left — we knew what that meant — and this one to the right.”
More than once she narrowly evaded death. Concealed inside a mound of discarded prisoners’ clothes during one of the selections, she held her breath as guards probed with their rifles. An SS man poked his bayonet into the mound where she hid. “He almost touched me,” she said, exhaling mightily. “Afterward it was quiet. I crept out, put on my little clothes and went back to my barrack.”
Several girls who tried to escape were hanged in retaliation. Ms. Warshawski, who was forced to watch, remembers their exhortations. “‘Never forget, take revenge,’” she said. “This was their last breath.”
But revenge isn’t her style. Not that she is a saint. “I cannot forgive,” she says more than once in the film. “I leave that to a higher power.”
Her message is rather one of uplift and empathy. “I feel it is important to talk about love and healing,” she said.
What comes through during her frequent visits to schools and prisons is a resilience fused with humor and maternal warmth. Her talks bring tears to the eyes of her listeners, some of them toughened male inmates, others high school students who have lived through traumatic events of their own.
In the film, Grace Lamar, 14, recounts the story of her grandfather, gunned down in his home. She didn’t witness the event but doubts that she could have mustered Ms. Warshawski’s fortitude.
Her voice breaking, she tells Ms. Warshawski: “You have the wisdom of a 40-year-old when you’re 15.”
Ms. Warshawski’s compulsion to testify took on weight in the turbulent aftermath of the 2016 presidential election, and it carries fresh urgency in the wake of a spate of recent tragedies: mass shootings and terror attacks. “Politics, I don’t want to go into that,” she said.
“But 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.”
For Leah Warshawski, Ms. Warshawski’s granddaughter, who made the film with Todd Soliday, completing the project — which took six years — carried a different sort of urgency. “We realized that within our lifetime, all of the survivors would be gone,” she said. “How would those stories be passed to the next generation?”
To capture the film’s more harrowing episodes, the filmmakers, now married, turned to animation. “We wanted to be specific to Sonia’s story, rather than using stock footage, which would have been very difficult to watch,” Mr. Soliday said.
The filmmakers trained their lens tirelessly on their unabashedly flamboyant subject, a woman who wears her hair in a corona of dark natural curls, favors scarlet lipstick and cannot bring herself to abandon the wildcat patterns that are her trademark.
“Leopard,” she said, “it never goes out of style.”
Her predilection, Mr. Soliday pointed out, is a little more complicated: “Leopard spots are meant to be camouflage, but with Sonia, it signals, ‘I’m here.’”
Some things have changed since the film was first screened in Napa, Calif., last year. Making its wider debut on Friday, it offers no hint of the upbeat events that would follow. This year John’s Tailoring reopened in a more spacious, light-filled location.
“I call it the sunroom,” Ms. Warshawski said. “I have a lot of plants. I have two dressing rooms,” an important addition, she said, since most of her customers have followed her there.
The space, as she described it, is a vibrant work in progress, leaving room to spare for the tassels, trimmings, giddy artworks and Old World-style furnishings that have accompanied her over the years.
She is in no particular hurry to crowd it with trinkets or complete the décor, she said. “I begin it like a flower that’s still closed,” she said. “And now, with the daylight, it’s opening.”
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