An award-winning documentary about then 91-year-old Holocaust survivor, great-grandmother and businesswoman Sonia Warshawski is returning to Atlanta. “Big Sonia,” which premiered at the Atlanta Jewish Film Festival in 2017, returns to WPBA, Atlanta’s Public Television station, at the end of April.
While the film describes Warshawski’s experience during the Holocaust, it does not dwell on the losses she sustained. Rather, it concentrates on her indomitable spirit and infectious personality, even as she bears witness to all that she has learned from her horrific experience.
The ironic title says it all. Though the diminutive Sonia stands no more than 4 feet 8 inches tall, onscreen she emerges as someone who has risen above her circumstances to affirm a message of hope rather than bitterness.
In the course of the film, appearing before a group of local prison inmates, she puts it this way: “I can’t forgive, that will be for a higher power to do, but I can tell you to try and put love in your heart, try to help others and become a different person.”
It’s a simple yet profound message that’s shaped by Sonia’s granddaughter, Leah Warshawski, and her husband, Todd Soliday, who serves as the film’s editor, into a taut and compelling tale of perseverance and survival.
The film has been screened at the Library of Congress for an audience of Washington’s elite, had a successful theatrical run and picked up numerous awards from film festivals, including Best Documentary at the prestigious Barcelona International Film Festival. An educational package with a study guide and lesson plan is available to accompany an abbreviated version of the film. But despite its success, it is largely unknown to most Americans — something that is hopefully about to change.
This Passover season, the film has been scheduled by 345 PBS stations in 150 markets in 44 states across the country. Those stations reach some 95 percent of the U.S. population. And, if some miss the showing this month, the agreement gives PBS stations a three-year window to reschedule the film. Warshawski and her husband are hopeful that “Big Sonia” will get a further boost in September, when PBS broadcasts a three-part documentary by Ken Burns about America and the Holocaust.
Increasingly, as survivors of the Holocaust age and pass away, the impact of personal testimony will diminish. That’s why Leah Warshawski feels the urgency of bringing her grandmother’s story to as many people as possible.
Last summer, she worked with the creators of the interactive platform Story File and Steven Spielberg’s Shoah Foundation to re-record Sonia, who is now 96.
The goal of the sessions is to develop a presentation that makes it possible for future generations to have a virtual conversation with the Holocaust survivor. It is what Story File calls “Conversational Television.” Testing of the Sonia recordings is expected to begin this month.
Warshawski is hopeful that the Story File production will help to fill the gap that’s widened with younger generations, as the number of living survivors who personally experienced the Holocaust dwindles.
“I think we know that within our lifetime, all of the survivors will be gone. So we have been working at a fever pitch to make an impact while Sonia’s still alive,” she said. “You know, when the survivors are gone, there’s still going to be impact, but it’s just not the same as having somebody in front of you. This Shoah Foundation project is going to allow people to have a conversation with her, ask her questions, but it’s still not the real person. And that’s tough, and it’s going to be really, really sad.”
Yet, for all the concern from its creators about what comes next, “Big Sonia” remains focused on how the life of one Holocaust survivor can touch the lives of so many — not the least of which have been Leah and other Warshawski family members.
In the film, Sonia’s son, Morrie, is moved to tears by a poem he wrote for her:
“The lady never shakes free the ashes of the dead.
Dark clouds. Dark cauliflower fists …
This lady is the witness who never forgets.”
Big Sonia is a witness you are not likely to forget, either.
Watch “Big Sonia” on Atlanta’s WPBA 30 on Friday, April 29, at 10 p.m.
- Arts and Culture
- Bob Bahr
- World War II
- Sonia Warshawski
- Atlanta Jewish Film Festival
- Atlanta Public Television
- Todd Soliday
- Barcelona International Film Festival
- Library of Congress
- Ken Burns
- Steven Spielberg Shoah Foundation
- Story File
- conversational television
- Leah Warshawski