Big Sonia is 97 Fabulous Years Young
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Big Sonia is 97 Fabulous Years Young

Aggressive marketing and the development of new technologies may keep alive the lessons Sonia Warshawski learned during the Holocaust.

Leah Warshawski and her husband, Todd Soliday, produced and directed “Big Sonia.”
Leah Warshawski and her husband, Todd Soliday, produced and directed “Big Sonia.”

Leah Warshawski spent six years working on the documentary, “Big Sonia,” about her grandmother’s experiences during, and after the Holocaust. Her portrait of Sonia Warshawski, who stands only 4’8,” and who is now 97, is of a woman who later in life became a diminutive dynamo.

Despite having lost her entire immediate family in the Holocaust and having survived three of the most notorious concentration camps in Europe, Sonia, as she grew older, become a resolute and articulate survivor who kept up a lively schedule of appearances as a Holocaust speaker.

And she had style, dressed in high heels, boldly colored outfits, and her leopard print accessories. But even with all that going for her, her granddaughter was not sure how to present her grandmother as an inspiring star.

“Big Sonia” was shown at the 2017 Atlanta Jewish Film Festival.

“We had a lot of hopes and dreams, but we didn’t really understand how it was going to unfold,” she said. “Sure, we have these great ideas, but how is that going to happen?”

By the time the film was screened at the 2017 Atlanta Jewish Film Festival, she was beginning to feel more comfortable. It picked up a pair of festival awards in California the year before and went on win best documentary at Jewish festivals in Philadelphia and Seattle and carried off the grand jury prize at the Barcelona International Film Festival.

It was reviewed in the New York Times and then was rapturously received in Kansas City, Leah Warshawski’s hometown, where the film ran for five months in a local theater, often to sellout crowds. It was estimated that more than 23,000 people saw the film during its extended run.

The documentary uses animation in part to describe Sonia Warshawski’s harrowing experiences during the Holocaust.

But, despite its success before theater audiences and the festival circuit, Warshawski faced the possibility that “Big Sonia,” like so many prize-winning documentaries, would fade and quickly be forgotten once screenings in various media dried up.

Leah Warshawski was determined, however, not to allow her grandmother to be just another footnote in the history books. To the six years the film was in production, she’s added six more years keeping it alive.

“No one wants to hear this, but a lot of keeping a documentary like this going has to do with marketing and how much time, effort, and money you spend promoting your film. I took two years off to basically go to every single screening event and festival that I could. And my husband, Todd, who created the film with me, came along to a lot of those promoting and marketing the film in person as much as humanly possible.”

Ninety-six-year-old Sonia Warshawski recorded answers to 800 questions about her life and her experience of the Holocaust.

In test screenings, Warshawski found that her grandmother’s experiences as a teenager during the war resonated with younger audiences. So did her appearances in the film before high schoolers and adolescents who were struggling with issues that had left them with unanswered personal questions.

The advice she gave was simple and straight from the heart, and there was a maternal warmth in her words that teens found appealing. Warshawski enlisted a Los Angeles based nonprofit, Journeys in Film, to produce a study guide for high schools with lesson plans to accompany a DVD of the production. The project was produced by Jennifer Fischer who saw in the personal story of “Big Sonia,” a way to engage young people in an exploration of the tragedies of the Holocaust.

“Those first-hand testimonies are so critical. They’re so important. There’s nothing like them. And so, I think film and film resources, and some of the interactive media that we have the ability to use now that keeps those survivor stories alive, keeps them present for future generations, will just be so critical and so important.”

Using technology developed by Stephen Smith, StoryFile, “Big Sonia” audiences can ask Sonia Warshawski almost any questions and have her answer it on screen.

Last April, “Big Sonia” was the offering during Holocaust Awareness Month on many PBS stations around the country and, until 2025, it will be streamed on the public broadcasting website.

Because one day her grandmother may not be around to tell her story herself, Warshawski has been exploring advanced technology to reach audiences, particularly young people to keep Sonia’s story absorbing.

Last year, she brought Sonia, who was then 96, in front of the camera again. This time, she spent five days, answering a lengthy series of questions about every aspect of her life, her personal philosophy, and her first-hand experiences during those terrifying years of World War II.

For a new generation of students, who may just be learning about the Holocaust, the project will allow them to ask a question about her life and her experiences and see her answer the question in her own words on a screen in front of them. The project, produced in collaboration with a company called StoryFile, is now in the testing stage and is expected to be available to museums and schools for the first time during this year’s Yom HaShoah, Holocaust Remembrance Day, in mid-April.

“There are over 800 question and answer combinations, but you can actually ask her anything you want. And the more you ask, the smarter the system gets. It essentially allows you to have a conversation with Sonia on a screen. You’re asking her questions and she’s answering in real time.”

Sonia Warshawski may be among this last of a long and heroic line of those who witnessed the Holocaust first-hand and lived to tell about it, often in profound and eloquent terms. But unlike so many of them who passed away before the advent of recent, powerful technologies, she may have the last word.

Aided, initially, by all the advances in digital media, and now with the development of the algorithms of artificial intelligence, new youthful audiences may continue to find “Big Sonia” standing tall for generations to come.

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