Size matters not: Big Sonia (***½)

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on February 10, 2018)

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“I cried because I had no shoes, until I met a man who had no feet.”

— Helen Keller

As a corollary to my review of 12 Years a Slave, I referenced Claude Lanzmann’s 1985 Holocaust documentary Shoah, making this observation:

[Shoah] is, hands down, the most harrowing, emotionally shattering and profoundly moving film I have ever seen about man’s inhumanity to man. And guess what? In 9 ½ hours, you don’t see one single image or reenactment of the actual horrors. It is people (victims and perpetrators) simply telling their story and collectively creating an oral history. And I was riveted.

There is a scene in Leah Warshawski and Todd Soliday’s documentary, Big Sonia, where you witness something just short of a miracle: a group of junior high students sitting in wide-eyed attentiveness; clearly riveted by a personal story emitting not from a cell phone or a laptop, but rather from a diminutive octogenarian woman. By the end of the talk, many of the students are brought to tears (as is the viewer). But this is no pity party; in fact, many of them now seem genuinely inspired to go make a difference in the world.

Her name is Sonia, and her story is much larger and more impactful than her 4 foot, 8-inch frame might suggest. An eighty-something widow, she lives in Kansas City and runs her own business, John’s Tailoring (named after her late husband, who started the modest shop many years ago). Located in an otherwise abandoned mall, the shop nonetheless boasts a sizeable base of dedicated customers, who are really more of an extended family.

You can see what earns the customers’ loyalty; the warm, personable Sonia has an infectious enthusiasm for life. This may seem unremarkable in and of itself; as we’ve all known people who can “light up a room”. But once you learn her history, it’s astounding.

Because you see, Sonia is not only the last proprietress standing in the empty mall, but one of the last remaining Holocaust survivors in Kansas City. No Holocaust survivor’s tale is a happy one, but Sonia’s is particularly harrowing and heartbreaking. During the war, she endured death marches and internment at several concentration camps. When she was 15, she watched helplessly as her mother was herded into the gas chambers. On liberation day, fate dealt her a cruel blow when she was accidentally shot through the chest.

Those experiences would break anyone’s spirit; but Sonia managed to move on with her life, eventually meeting and marrying fellow survivor John. To be sure, Sonia and her husband, who both maintained upbeat attitudes, were still haunted by their horrible wartime experiences (the couple’s now adult children recount how they would sometimes be awakened at night by their late father, who would scream in his sleep). Even after her husband passed away, Sonia refused to give in the dark side; devoting herself to the shop.

Running the shop is only her day job. Not content to rest on her laurels, Sonia devotes much of her spare time to community involvement. Rather than suppressing the darkest days of her life, she speaks about them publicly, and frequently. Her mission, however, is not to bring people down, but to lift them up. In essence, her message is: You think you’ve got insurmountable problems in your life? Look at the hand I was dealt. I have every conceivable right to be bitter, angry, and depressed. Yet I choose to be an optimist.

Even when she is given notice to vacate the mall, her optimism doesn’t falter (no spoilers). And there are other surprises in store as the film makers slowly unpeel the many layers of this remarkable woman’s resolve and the depth of her empathy for others (by the way, co-director Warshawski is Sonia’s granddaughter, but commendably maintains a  sense of intimacy without turning her portrait into a glorified home movie).

Sonia certainly puts me to shame. I’ll be thinking twice before I kvetch about my “issues” from here on in. After seeing this woman in action, one is reminded of Yoda’s line from The Empire Strikes Back: “Judge me by my size, do you?” And, Sonia has a major edge on Yoda…she apparently has a killer-bee homemade gefilte fish recipe. Yummy delish!

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