Sonia Warshawski in Big Sonia (Argot Pictures)

In a time where the last survivors of the Holocaust are becoming fewer by the year, this film quietly and assuredly calls upon viewers to cherish and acknowledge those willing to speak out about that time in history. Big Sonia is an inspiring recollection of bravery in the face of unimaginable suffering. The documentary follows the life of co-director Leah Warshawski’s 91-year-old grandmother, Sonia Warshawski, a sweet, content businesswoman in Kansas City, Kansas, who embodies a generation as well as an endearing maternal figure.

She and her daughter Regina participate in an educational program, traveling to schools throughout the state retelling the brutality Sonia endured in her time spent in, as she says, “actual hell.” Her story visibly affects teenagers, perhaps the film’s mostly likely audience. (Another touching scene occurs when Sonia visits a prison and recounts her memories, and men who have been outcast from society undergo personal transformations in the presence of this woman.) Viewers also grow to appreciate the importance of storytelling and the impact it has on others. Meanwhile, we discover she is being evicted from her tailoring shop in a rundown mall, which forces to reconsider her life’s purpose.

Through various in-depth interviews, she reveals the heartache that follows her to this day. Viewers are given an insight to her experiences, but even here she is guarded and controlled. Behind Sonia’s blue eye make-up are visions of suffering and pain only she sees. Her accounts are accompanied with beautifully crafted animation, and despite the subject matter, viewers are left feeling optimistic and inspired.

About midway, the filmmakers take a step back to focus on the relationship between grandmother and granddaughter. Without the trust and closeness between all members of this family, the film would not have revealed the emotional hardships experienced by the entire family. One of the most interesting aspects of this documentary is the second-generation Holocaust survivor’s perspective and the insight into living with intergenerational trauma.

A film that inspires compassion and understanding, Big Sonia tells the story of a woman who endured hatred but now embodies love. She forever stays true to her innate trust in herself and her beliefs, even if it is defending her famous gefilte fish. Warshawski gives us her grandmother, in her leopard print and all, to honor one woman’s struggle.

Directed by Leah Warshawski and Todd Soliday
Released by Argot Pictures
USA. 93 min. Not rated