At just 4 ft. 8 in. tall, Sonia Warshawski can barely see above her leopard print steering wheel as she drives herself to work. The 92-year-old great grandmother runs a tailor’s shop in Kansas City, where she dispenses words of wisdom and fashion advice to customers. In her spare time, she reduces hardened criminals to tears – telling her Holocaust survival story. Polish-born Sonia was 13 when World War 2 broke out. She last saw her father and brother being dragged off by Nazi soldiers. At Majdanek, she watched her mother walk into the gas chamber, then endured brutal beatings at Auschwitz and a near-fatal shooting at Bergen-Belsen as Allied troops neared.
Now the feisty widow’s poignant story is being told in a new documentary, “Big Sonia,” by her acclaimed filmmaker granddaughter Leah Warshawski, set for limited national release November 17. Here, she tells Senior Planet about her life and her refusal to retire.
Senior Planet: How did you feel when you arrived in America after the war?
Sonia: The first years when I came out from this hell, I felt guilty even to smile. When my three children first asked me about the numbers tattooed on my arm, it took me unprepared and I told them, “If mama gets lost, you will be able to find me.” Later, after we gave them the best education and college, they knew then.
Senior Planet: What made you decide to talk about your experiences?
Sonia: One day I heard the (Holocaust) deniers and it was like a storm picked me up. I knew I had to tell the story. I only carry in my heart love and respect. I speak in a lot of schools and this, for me, is special, especially when I see letters saying I have changed their lives. I try to put love in their hearts and this is one of my greatest achievements.
Senior Planet: You also speak to murderers and other hardened criminals in prisons.
Sonia: I feel I can give them a little message about how they are handling things, especially for the ones who are coming out, getting ready for jobs. When I see them afterwards they embrace me. They are dressed up and have jobs when they come out. They look wonderful and that is most moving.
Senior Planet: Tell us more about that message.
Sonia: I tell people I will never forget and I will never forgive but I will never hate. If I become a hater I will destroy myself. I live with this all of my years. I keep busy. I like to be always with people. I lost my husband 27 years ago, so the shop, this is my life. I love nature and people. What can I tell you? Keep going — we are only visitors in this beautiful world.
Senior Planet: When we meet you in “Big Sonia,” you are offering advice to customers, saying animal prints never go out of fashion.
Sonia: That’s right. I love the leopard skin print and the leopard as an animal too. I love nature. I feel people don’t always see the beauty the Almighty gave us. I love gardening, I love the flowers, the birds, the little creatures.
Senior Planet: What did you learn during the making of the documentary?
Sonia: It was a labor of love for six-and-a-half years for my granddaughter and her team. They worked so hard and now I understand more about filming and Hollywood. I just turned 92 but one year ago at a film festival in Napa Valley, California, I had an unforgettable birthday when the documentary won the first prize. That was really something.
Senior Planet: What does aging with attitude mean to you?
Sonia: Your body tells you you’re aging, of course. But in my mind I am still young. I don’t believe in retiring, we should keep going as long as we can. In our society now there are so many black spots and we can do so much to change that. There is not a day that I don’t think of something we can do to improve our beautiful world.