Saturday movie review: Big Sonia

What the world needs now is love. And tolerance and acceptance and BIG SONIA — both the film as well as Sonia Warshawski on whom the film is based.

Ninety-one-year-old Sonia Warshawski is a Holocaust survivor. She was an eye-witness to genocide, the victim of horrors unknown to all but those who lived and died in concentration camps, one who miraculously made it through six years of hell to the unforgettable day of liberation by allied forces.


BIG SONIA is Sonia's story, directed by Sonia's granddaughter, filmmaker Leah Warshawski. There's more to Sonia's story though, more to BIG SONIA, than her years being shuttled from one camp to another, barely making it out alive. Much more. 

Sonia Warshawski married a fellow prisoner, became a mother, a grandmother, a great-grandmother, and a widow who took over her husband's tailor business upon his death. Now, at 91, Sonia faces the closing of the thriving tailor shop that keeps her busy, keeps her happy, keeps her connected to the community. The tailor shop that keeps serving customers from a Kansas City mall that has emptied of businesses except for hers.

An eviction notice for the shop she's managed for decades and the likelihood of retirement ignite Sonia's determination to overcome the challenge. While contemplating her future, she shares her harrowing past in hopes of inspiring others to overcome — with love — the challenges in their lives.

The themes of BIG SONIA are varied and layered. The documentary delves into generational trauma, the importance of embracing family, the power of love and acceptance (but not necessarily forgiveness) against injustice, the significance of purpose in later years, even the melancholy in the death of modern retail. Timely truths our angry and despaired society sorely needs to hear now, act on now.

The on-camera interviews with Sonia's adult children, the patrons of her beloved tailor shop, the teens, prisoners and others with whom Sonia has presented her compelling narrative provide a poignant, well-rounded portrait of the resilient woman. A woman who knows for certain it is possible to survive hell... and be a better person because of it.

Sonia's visits to schools and prisons, sharing her inspirational and important true tales of horror as well as triumph, make for some of the most powerful moments in the film. Yet a smaller, more intimate scene in which Sonia leads the camera into her bedroom to reveal the one and only memento she has of her mother was, for me, the most memorable (and heartbreaking).

Despite heavy topics and some truly heart-wrenching moments, BIG SONIA is a loving and often funny tribute to an inspirational woman who changes lives by living hers to the fullest — and unflinchingly letting others know the reasons she relishes life and loved ones so.

The following video, made for the film's fundraising campaign (now closed), reveals more about the endearing relationship between the filmmaker granddaughter and her complex, compelling grandmother.

Sonia Warshawski is a small woman making a big impact. BIG SONIA is a small film doing the same. I'm honored and humbled to have been introduced to Sonia and her story via the documentary. How life-changing it must be for those privileged to hear the pint-sized powerhouse in person.

BIG SONIA has garnered numerous awards on the film festival circuit. The documentary opened in select U.S. theaters November 17, 2017. Visit for more on the film and the delightful diva it's about.

Disclosure: I screened this film free for review; all opinions are my own.