Twice during the new documentary Big Sonia, Sonia Warshawski says forgiveness has to come from a higher power, because what she experienced during the Holocaust overwhelmed her own capacity to forgive. One of those experiences, the most devastating, was watching her mother forced by guards into a line leading to the gas chamber, an event that clearly left a gaping crater in Sonia’s heart; she repeatedly touches her mother’s memory throughout the film.
The terrible scale of the Holocaust and the depths of Sonia’s sadness are belied, here, by the film’s quotidian setting in suburban Kansas City, Kansas, where she and her husband, John, another Holocaust survivor, emigrated after the war. John, a tailor, eventually opened a shop in a suburban mall.
Directors Todd Soliday and Leah Warshawski, Sonia’s granddaughter, are able to document Sonia’s American period with photos — nearly everything from her early life was lost during the war, and for Sonia’s terrible reminiscences, the film relies on animated depictions based on her drawings. After John’s death, she took over his tailor shop — the film finds her operating the only remaining store in a dead shopping mall.
The loose structure is bound by a thread of motherhood. Sonia’s children, two daughters and a son, are lively, intelligent, and deeply affected by their parents’ trauma. They recall their father regularly shouting in his sleep, and describe Sonia as tough and demanding — but nonetheless, a mother who they always knew loved them. The directors make excellent visual use of the mall with drifting shots of empty stores and dry fountains that once cascaded down two stories, a visual reminder of time’s arrow and other, more important losses.
Directed by Todd Soliday and Leah Warshawski
Opens November 17, Quad Cinema