The documentary “Big Sonia” opens with a little old Eastern European woman in a car marveling at the “bog mindling” beauty of nature in everything. The cute outset is quickly contrasted with the film’s overarching question: If something terrible happens to a child, does it affect her for the next 70 years?
Sonia, the film’s protagonist, is shown pondering this question on a radio show – the tattooed number on her arm peeking past the sleeve of her chic red blazer. But it’s the film’s director, Sonia’s granddaughter, who answers this pivotal question by splicing together the endless, endearing moments of the golden-hearted 80-something’s everyday life with depictions of the horrors her grandmother faced as a Jewish teenager in 1940s Poland. The obvious and unequivocal conclusion to the above question is, absolutely.
Sonia works six days a week at her tailor shop, named after her late husband, in a midwestern mall that’s on its last legs. The camera follows her commute, as the mall’s adoring security guard ushers her on walks from her premiere “no parking” parking spot and perusal of the shopping mall’s empty halls. Despite being the final occupants of the mall, Sonia’s shop continues to thrive.Throngs of decades-long regulars flood in and out, each greeted with hugs and kisses and showered with compliments. We follow Sonia further as she navigates the world behind her leopard-print steering wheel cover on her car, visiting family, running errands, and picking up only the freshest bigmouth buffalo prepared specially for her by yet more adoring staff. This makes for a fine gefilte fish Sonia joyously brings to the Rosh Hashanah table.
But Sonia’s life certainly hasn’t been all charm and adoration.
Interviews with her children reveal that, although their mother never talked about the Holocaust, they could sense a darkness in their parents, both of whom were survivors. Sonia buried her story until she saw a skinhead on TV denying the existence of what she endured. Sonia then wills herself to recount the trauma of being sniffed out by Nazi dogs while hiding in an attic and transported to a concentration camp at 14 years old. She speaks about permanently parting from her father and brother shortly thereafter. She speaks about the beatings and torture, starvation and fear, and being forced to spread the ashes of her people as fertilizer. And she finally opens up about watching her mother walk off to the gas chamber. Sonia persevered through all of this, only to be shot through the chest on the day of her camp’s liberation.
She recovered, she moved to America, she built a new life, she got married, she raised a new family, and she built her beloved store.
Sonia’s physical survival is inexplicable, but the crux of this film lies in her soul’s resilience. To lose so much and be able to rebuild is a story of unconquerable will. And she carries that message to schools, where young victims of personal trauma find empathy and inspiration in her ability not to hate, even the Nazis. And to prisons, where she gains respect of grizzled inmates because Sonia, a sweet, sub-five-foot old lady, is tougher than they can ever imagine. Your hardships can be overcome, she teaches.
She lost her entire family. She built a new one. She lost her husband. She carried on his work. And finally, she lost her tailoring shop when the relic mall of middle America was deemed for demolition. Her reading of the notice that her lease was terminated was one of the most gut-wrenching moments of the film. Yet, in her late 80s, Sonia rebuilds an entire new store – and that store thrived, too.
Sonia says she survived the death camps in order to tell the story of the Holocaust. But throughout the film, her grace, wisdom, and wit; her beauty and charm; her charity and love; and most of all, her resilience despite tragedy after tragedy, show that there’s more to the reason she survived.
Although the film makes no mention of it, Sonia survived to tell the story of the Jewish people. Tiny, battered, but never broken – and always big.
About the Author: Max Bluestein is a part of our “Gather the Bloggers” cohort of talented writers who share their thoughts and insights about DC Jewish life with you. He is a full-time government flack and part-time research consultant on security issues. With whatever time is left, he’s a writer, traveler, gym-rat, and charity fundraiser. Also husband. Definitely husband.