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‘Big Sonia’-Sun Valley Filmmakers Create Story of Strength in Remembering
Wednesday, March 15, 2017


Leah Warshawski did not set out to do a film about her grandmother’s experience as a Holocaust survivor.

Instead, she and her husband Todd Soliday wanted to make a funny film focusing on her immigrant grandmother’s quirky, perky personality, which has endeared her to hundreds of people who have frequented her tailor shop in suburban Kansas City.

But they soon realized that post traumatic stress related to the horrors of the concentration camps lay smoldering underneath everything Grandma Sonia said and did. And, when Sonia Warshawski learned she was to be evicted as the once-ritzy Metcalf South shopping center was shuttered, a new question came into focus: How would this woman who has always stayed busy to avoid coming to face to face with the dark parts of her past survive retirement?

The finished product—“Big Sonia”—is one of the must-see films of the 2017 Sun Valley Film Festival presented by Zions Bank, which begins today—Wednesday, March 15, said the festival’s programming director Laura Mehlhaff.

“The story feels very timely in its subject matter,” Mehlhaff said. “It calls attention to that part of history we would like to forget but shouldn’t. And it has a lot of heart.”

“Big Sonia,” which will close out the Sun Valley Film Festival at 6 p.m. Sunday, March 19, in the Sun Valley Opera House, turns the lens on a Holocaust survivor who stands just 4-foot-8 but has big hair, big car, big personality, big impact.

Now 92, the spunky woman is also full of Sonia-isms stemming from her self-taught English.

“She gets things mixed up. For instance, instead of saying ‘mind-boggling,’ she’ll say ‘bog mindling,’ ” said Warshawski, who spent six years making the film.

Warshawski’s grandmother was a teenager when she was sent to concentration camps in Auschwitz, Bergen-Belsen and Majdanek. She watched her mother sent to the gas chamber. And she herself was shot in the chest on Liberation Day, the bullet missing her heart by a centimeter.

The Polish native settled in Kansas City following the war with her husband John, whom she met at a displaced persons camp.  

In recent years, she has begun going into the schools, telling students about her experience and  imploring them to refrain from bullying and discrimination.

College students interview her for term papers. Women going through rocky times in their marriages ask her advice on love. High school girls invite her to help them shop for prom dresses. And, any time there’s an anti-Semitic brouhaha, the Kansas City Star seeks her out for a quote.

“She’s very engaging. She can make you feel special, like you’re the most important person on earth,” said Warshawski. “People come just to hang out with her. People bring their kids to meet her because they want them to meet a Holocaust survivor. She’s like the grandmother everyone wishes they had.”

In many respects, Sonia is fearless. She still drives. She has no qualms about cutting in line. And she’s obsessed with flowers—anything living.

But, as Warshawski and Soliday worked with her, they noticed signs of PTSD.

“She has a lot of anxiety and can’t sit still. She’s always fidgeting. Her mind is never calm. Even if you catch her sitting on a rare occasion, the gears in her head are usually churning. And, long past the age most people would have retired, she HAS to go to work—she needs that purpose,” Warshawski said.

“That said, she has a lot to teach us.”

The couple used animation to tell of Sonia’s experiences during the Holocaust as the film evolved into a  modern-day survival story showing the impact one woman can have on others—plenty of humor included.

Warshawski and Soliday, both snowboarders, were married at River Run Lodge. They introduced themselves to the Sun Valley Film Festival with their first feature documentary “Finding Hillywood,” about the power of film in Rwanda. The film has been screened at more than 70 film festivals, winning six awards.

A few years ago, they moved their primary home from Seattle to Sun Valley.

Warshawski has worked on major motion pictures and TV shows, including “Baywatch” and “Lost.” Soliday has worked on such documentaries as “Platinum” about Mt. Baker’s legendary banked slalom, “Out of Luck” about state lotteries and “The Breach” about saving salmon runs.

The couple is trying to raise money to get “Big Sonia” into theaters. And they want to produce a shortened version that can be shown in schools.

“When people see the film, they’re inspired to do something,” said Warshawski. “In addition to everything else, it’s a story about family dynamics that is so relatable, so universal. So, it really has a broad reach. People really relate to Sonia and her daughters. And Sonia has a lot to teach us, after all these years.”


It screens at 6 p.m. Sunday, March 19, at the Sun Valley Opera House. Filmmakers Leah Warshawski and Todd Soliday will field questions afterwards. Tickets are $10, available at or at the Film Festival box office at Warfield Distillery in Ketchum.

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