Sonia Warshawski was only 17 when she watched her mother being marched to the gas chamber at the Majdanek death camp in Nazi-occupied Poland.
She hadn’t seen her brother or father since the Nazis rounded up her family and put them on cattle cars, and she would never see any of them again. Her sister escaped and eventually settled in Israel.
Warshawski’s story is told in the award-winning documentary Big Sonia. Directed by her niece, Leah, and featuring the voices of her children, Regina, Bill, and Debbie, the film was part of Maryville University’s Medart Lecture Series in February 2020. Maryville Hillel and the College of Arts and Sciences collaborated on the screening.
Germaine Murray, Ph.D., Director of the Medart Lecture Series, and Erin Schreiber, Hillel’s founding manager, believe that Sonia’s message of tenacity and triumph not only educates about the Holocaust, but also helps today’s students feel empowered to bring good into the world.
“When I read about the film, I thought it was the perfect way to bring this important story to the audience,” Murray says. “Of course it’s tragic, but it’s not overly graphic. It handles the material well, especially for younger people.”
“It also puts a personal spin on something that can seem very impersonal,” Schreiber adds. “Like Sonia, many survivors have an optimistic outlook, but it can be hard to hear their stories.”
Sonia met her future husband, John, at Bergen Belsen, her third and final camp. Despite being nearly shot to death by a stray bullet as Soviet soldiers liberated the camp, she survived. As Sonia says in the film, “There is hell. I was in that hell.”
After the war, Sonia and John settled in a Kansas City suburb, opened a tailor shop, and raised their family. One day she heard about skinheads who denied that the Holocaust had happened, and she realized her mission: sharing her story with school children, prisoners, and anyone else who would listen.
“This is the reason I survived,” she says. “I have to tell it for them. My biggest accomplishment is to reach into their hearts and take out hate.”
These are the bare facts of Sonia’s story, but as she notes in the film, “I can tell you facts. But facts are barely any of it. Facts are not even the beginning.”
Unfortunately, today many students do not even know the facts about the Holocaust. Only 12 states require Holocaust education, and survivors—and their stories—are dying daily. That made Big Sonia a perfect joint project for Murray and Schreiber.
“The Medart series’ primary goal is education,” says Murray, who has brought hundreds of films, lectures and panels about numerous topics to campus as part of the series. “One challenge of using film to educate about the Holocaust is that many of them are overwhelming. This is a great educational tool because Sonia herself is so human and accessible.”
Schreiber agrees. “The exposure and familiarity the film provides is so important,” she says. “It can be easy to say, ‘The Holocaust doesn’t matter to me because I am not a survivor,’ but you can’t forget Sonia.”
Murray especially appreciated the film’s focus on the Holocaust’s effects on Sonia’s family. In fact, Sonia’s daughter Debbie attended the screening. Murray was surprised to learn that Debbie had been her upstairs neighbor for nearly 30 years, but she did not know that Sonia was Debbie’s mother until she recognized the last name while reading about the film.
“Growing up as kids of a survivor is different,” Debbie says. “You have a different outlook. You know things can happen to you and your family. When you know it has happened to your parents, you feel it firsthand.”
Following the film, Debbie took questions from the audience, which included other children of Holocaust survivors.
“They came to understand why their parents were the way they were,” Murray says. “Families have to talk about these things.”
Murray plans to begin showing the film in her classes, and she is already receiving requests from other faculty members to show it. Schreiber believes it will be a great complement to the Holocaust survivor speaker series Hillel hosts each October. It draws about 450 people on a campus with around 250 Jewish students.
“Students today have a lot of anxiety because they feel powerless in a flood of constant bad news,” Murray says. “Stories like Sonia’s show that there really are good things happening, and that you do have the power to make even more good things happen.”
The was founded by the late Josephine Medart, Trustee Emeritus of Maryville University and former member of the Alumni Association Board of Directors and the University Board of Trustees.