92-year-old ‘Big Sonia’ recounts surviving ‘hell’ of Holocaust, warns of rising hatred, racism
photo by: Kathy Hanks
Conditions in the death camp were so horrific that Sonia Warshawski watched as women took their own lives by throwing themselves on electrified fences.
She felt it was a courageous thing for them to do.
“But I was fighting to survive,” Warshawski said Friday afternoon to a packed house at the Dole Institute of Politics.
One of the last remaining Holocaust survivors living in Kansas City, Warshawski stars in the documentary “Big Sonia,” produced by her granddaughter Leah Warshawski. Last week, the documentary was shown at the Dole Institute; this week, Warshawski, joined by daughter Regina Kort, sat at the front of the room speaking about experiences she had tried to suppress for decades.
Dressed in her signature leopard print, the fashionable 92-year-old spoke in a Polish accent, telling the crowd how she went from never speaking of the horrors of the four death camps she was in to speaking of them publicly.
“When I came out of that hell, I could not talk about it,” she said. It was so horrible she just wanted to erase the memory.
“Even when people told jokes, I would feel guilty if I smiled,” she said.
Warshawski and her husband, a Holocaust survivor whom she met at a displaced persons camp, came to Kansas City and began a new life.
Then, about 15 years ago, she realized racism and neo-Nazism were on the rise.
“Then it hit me,” she said. “This is why I survived to tell my story.”
She told the audience about the thriving small town in eastern Poland where she was raised in a middle-class, conservative Jewish family. By 1942 the Nazis had forced the Jews into a ghetto, where her family crowded into a single room.
When her family was rounded up to be taken to camps, she and her mother went together on a cramped railroad car to their first death camp. Her father and brother were killed during the war, and a sister survived.
She came face to face with Josef Mengele, the notorious German doctor who experimented on and tortured prisoners. He had arrived at their camp to select who would live and who would die.
“We had to take off all our clothes outside and go through the selection,” she said, wringing her hands as she spoke, her voice quivering. “He was a short guy with white gloves and he held a stick. We knew what it meant to go right or left.”
Her mother was selected to go left, to the gas chamber, and Sonia was directed to go right, back into the camp. She wanted to go with her mother, she said, but guards pushed her to the right.
The horrors mounted — and so did Warshawski’s will to live. On the day her camp was being liberated, she was shot in the chest during the chaos.
She remembers thinking, “I went through all this and now I must perish?”
A Russian soldier picked her up and took her outside.
“He said he wanted me to see the liberation before I died,” she said.
But Warshawski didn’t die. Instead, she keeps telling her story because she believes the hate must stop.
“Love, respect others and be kind,” she said. “People say how can I talk about love with all I have been through? I will never forget or forgive, but I won’t hate.”
On the subject of forgiveness, she says, “I have to leave that up to a higher power.” In a normal life she could forgive, she said, but then the images of all the people she saw going to the gas chamber return, the bodies cremated. For them, she said, she can’t forgive.
Warshawski said her favorite places to speak are schools, so she can talk to younger generations.
Pointing her manicured finger, she admonished the students in the audience: “If you do not respect your teacher, you will never learn.”