Survivor closes tailor shop at Metcalf South, producers seek funds to complete ‘Big Sonia’ documentary
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- Published: Thursday, 10 July 2014 10:00
- Written by Barbara Bayer, Editor
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Sonia Warshawski officially locked the doors of John’s Tailoring for the last time late last week. For now, even though she hates the word retired, you can say she’s starting a new chapter of her life.
But is she?
Warshawski, who opened John’s Tailoring with her late husband John Warshawski in the early 1980s at Metcalf South Shopping Center, considered relocating but “someone else grabbed the spot” she was looking at. Her granddaughter Leah Warshawski said in an email this week that Sonia hasn’t completely closed the door on the idea of relocating.
During the shop’s final days, Sonia was kicking herself a little that she didn’t have a new location.
‘I didn’t listen to my own voice,” she said, alluding to the fact that she isn’t ready to retire.
“I am emotional,” she continued.
“I will miss my people the most,” said Sonia about closing the store, located “kitty corner to Sears.”
She is loved by many. The interview for this story was interrupted several times by phone calls and people coming in to pick up their clothes or say goodbye, knowing the shop’s end was near.
As these customers, Sonia’s friends really, chatted and hugged her, they all asked her plans.
Sonia told the same story to them all, “I thought I wanted to move the shop, but someone else grabbed it. We’ll just have to see. …”
The last weeks before she closed were a flurry of activity for Sonia. Leah and her husband Todd Soliday started filming a documentary about Sonia, a Holocaust survivor, in 2011. Though a lot of footage was already “in the can” as they say, anything else they needed with the tailor shop as the setting had to be completed before the shop closed. So they filmed, while Sonia worked, visited and sometimes did a little of both.
If she doesn’t re-open at another location, Sonia will sell the commercial sewing machines. Years ago she gave up most of the sewing, preferring to be the shop’s main fitter.
“I didn’t like sitting at the machine for a long time,” she said.
She plans to take the three-way mirror home with her as well as some of the wall hangings. Now in her “golden years,” she worries what her life will be like if she’s not working all the time.
“I have to stay busy, that’s the only thing that bothers me,” Sonia said.
“It’s not easy to let it go,” she continued.
Sonia doesn’t remember exactly when she opened the store, only that it was more than 30 years ago. Her dear husband passed away 27 years ago, so the business has been all hers for more than a quarter of a century.
Noting that whatever she does next will “never be the same,” she does realize the next chapter in her life could turn out alright.
“It will take time to get used to it,” Sonia said. “But now maybe I won’t have to rush around so much.”
The making of ‘Big Sonia’
The documentary is called “Big Sonia.” By looking at Sonia’s petite frame, you might wonder where the title comes from. Leah explains it’s because her grandmother has a big heart, big wisdom, big soul and has made a big impact on other people’s lives.
“I’ve always been just a little human being except what I’ve been through in my life,” Sonia said.
Leah said the focus of the film will be “this shop, and her impact in the world and why that matters now. So 10 percent of the film is her life in the past and the other 90 percent is this shop and this mall and all of the parallels between a dead mall and John’s Tailoring and the people who come in here.”
“They don’t come in to get their clothes hemmed. They come here for therapy and advice and Sonia gets to hold court,” said Leah. “We have also been fortunate enough to actually follow some people who she has spoken of over the years to see what kind of impact she’s made on their lives.”
Sonia, along with her daughter Regina Kort, still speaks to groups, sharing the heartfelt and horrific stories of her teenage years spent in the Majdanek and Auschwitz concentration camps. Just last month she spoke to a crowd of 400 people at Kehilath Israel Synagogue.
Recently Leah and the crew had the opportunity to film the mother-daughter pair make a presentation to approximately 40 inmates at the prison in Lansing, Kan.
“To see a 300-pound man who’s in prison for life bawling his eyes out and giving her a hug and talking about his own mother dying … that doesn’t happen every day,” Leah said.
They’ve been working on the film for about three years and Leah wants to finish it soon.
“We’re feeling that time is of the essence because Sonia will be 89 this year,” she said.
The biggest obstacle in completing the film is money. Leah estimates they need about $300,000 to wrap it up and get it in theaters — $75,000 to finish filming, $125,000 to get through post production and another $100,000 to start marketing it.
“We’ve got about 70 percent of the film shot already, done with a combination of our money, donations and grants. So we’re still looking for grants and donors and angel investors and sponsors,” Leah said.
“We’re applying for grants as fast as we can. They just take a long time and are so hard to get,” she continued.
Leah said it’s important to her and her family that Sonia is healthy when the project is completed.
“I think it would be a big joy for her to be a part of the outreach and for her to be at the screenings. It would obviously keep her busy, but also she’s been so patient with us over the past couple of years. It’s not easy to be on camera and she’s been so accommodating. I think it would be a shame for her not to be involved when it’s released.”
Sonia can be quite a saleswoman and if she’s able, most likely she’ll help promote the film. That’s exactly what she did when Leah’s most recent film, “Finding Hillywood,” screened at the Glenwood Theatre in late June.
Leah believes it will take eight months to a year to complete the movie if they worked on it full time and if they had all the money they needed.
“We’ve got to make two more trips to Kansas City and we’d like to make one trip to Poland,” she said. Once the footage is completed, they’ll edit it and hire a composer.
“We want to go to her hometown in Poland to film some kind of abstract B roll so that when she talks about her past we have something to show,” Leah said. “We don’t want to use archival footage or footage that has already been shot. We want to do something unique and in order to do that I think we have to go ourselves.”
Leah has been working in the film and television industry for 15 years. A producer, she likes working on documentaries, such as “Big Sonia,” the best.
“I like telling people’s stories and I like that you don’t always know what the ending’s going to be,” Leah said.
“We don’t know what the ending to this story will be. All we know is that Sonia’s going to survive, somehow. We don’t know what that’s going to look like yet, but there’s no doubt in our minds that she’s going to survive.”