Yom HaShoah: Holocaust Remembrance Day

Meet Sonja Warshawski. For six days each week, up until 2015, she has showed up promptly and eagerly for work at John’s Tailor shop long past retirement or any other expectation others may have had of her.

You might be surprised to learn that she has every reason not to show up for work at all, let alone with the energy and vitality she exudes. At the age of 89 she has been the primary tender of John’s Tailoring for over 30 years – since her husband John contracted Parkinson’s disease. She remains a fixture long after most of the rest the tenants of the dying mall where her shop resides have moved on. Once inside her shop, instead of the cavernous silence of the mall you find a tender warmth and life that comes with longevity.  Last year she received an eviction notice from her landlord. The mall’s closing means she, too, must close.

As tough as these hurdles have been to scale, Sonja’s pace has not lessened. She has a surprising and powerful story to tell.

I first met Sonia in 2008. Her presence was much greater than her short stature would suggest. She is as bold as the bright red lipstick she continually refreshes. She is warm and welcoming.

With every reach of her left arm a curious tattoo is revealed.  This tattoo is no sign of youthful rebellion. It is a simple number scrawled with no particular art or skill. Numbers like this were inscribed on Jews relegated to the death camps at the Auschwitz-Birkenau and Bergen-Belsen.

“Standing tall at 4’8″, Sonia is one of the last remaining Holocaust survivors in Kansas City and one of the only survivors there who speaks publicly about her wartime experience. Sonia’s enormous personality and fragile frame mask the horrors she endured. At 15 she watched her mother disappear behind gas chamber doors. Sonia’s teenage years were a blur of concentration camps and death marches. On liberation day, she was accidentally shot through the chest, yet again miraculously survived. Sonia is the ultimate survivor, a bridge between cultures and generations. Her story must never be forgotten.”  (Quoted from Big Sonia).

Sonia is not content to simply survive. The loss of family members, the firsthand experience and witness to inhumane atrocities, have left their scars on her life but she has not allowed them to steal her life from her. Beyond the evil hand dealt to her, she has chosen to thrive. Now that her livelihood has been threatened by the closing of her shop, refusing the role of victim, she continues to tell her story of survival to all who will listen: prisoners, youth, and to the Christians some of whose ancestors once thought her life had no value.

My mission the day I first met Sonia was to photograph her.   For three years my wife and I had partnered with Ministries of New Life,  A Kansas City based ministry. Led by Marilyn Griffin, This ministry is intent on revealing God’s heart for the Jewish people. Most of us are unaware that Germany was a ‘Christian’ nation and that the holocaust received momentum and sanction from many religious institutions. I am saying that Christian antisemitism was much of the fuel for the fires that consumed Jewish mothers, fathers, brothers, sisters, and children in the ovens of Auschwitz.

The photograph was for a flyer for A Night To Remember.  An holocaust remembrance event hosted by Marilyn to reveal and acknowledge her growing understanding of Christianity’s role in Jewish persecution over the ages.

When I first came to grips with this my heart broke and I was led to repentance. Under Marilyn Griffin’s leadership many of the Kansas City faith and business communities joined together in repentance for the generations of antisemitic behavior – of sins, present and past, against the Jewish people about which we all had been largely ignorant. We did this face to face with holocaust survivors like Sonja. Our repentance was healing to them. Their tears and hugs of acceptance was restoration for us.

Seventy Two years have passed since the end of that terrible holocaust. Yom HoShoah, Holocaust Remembrance Day, begins this evening, Wednesday, May 4 and continues through the evening of Thursday, May 5. On this day we commemorate the approximately six million Jews who perished in the Holocaust as a result of the actions carried out by Nazi Germany and its accessories.

Since that time many, like Sonia, have made the world a better place than the one they were thrust into: the one which thought them unworthy of life. Shunning self pity, they leave the shadow of hatred and destruction behind them. They have chosen the nobler path of investing in life by the simple acts of having family, going to work, and sharing their painful story.

Sonia struggles with retirement. She may boast of a productive and her life lessons span generations. Not having a place to go to work will not slow her down. She continues to to live and tell her story. Her story begins in the holocaust but it did not end there. In broken English and across generations she is a survivor that is infectious with life and hope.

Now it’s your turn:  What surprises you about Sonia’s story?

Please scroll down and leave your comment below.

Explore Additional Resources

In this I mentioned the following resources:
Sonia Warshawski Huffington Post Article
BIG SONIA is a documentary film about a tiny woman with huge impact
The Midwest Center for Holocaust Education
Honoring Holocaust Survivors  
Constantine’s Sword: The Church and the Jews – A History (2001) by James Carroll. An investigation of antisemitism in Christianity. [Caution: you may not like what you read]
Yom HaShoah