‘Big Sonia’ Warshawski, a 98-year-old Holocaust survivor, has closed her Overland Park tailor shop
The subject of an award-winning documentary, Sonia Warshawski survived Nazi concentration camps before making it to Kansas City. John's Tailoring, which she took over in 1989 after her husband passed away, has been operating in the area for more than six decades.
Sonia Warshawski, a Holocaust survivor and businesswoman often known as “Big Sonia,” is closing her Overland Park tailoring business.
Since 1989, customers at John’s Tailoring have been privy to all of Warshawski’s stories. One of the few Holocaust survivors to go public about her story — as told in award-winning documentary “Big Sonia” that shares her story of survival in concentration camps and death marches — Warshawski spent every day overseeing the shop, where she garnered a loyal customer following.
Now 98, Warshawski has finally closed her store. John’s Tailoring was the last business in the defunct shopping mall at 95th Street and Nall Avenue, which is under redevelopment.
Nevertheless, for Warshawski, the storytelling will continue.
John’s Tailoring goes back more than 60 years
Born in 1925 as Sonia Grynsztejn, she and her late husband, John Warshawski, left Poland for the United States in the 1940s. The two first came to New York, then to the Kansas City area to join her husband’s family who had already arrived there.
Kansas City was becoming a prominent spot for the clothing industry, Warshawski said, so John set out to hone his skills and become a tailor.
He worked in factories and for a garment maker on 8th Street and Broadway Boulevard before buying the shop’s first space at 8th Street and Troost Avenue. Sonia, too, began selling women’s clothing. The couple raised three children — Regina Kort, Morrie Warshawski and Debbie Warshawski.
“I was really lucky in a way,” Warshawski said. “A lot of women after surviving (the Holocaust) could not have any children.”
John’s Tailoring operated out of its Troost Avenue digs until 1962, when the shop moved to a space on the ground floor of the Ambassador Hotel on 36th Street and Broadway Boulevard. It remained there until 1981, before moving to the Metcalf South Shopping Center — where the shop remained for another 40 years or so.
It was at this time John started to show symptoms of dementia, which Warshawski said brought on a difficult time for their family. When he passed away in 1989 at age 70, Warshawski took over ownership of John’s Tailoring. She’d been honing her own tailoring skills since before she’d arrived in Kansas City, and she wanted to keep the shop going.
Between greeting customers each day and raising her family, she said the day to day of being a business owner and a mother helped brighten the days a bit after her husband died.
“It was really, for me, a very good thing to stay busy and with people — I always loved people,” she said.
Warshawski survived slave labor and three concentration camps
A native of Miedzyrzec, Poland, Warshawski and her family were forced into slave labor in the ghetto before being deported to a concentration camp.
She underwent slave labor at three camps during the Holocaust: the Majdanek death camp, the Auschwitz-Birkenau concentration camp, and the Bergen-Belsen concentration camp. At the time of her liberation at the Bergen-Belsen camp, she was accidentally shot in the chest.
The things she witnessed at these camps are things that have stayed with her forever. At age 15, she watched her mother disappear into a gas chamber at the Majdanek camp. Her mother was 43 at the time.
“I will never forget that until the day I die,” she said. “I live with it.”
For years, she suffered from survivor’s guilt, a common phenomenon for Holocaust survivors. This kept her from talking about what she’d been through, until one day she heard someone deny the events of the Holocaust for the first time.
“I said (to myself), ‘Sonia, you have to start speaking for those who didn’t make it,’” she said. “But I’m gonna be honest with you — it’s impossible to describe. I don’t know even if the dictionary could ever find the words to define the horrors that we went through.”
So she began speaking publicly about her experience, giving her testimony to the Midwest Center for Holocaust Education in Overland Park. Several of her peers asked her to write a book, but she felt telling her story out loud carried more weight than taking pen to paper — especially for the younger generation.
“For the younger generation, if they do not start learning history, we are in a bad shape,” she said. “It’s like I used to say and I’ve repeated a thousand times — don’t follow the crowd. Study the history.”
Today, her house is filled with letters and poems from students who have been inspired by hearing her story.
“I have hundreds and hundreds of letters — you wouldn’t believe it,” she said. “These kept me going.”
The shop had been operating at the Metcalf South Shopping Center for more than 35 years when Warshawski caught wind of plans to sell and demolish the shopping center. This would potentially have forced Warshawski into retirement sometime around 2016, which at age 91, she was not ready for.
“I was very down, and I didn’t know what I would do with myself,” she said. “This was my life, you know?”
Luckily, the shop secured a new space at 95th Street and Nall Avenue — its last location. But the potential closing of the shop and its history became the subject of award-winning documentary “Big Sonia,” created by Sonia’s granddaughter Leah Warshawski and her husband, Todd Soliday.
In the documentary, Warshawski speaks candidly about her history and her background. Initially, she said the documentary’s chosen title took her by surprise. At 4’8’’, what made her “big Sonia”?
“Well, then they said to me, ‘It’s here,’” she said, gesturing to her heart. “Then I understood.”
Warshawski’s next chapter
Closing the shop was a difficult choice, not just for Warshawski, she said, but for her employees. But it’s one she said that she and her former staff are beginning to accept.
“I had wonderful help — each one of them, I love them, and (closing the shop) was difficult for them too,” she said. “It’s not like going into a big factory. It was like family.”
For Warshawski, the next chapter will look different, but she said it will still involve telling her story, including in public presentations with her daughter, Regina Kort. She also spends her time reading books with other historical accounts and translating poems about her own experience from Polish to English.
“I’m getting older, and I’m only human,” she said. “What can I tell you? It’s a new chapter in my life.”
This story was originally published on theShawnee Mission Post.