Holocaust survivor closes decades-old Johnson County tailor shop. ‘I have to go on’

For decades, Sonia Warshawski walked into her tailor shop every day, her brown curls fixed neatly, donning a beaded necklace, antique earrings, or some leopard print accessory.

The 97-year-old has weathered close to 40 years in the business and the store’s near-closure nine years ago. The numbers “48689” tattooed across her arm by Nazis during World War II testify to her strength.

And still, her voice breaks slightly when she speaks of John’s Tailoring & Alterations closing for good on April 29. The shop was operating out of the Bel-Air building at 95th Street and Nall Avenue. When it closed for renovation, she decided that, though she’s still in good health, it would be impractical to relocate the store at her age.

“This I can tell you: I will miss it. I will miss it very much,” she told The Star, then added, “but I have to go on.”

Countless have been blessed by her team’s hemming and stitching as the store’s location moved over the years.

But perhaps even more remember Warshawski for the stories she told of starvation and beatings at the Majdanek, Auschwitz-Birkenau and Bergen-Belsen concentration camps.

Born in Poland in 1925, Warshawski lived in the ghetto of Miedzyrzec at the time of German invasion, a yellow star pinned to her chest before she and others were carted off to the camps. For most, it was a death sentence.

She’s recalled the Holocaust’s horrors to teary-eyed crowds at schools and prisons over the past several years, spurred on by antisemitism and Holocaust deniers.

She became known as “Big Sonia” after the 2016 release of an award-winning documentary by that name created by her granddaughter, Leah Warshawski, and grandson-in-law, Todd Soliday.

Everywhere Kansas City Holocaust survivor Sonia Warshawski goes, people ask her about forgiveness: How, Sonia? How do we do that? Big Sonia
Everywhere Kansas City Holocaust survivor Sonia Warshawski goes, people ask her about forgiveness: How, Sonia? How do we do that? Big Sonia

Standing at around 4-foot-8, Warshawski laughed as she recalled hearing the film’s title for the first time.

“I said, ‘Why do you say, “Big Sonia?” I am not big.’ And they told me, ‘But your heart is big … ’ Then I understood,” she said.

Her daughter, Regina Kort, said the family worried how the spry survivor would spend her time now that the shop has closed.

Kort said her loved ones have been trying to keep Warshawski busy with social activities — she enjoys being around people most.

Even when Warshawski stopped driving a year ago, she was determined to continue her daily trips to the shop, getting rides from family, friends and Jewish Family Services’ JET Express.

The store has been a large part of her life, Kort said, and little can replace it.

“Getting up every morning, having a purpose, going to that place — I think meant more to her than anything else,” Kort said.

After Warshawski and her late husband, John, immigrated to the United States in 1948, he opened the first shop in Kansas City sometime in the ’50s — (Warshawski says, “You know, sweetheart? I really don’t know the dates”). He, too, was a Holocaust survivor.

From there, his business moved to 31st Street and Troost Avenue, then 13th and Main streets, then 36th and Broadway in the old Ambassador Hotel.

Warshawski began coming around the business more as her husband’s Parkinson’s disease worsened. When he died at 70, she took over the store at the old Metcalf South Shopping Center in Overland Park.

Even when the slowly dying mall finally closed in 2014, Warshawski wasn’t ready to call it quits. Retiring at 88? To her, it was unimaginable.

Over time, John’s Tailoring built a loyal customer base, whom Warshawski said felt more like friends. She’s had many faithful employees over the years.

“I’ve had so many angels around me, so many people that I love,” she said.

Kort, too, fondly remembers her years spent at John’s Tailoring. She passed her high school summers helping her father.

The Johnson County Museum has taken several items from the shop for display, she says, her father’s sewing machine among them.

Warshawski’s mission to share her survival story has remained steadfast throughout her business endeavors. Even as she discussed her time at the shop with The Star this week, the conversation often drifted back to her misery at the hands of Hitler’s regime.

“The world will really never know,” she said, starting to cry. “Only the one who was in that hell.”

Audiences of teens have listened intently as she described, at their age, standing before the “angel of death,” Josef Mengele, as others were sentenced to die.

The number that the Nazis tattooed on Warshawski’s left forearm — 48689 — is still visible. The Kansas City Star
The number that the Nazis tattooed on Warshawski’s left forearm — 48689 — is still visible. The Kansas City Star

Her voice shook as she described her mother, just 43, being sent to the gas chambers. Just as vividly, she remembers the two girls her age hanged as an example to the other prisoners.

And yet, her story is one of hope. Liberation, determination and strength.

“Letters that I got from all those students in the schools — how many of our students commit suicide on account of the bullying?” she said. “They wrote me. They will never forget me their entire life. I gave strength to go on because they saw what I went through.”

Her harrowing story serves as an example of hate’s unbridled destruction. Still, Warshawski said the world has much to improve.

“People still do hating. … We didn’t learn,” she said. “Please, please read history.”

It may be the end of Warshawski’s shop, but her mission is hardly finished. She said she still hopes to tell her story in front of crowds.

She continues to write poetry of her hardship and survival, saying this is simply a “new chapter” in her life. Perhaps this one will mean more time with her three children, five grandchildren and three great-grandchildren.

Warshawski is still making plans.

“They say, one door closes, and another, I am in God’s hands.”