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Generations of Strength

I don’t believe in angels flying. Angels are little babies. When they come to this world and put their little feeties on this ground, it is up to the parents in how you are going to mold them. If you mold them in love, they will love.

-Sonia Warshawski

What makes a person strong? Is it physical prowess? Mental dexterity? Or, the willingness to begin each day no matter what the past has dealt? Perhaps it is the strength to move forward after enduring indescribable adversity, taking the pain and turning it into mission. Even with these examples of fortitude, for Holocaust survivor Sonia Warshawski simply stating that she is a person of strength would be a gross understatement of all she is--a mighty woman who has spent her life growing a family, growing a business, and growing awareness on a topic so near to her heart it has crossed generational lines.

Sitting in John’s Tailoring on a cool sunny day in March, Warshawski’s daughter, Regina Kort, waits patiently for her mother’s arrival. Kort speaks about her mom with an air of ease as if she has all the faith in the world that her 93-year-old mother will arrive on her own time and with a new anecdote to share. Warshawski does not disappoint. Nearly a block from her shop her faithful car has broken down on the street, and she is left to find another way to her business. In true resourceful fashion, Sonia Warshawski does indeed find another way. Only a few minutes past 1 p.m., she arrives and pops into the naturally lit back room, swiftly makes mention of her misfortune, brushes off her perfectly clad ensemble, pats her dark hair, and checks her make-up. After quick, light-hearted mother/daughter banter, she reaches over to turn off the small transistor radio and settles herself for a familiar chat about her extraordinary life.

The conversation begins with Warshawski reminiscing about her childhood prior to World War II. With a heavy accent and a faraway glance she remembers her life as a happy time where she went to school, and living within her family was simple. She also recalls when things started to change. When anti-Semitism began to rear its hateful head. Her parents did all they could to shield them, but abomination has a way of finding its intended target. Soon, Warshawski was ripped apart from all she knew about the goodness of the world. She only describes this time as “hell,” a considerable downplay of the terror she witnessed during the Holocaust. Somehow, she survived.

As Warshawski speaks of times in the concentration camps, her daughter remains quiet as if she knows this is a moment only her mother could recollect. Every now and then she gives a pensive glance as if feeling the weight of her mother’s words. When asked how she was able to move forward, Warshawski notes that is was not an easy transition.

When I came out of this hell, I couldn’t talk about it. I even felt guilty if people around me were having fun. I couldn’t even smile.

She was only 19 when the war ended. Soon, she and her husband, also a Holocaust survivor, would come to the United States to rebuild. This after Kort’s aunt and uncle arrived first in 1946. When Immigration asked the relatives where they wanted to move, they knew it was America, even though at the time they had no family and no friends. Their only requirement:

“I don’t care where you send us, just send us somewhere where the people are good and kind.”

Immigration’s reply was to send them to Kansas City. They were the first survivors to arrive in the area. The young Warshawskis soon followed in 1948. It was not easy to plant a new foundation, but the U.S. took them under their wing by providing sponsors who supported them with jobs, medical needs, and education until they got on their feet.

It is now that the mother/daughter team engage in dialogue comparable to a well-practiced song, each taking turns to tell their story. Kort describes her childhood as contented but also atypical.

In our household as children of survivors my parents did not hide it from us. And we knew from an early age, without them even talking to us about it. We knew something horrible happened. I felt so sorry for my parents. It was so unjust and so unfair because their youth was taken away.

Even knowing this was part of her identity Kort struggled to speak of it. It would be decades before either of them could talk openly about the horrors of the Holocaust, but when the idea came forth, it struck them separately, like a beam of lightning. Warshawski remembers hearing Nazi Skinheads on the radio denying that the Holocaust ever happened, this in efforts to push their agenda.

I was really very naïve because I felt that after what happened to this civilization that people would change and they would be more loving and understanding. I was very disappointed. Then, after hearing this, a thunder came, an awakening to my brain. Sonia, this is the reason you survived! You have to start speaking! This is my responsibility.

And for Kort the realization would also come in its own time.

“I had an epiphany when I realized that the majority of survivors in Kansas City were gone, and that teaching the Holocaust, people knowing about it, and being connected with it makes it more personal. There is nothing like hearing from an actual survivor. I will never be able to replace that, but at least I can tell the story about what happened to my family,” Kort says.

There is a genuine gentleness in their camaraderie. Together the pair discovered that by touching the lives of the community they discovered more about each other. Kort laughs as she talks of her mother learning the art of hugging. Through their work together, she sees her mother as a survivor, exceptional, and a hero. And Warshawski has never been prouder of her daughter, noting she is “a wonderful human being.” As with strength, there is no doubt this trait is also inherited.

“We were always close, but I think this has given me a stronger understanding of why she is the person that she is. The one thing I am always amazed by is when we speak, no matter where we are or who the group is, afterwards people just cannot get enough of my Mother!” -Regina Kort

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