As Jews head into Yom Kippur tonight, a story of repentance seems appropriate.
By the time her talk was over, the tiny 91-year-old Jewish great-grandmother had caused murderers, thieves and drug offenders to openly weep.
Sonia Warshawski of Prairie Village shuffled her 4-foot 8-inch self beyond the fence and razor wire surrounding the Topeka Correctional Facility. She stood in front of some 30 of the prison’s 900 women bearing inmate numbers.
No. 104804, inmate Raychel Lopez-Owens, age 40, convicted of aggravated robbery.
No. 114010, inmate Eman Malkawi, age 30: robbery and second degree murder.
Before long, “Big Sonia” — as the soon-to-premiere award-winning documentary about Warshawski is titled — was revealing her own number: 48689.
It remains tattooed in blue ink on the top of her left forearm, forcibly put there when she was a teenager and also imprisoned, first inside the Nazi concentration camp of Majdanek, then to the notorious death camps of Auschwitz-Birkenau and Bergen-Belsen.
The inmates praised her.
“I really admire you not being bitter,” Voorhees said.
“I just want to say you’re an inspiration,” Lopez-Owens said. “You have really been through some hard times. I am really going through some hard times being away from my kids in lockdown. And if you can make it, I know that I can make it.”
One inmate asked her how she found it in her heart to forgive. Warshawski, having urged the inmates toward kindness, to understand the outcome of anger and hate, said she couldn’t lie.
“I shall never forget. I shall never forgive,” she said and would go on to explain. “Why I say I cannot forgive? Because forgiveness, in my opinion, has borders. How in the world can I tell you I forgive? I will feel ashamed, embarrassed, what I have seen those people dying, those terrible things.
“Who am I that I can forgive? This has to come from a higher power. Not from me. This is impossible. I would be wrong.”
But, she said, “I’ll never hate. If I hate, I destroy myself.”