Copyright infringement alleged over Holocaust book

A documentary film producer and two of her colleagues are suing a Toronto investment manager and her publisher for copyright infringement over a book they say incorporates large swathes of material from their film.

Judy Maltz, Barbara Bird and Richie Sherman are asking for $3 million in damages from Jenny Witterick, who wrote the award-winning book My Mother’s Secret, as well as from Penguin Books Canada. The filmmakers say the book lifts entire passages from their 2009 documentary, No. 4 Street of Our Lady.

“I’ve done nothing wrong and will be defending this case,” said Witterick, founder and CEO of Sky Investment Counsel, a Toronto investment firm with approximately $1.8 billion in assets.

The film is based on a true story involving Maltz’s grandparents, her father, and other members of their family who were hidden from the Nazis during World War II in a Polish woman’s barn.

According to legal documents filed in Federal Court, “The [film] is a documentary based upon the true story of Franciszka Halamajowa, a Polish-Catholic woman who rescued 15 of her Jewish neighbors during the Holocaust in the small town of Sokal, then in eastern Poland and now in Ukraine, while cleverly passing herself off as a Nazi sympathizer.

“Amongst those saved by Halamajowa were Maltz’s grandparents and father, two aunts and an uncle. Prior to the release of the [documentary film], this story was virtually unknown, recorded only in the posthumously published diary of the late Moshe Maltz who was one of those rescued by Halamajowa,” the court documents say.

According to the court documents, Witterick viewed the film at a screening in November 2011 at Congregation Habonim during the annual Holocaust Education Week in Toronto.

Within a year and a half, Witterick had self-published her book, which received favourable reviews.

Penguin picked it up and it has subsequently been published internationally.

According to court documents filed by Maltz, who is also a senior correspondent for the Israeli newspaper Ha’aretz, “With the exception of certain limited fictional aspects… the plot of [Witterick’s] book is almost identical to that of the [film].”

The court documents outline a number of areas that overlap in the book and the film, including the actual names of the Polish heroines, the story of a German defector whom they sheltered, the hiding of some of the Jews in the pigsty above her hayloft and others in a hole dug under the kitchen floor.

“The tragic events that befall the Jewish families before they manage to find refuge with the Polish mother and daughter are a key part of the dramatic build-up in the [film], as they are in the book,” state the court documents. “Many of the creative devices that the [filmmakers] used to design the narrative of the [film] and to illustrate the personality traits of the main characters are also incorporated in the book.”

Witterick, however, told The CJN that “all the characters in the book are fictional because I created them.”

A Taiwanese-Canadian who immigrated at age eight, Witterick said she has long been interested in the Holocaust. She lives among Jews and her son’s best friends are Jewish.

“I could never understand why people didn’t like Jewish people. I’ve always been really interested in the Holocaust. I myself am a child of immigrants, and I understand what it’s like to be on the outside and being an underdog. So this kind of Holocaust story really resonates with me.”

Witterick said she self-published the book and donated all its revenues to a number of charities.

When Penguin agreed to publish it, she donated 100 per cent of the advance to charities.

“My objective was never to make money on this book. My objective was to write a book to help young people understand what happened in the Holocaust,” she said.

The case has yet to be heard in court.