Haaretz journalist Judy Maltz has filed suit against Penguin Canada and a best-selling Canadian author, alleging that they copied substantial portions of a documentary film she made about her family’s Holocaust rescue story.
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Maltz filed the suit together with Barbara Bird and Richie Sherman, the codirectors of her film “No. 4 Street of Our Lady,” who are both professors of film at Penn State University.
The filmmakers are seeking $6 million for copyright and moral rights infringement, as well as punitive damages, according to the suit filed in late February in the Canadian Federal Court in Ottawa.
According to the suit, the book “My Mother’s Secret,” written by Jenny Witterick and published by Penguin Canada, “includes the main elements and countless details copied literally or nearly literally” from the film and is “in any quantitative, qualitative and holistic sense a reproduction of a substantial part” of the film. The lawsuit cites 30 examples of alleged verbatim or close to verbatim copying from the film.
Both Witterick and Penguin Canada deny breaking copyright law.
Released in 2009, “No. 4 Street of Our Lady” tells the story of Franciszka Halamajowa, a Polish-Catholic woman who hid 15 Jews – including Maltz’s father, her grandparents and several other members of her family – on her premises during the Holocaust. Halamajowa and her daughter Helena have been recognized as members of the Righteous Among the Nations by Yad Vashem.
The film has been screened at numerous international film festivals and on television in the United States, Poland and Israel. The film incorporates, among other survivor and eyewitness testimonies, excerpts from a diary kept by Maltz’s late grandfather, which has since been translated from Yiddish into English and published into a book.
According to the suit, Maltz was contacted by email last April by someone who had seen her film who notified her that a book based on the Halamajowa story had been written by Witterick. A Taiwanese-Canadian money manager, Witterick is a first-time author.
The book was initially published by iUniverse, an American self-publishing company. Following this notification, Maltz contacted Witterick, who said that after seeing “No. 4 Street of Our Lady” at a Holocaust commemoration event in Toronto, she had been inspired to write the book.
Witterick did make some changes to the story, among them reducing the number of Jews rescued by the Halamajowa mother and daughter to seven from 15 and changing their names. She did not, however, change the names of Halamajowa and her daughter, the name of the town or the name of the street. No acknowledgment of the film was made in the book.
After discovering that Penguin planned to republish the book under its own imprint, according to the suit, Maltz alerted the publishing house to her concerns regarding copyright infringement and lack of attribution. She was told that all that was copied were “historical facts,” which can be freely copied under American law.
Penguin went ahead with publishing the book in September, and it is being translated into various languages and sold around the world. When Maltz and her filmmaking partners requested that the publisher and author halt further publication – and were refused again – they filed suit.
Penguin classifies “My Mother’s Secret” as historical fiction, although it originally appeared on the Canadian Globe and Mail best-seller list in the nonfiction category. The book was selected as a finalist in the 2013 National Jewish Book Awards in the category Outstanding Debut Fiction.
When contacted by Haaretz, Witterick said she could not comment on the lawsuit at this stage, except to say that she would be defending it.
“I did not violate any laws,” she added. “I donated 100 percent of the advance I received from Penguin to various charities including Love of Reading, which buys books for children in impoverished communities, medical research, and animal shelter and rescue. My goal has always been to inspire young people to try to understand the Holocaust.”
A spokeswoman for Penguin Random House Canada, Tracey Turriff, wrote in an email response to Haaretz that the book “does not violate copyright. The similarities between ‘My Mother’s Secret’ and the film ‘No. 4 Street of our Lady’ relate only to the facts of the true story of Francziska Halamajowa. Ms. Witterick’s creative retelling of this story is in her own entirely original, fictional form.”
Maltz declined to comment on the grounds that the case is currently in court.