'The Suitcase': In memory of Otto Schwarzkopf

“The Suitcase” poem revolves around a suitcase, but it is also about the circumstances in which Otto Schwazkopf’s suitcase happened to be in Jerusalem

Shmuel Huppert (photo credit: Courtesy)
Shmuel Huppert
(photo credit: Courtesy)
 On my first visits to Israel in the 1980s, it was natural enough for me, as a radio writer myself, to make contact with people engaged in radio, and that’s how I first got to know Shmuel Huppert. He was the head of literary programs for Kol Israel’s domestic radio channels. Over the years my wife and I became close friends with Shmuel and his wife, Mimi, but it was only slowly that it emerged that Shmuel was a Holocaust survivor. Born in Czechoslovakia in 1936, at the age of seven he was imprisoned in Bergen-Belsen concentration camp with his mother Hilde, where they stayed till the end of the war. Then, through friends, they both managed to be included in a batch of Jews from Europe legally admitted to Israel, then still under the British mandate. Shmuel and his mother later recounted their experiences in a book they called: Hand in Hand with Tommy.
Many years later, the Israel Museum in Jerusalem mounted an exhibition of Holocaust memorabilia, and the intense impression it made on Shmuel moved him to express his feelings in a poem, written in Hebrew, which he called “The Suitcase.” One day he showed it to me, and asked if I would like to translate it into English. Together we worked out precisely what each and every word signified – and, even more, the intention behind each word selected by Shmuel. 
I then re-conceived the poem into English. Translation from one language into another is difficult enough at the best of times. Translating poetry amplifies the difficulties a hundred-fold. English is so rich a language, that virtually every word carries a whole baggage-train of connotations, implications and connections. One example – Shmuel Huppert’s title: “The Suitcase.” Yes, the poem revolves around a suitcase, but it is also about the circumstances in which Otto Schwazkopf’s suitcase happened to be in Jerusalem. So I chose as the title “The Case of Otto Schwarzkopf,” drawing on the pun possible in English by using the word “case.” Did I distort Shmuel’s poetic intention by doing this – and by making a score of similar choices in converting the poem into English? He thought not, and I hope not.
The poem was first published in the Jewish Chronicle’s Literary Supplement on January 11, 1991. Nearly three years later, I submitted it to The Independent, which at that period published a poem every day. “The Case of Otto Schwarzkopf” appeared as The Independent’s “Daily Poem” in the issue of September 14, 1993.
A few weeks later, I was approached by a music publishing firm asking whether Shmuel and I would agree to the poem being set to music by Ralph McTell. An agreement was quickly reached, and in 1995 Ralph McTell’s new CD album, “Sand in Your Shoes” duly appeared, with “The Case of Otto Schwarzkopf” featuring as track 11.
The case of Otto Schwarzkopf
By Shmuel Huppert
English version by Neville Teller from the original Hebrew.
Your case
Otto Schwarzkopf
has reached Jerusalem.
In the leather A.L.L.1
branded black
and Otto Schwarzkopf
a Prague address.
On the back
a hotel sticker
mountains of the Tyrol
prayer-shawl draped
with snow
pine pierced blue skies
a lake
you swam in?
You went up into the mountain
or was it a family outing?
The case gapes wide
a soundless cry
they pause to gaze
at it at you
Where now your content?
towel toothbrush shirt socks
the works of Heinrich Heine.
Family snaps.
In the winter of forty-four
the German order 
just take what you need
twenty kilos apiece
one suitcase each
you’re off to the east
no fuss leave everything else to us.
Now it’s here
on show
the handle 
your palm warmed Otto
iron clasps rust covered.
Reference your trip A.L.L.1
Theresienstadt to Auschwitz
transportation trucks as per specification
7 cows or 30 pigs or 120 Jews.
Your case
Otto Schwarzkopf
has made its way without you
to Jerusalem.