Early in her career, someone suggested to Natasha Kaplinsky that her surname was not “telegenic”. The newsreader refused to change it because, for her, Kaplinsky is much more than just a name. “Kaplinsky is my identity,” she says, “it’s my heritage, it’s everything to do with my family.”
Yet how much does she really know about this family? In a deeply personal journey that takes Natasha from the warmth of South Africa to the chill of Belarus, she uncovers an ancestry that encompasses 1960s student radicalism, the court of George III and the horrors of the Holocaust.
She begins her exploration of the past at the University of Cape Town. In 1968, during the apartheid era, the black academic Archie Mafeje was appointed as a lecturer in the department of social anthropology, an appointment blocked by the government.
On 14 August 1968, Natasha’s father, Raphael Kaplinsky, led 500 students on a protest march against the government’s interference, followed by a sit-in at the university’s admin building. Such dissent made Raphael, now an economics professor, a marked man. On 14 June 1969, with just 24 hours notice, he went into exile. He didn’t return to South Africa for more than two decades.
“I would not like to say that his life was in danger,” says friend and fellow activist Mike Morris, “but certainly there was a big chance that he would have been put in jail, put in detention, and who knows what would have come out of that?”
Natasha learns that her father’s family disapproved of his political agitation. How bad, she asks, must their own personal histories have been to make them give even tacit support to the apartheid regime?
The answer to this will come in Belarus, but not before Natasha starts exploring the family tree of her mother, Catherine Charlewood. She finds there’s a royal connection, appropriate for a branch of the family that likes to think of itself as “a bit posh”. Benjamin Charlewood, Natasha is delighted to discover, was George III’s apothecary, or GP, in the years prior to the ill-fated monarch’s descent into madness.
Resisting the Nazis
A far darker chapter in the family’s history lies waiting in the east. In June 1941, Nazi forces invaded the former Soviet Union. While Natasha’s grandfather, Morris, had left Belarus for South Africa in 1929, other Kaplinskis (Natasha’s surname has been slightly Anglicised) stayed.
In the town of Slonim, Natasha, accompanied by her cousin Bennie, discovers the fate of some of these relatives. As Jews, they were herded into ghettoes. Later these ghettoes were cleared in what the Nazis referred to as “actions”. The Nazis, Natasha learns, didn’t use bullets on children, but killed them with their bare hands. Faced with the horror being perpetrated by the Nazis, Natasha’s great-uncle Abraham committed suicide.
But Abraham’s brother (Bennie’s father, Izak), was luckier. Having narrowly escaped the infamous 1942 massacre of 2,500 Jews from the Iwie ghetto, he joined the Bielski brothers, a group of partisan fighters who fought a guerrilla war against the Germans. The Bielskis built underground shelters in the woods and saved more than a thousand Jews from the Nazis.
As Bennie chants his remembrance in Slonim’s ruined synagogue, Natasha is, not for the first time on what’s clearly been an emotional journey, close to tears. Back in Britain, though, she discovers that recounting the family’s story to her father lifts a weight. Natasha refuses to dwell on the horror. The Kaplinskys, she says proudly, are “about survival and hope and contribution and love”.