Marx’s Ark and the Power of One

Midnight, Hafen Bar, Berlin Mitte: a gaggle of Roma kids pounce on empty bottles.Their older; homeless German competition goes home empty-handed. Bottle collecting’s a dog-eat-dog world. Roma scroungers leave their calling cards at Berlin’s supermarkets too – the waste bins are left open so flies and maggots swarm. Roma women make an impression on Berlin’s streets as well as beggars. Old habits die hard. The next wave of Roma migrants is about to roll north.


Sinti-Roma integration shifts into the spotlight as one of the most difficult challenges facing the EU when Rumania and Bulgaria become full members on 1 January, 2014. A radical Neukölln Roma project offers a counter-intuitive beacon of hope for all European nations faced with Roma integration – inclusion instead of exclusion. Benjamin Marx lives up to his family name as a  proud radical with his Sinti-Roma integration project in Neukölln. Marx’s German flair for organisation, financial muscle and profound humanity have created an oasis for Roma in Harzerstr 65, far from their slums on the outskirts of Bucharest, Rumania.


Up until August 2011, Harzerstr 65 was a shining example of Roma non-integration. An anti-Nirvanna of ruthless exploitation, spiritual poverty and nauseating filth. The four-storey building’s German owner had discovered an El Dorado on his doorstep: charging Sinti and Roma migrants € 200 per month to sleep six or more to a room or in the cellars. Enter Benjamin Marx. Tons of  stinking rubbish piled up in the building’s courtyard greeted Marx. Rats swarmed. Children played in it. A robust man in his mid-50’s, Marx represented the Catholic-owned-and-run Aachener Siedlings und Wohnbaugesellschaft. Instead of fleeing Berlin’s worst piece of real estate – popularly known as Neukölln’s Rat’s Nest – Marx’s first reaction was to make an offer to buy Berlin’s equivalent of the Black Hole of Calcutta. Where others practised stage exits, Marx’s Catholic education had taught him brotherly love. Heading Marx’s agenda was to engage a rat catcher. Then Marx employed the Roma to discard the tons of stinking filth festering in the courtyard. Then he engaged an  army of tradesmen with the Roma as offsiders to completely gut and renovate a complex of four houses containing 137 flats. Almost overnight Marx transformed Neukölln’s rat-infested Black Hole into a first-class ensemble of classic, high-ceilinged Berlin apartments suitable for families of up to ten children at rents of €500 per flat. Harzerstr 65 retained its stand-out status, but for completely different reasons: its neighbours looked run-down in comparison. Today smiling Roma children dart in and out of the Teutonically spick-and-span facade. Gleeful “hellos” spring from their lips. It seems almost as if they have been released from hell. They have.



Their hometown, Fanatele, a largely Pentecostal slum on the outskirts of Bucharest, Rumania has been the epicentre of mass Sinti and Roma migration since Rumania and Bulgaria joined the EU in 2007. Fanatele’s strictly Protestant Romas believe in practising the Ten Commandments: no stealing, no killing, no adultery. Unfortunately without birth control. Fantanele Romas’ arrival in Neukölln began almost unnoticeably, says Marek Kraft, manager of Obeka Electrical Supplies directly opposite Harzerstr 65. But slowly the mounting rubbish and the rapidly increasing Roma numbers became impossible not to see. Fanatele’s Roma migration turned viral. Once a family member was established in Neukölln, entire Fanatele Roma families trekked north. Parents-in-laws,  brothers- and sisters-in-laws and their families followed suit. Cousins and friends jumped on the bandwagon. Harzerstr 65 became Fanatele, Berlin. A Roma ark adrift in uncharted waters. Its Noah appeared in the form of Benjamin Marx with his God-given  task of integrating Sinti and Roma. Marx’s religious instruction teacher at school was Pastor Arnold Fortuna – the Roma’s Oscar Schindler of WWII. Pastor Fortuna  saved many Romas from the Nazis’ gas chambers. Today, Harzerstr 65 bears Fortuna’s name.


Every Wednesday Marx clambers boards his self-inspired ark to iron out problems in the Roma’s everyday Harzerstr life. Marx organizes jobs, flats, social welfare and German courses for his Roma flock. Last year Marx took the 36-hour bus ride south to assess the on-ground situation in Fanatele for himself. Unpaved streets, no sewerage, no schools of note nor any government or local council infra-structure. Nearly everyone in Fanatele now has relations in Berlin. Come 2014 the next wave of Fanatele migrants is expected to roll north to the Roma Mecca of Berlin. An estimated 20 million Romas live in Europe with 1.5 million in Rumania. Rumania’s Roma also have the highest levels of unemployment and illiteracy in Rumania. Since Rumania’s and Bulgaria’s 2007 entry into the EU, Roma numbers Germany have doubled to approximately 127,000.  Cerca 700 Roma – mostly children under ten – reside in Harzerstr 65. Yet neither have Berlin’s nor Neukölln’s police registered any changes in Berlin’s rampant crime statistics.


Even Fanatele’s Roma can’t believe the land of milk and honey that greets them upon arrival in Germany. Large families receive child support allowances up to twenty times more than the miserable €100 they receive in Fanatele. Adults can register themselves as self-employed entrepeneurs, most commonly as scrap metal dealers. And when scrap metal fails to provide their daily bread, Hartz IV supplements top it up. Unimaginable in Fanatele. Even Berlin’s Fanatele Roma foresee a social welfare storm brewing on Germany’s political horizon, especially as more and more Roma undertake the social-welfare trek to Berlin in the hope of creating a better future for their numerous children. German cynics point to Rumania’s allegedly releasing less than 2% of EU funds allocated for improving the Roma’s lot in 2010 in the cynical hope the Roma will migrate north. Others ask why Rumania’s and Bulgaria’s Roma cannot be helped at home. Both nations were obliged to establish an office promoting the advancement of Sinti and Roma as well as engaging an anti-discrimination officer. Yet in the ten years from 2000 to 2010, hardly any of the €300 million the EU set aside for projects designed to help Sinti and Roma filtered down to them due to the inherent corruption in Rumania and Bulgaria.


Caretaker KnutMarx’s Harzerstr Roma ark has its opponents too. “Children shit on the stairways and they go stealing,” complains co-caretaker Knut. “Then their father takes off his belt and gives them a hiding. What sort of treatment is that?” he asks. Knut’s and the Roma’s biggest hurdle to overcome is the language barrier, Roma children translating as best they can for their parents. Knut estimates just 30 Germans remain in Marx’s Roma ark, their numbers rapidly declining. Former “Sturmecke” pub owner Klaus Winkelmann was born and bred in Harzerste. Winkelmann spent his complete 55-year working life there. “The men have nothing to do expect breed and buy and sell cars to Rumania to make extra cash. On the weekends the parks completely overrun with Roma families all living on our tax money. It’s a complete catastrophe.” Yet compared to the previous Rat’s Nest conditions, Marx’s ark has transformed Harzerstr from from a nightmare into a daydream.


Berlin’s mayor Klaus Wowereit and Roman Catholic Cardinal Rainer Maria Woelke attracted world-wide TV attention when they visited Marx’s Roma ark and showered it with praise. In September 2013 Harzerstr 65 received The Julius Berger Award for Excellence in Architecture – Julius Berger an innovative Jewish entrepeneur murdered in Theresienstadt in 1942.

Neither police nor Harzerstr social workers are prepared to speculate on how many Roma will trek north in  2014. Which raises the question, how many pin pricks of Roma migration and  asylum seekers can  Germany’s bubble of tolerance take before it bursts? In the wake of the German far-right National Democratic Party’s (NPD) volatile street protests against the establishment of an asylum home in East Berlin’s Hellersdorf shortly before last September’s federal elections, the NPD polled over 10% in Hellersdorf. Yet the NPD’s campaign of “Money for Grandma instead of Sinti and Roma” (Geld für die Oma statt für Sinti and Roma) failed to ignite in the Sinti and Roma powder keg of Neukölln, the NPD picking up just 1.9% of the vote. Yet the voter potential is there, as France’s Front National showed  where it picked up 53% of the vote in a recent local election. “It’s alright till they lob on your doorstep,” says the NPD’s former front man Udo Voigt. Voigt cites a recent estimate of NPD voter potential climbing as high as 25% according to a study by the liberal Friedrich Naumann Foundation. The litmus test for Marx’s Roma ark lies ahead when the next wave of Roma migrants reach Berlin. Yet if anyone is capable of navigating the rocks and shallows lurking in the murky and uncharted waters of Roma integration, its Benjamin Marx, Berlin’s living embodiment of the age-old German wisdom, “there are no impossible situations, just people who can deal with them or can’t.”


Words and photos by Graham Anderson