Marx’s ark

From “Rat’s Nest” to model of Roma integration: in just a few years, the Arnold-Fortuin-Haus in Neukölln was transformed into attractive, affordable housing for its 500 tenants thanks to one man, Benjamin Marx.

Image for Marx's ark
Photo by Tania Castellví

From “Rat’s Nest” to model of Roma integration: in just a few years, the Arnold-Fortuin-Haus in Neukölln was transformed from a horrific tenement into an attractive renovated building housing 500 tenants from Romania who’ve exchanged squalor and poverty for a life of dignity thanks to one man, Benjamin Marx.

There might be a better man than Benjamin Marx, but not on this planet. Marx lives up to his radical surname – he’s a one-man revolutionary at the helm of a unique Roma integration project. Since Romania’s entry into the EU in 2007, Fântânele, a largely Pentecostal Roma slum on Bucharest’s outskirts, has been the departure point of a mass Roma exodus towards… one particular building in Neukölln.

Today nearly everyone in Fântânele’s 7000-strong community has a family member or friend living in one of the 137 high-ceilinged family flats of the Arnold-Fortuin-Haus at Harzer Straße 65. Entering the newly renovated ensemble of four Altbau buildings, it is hard to believe that three years ago locals were referring to the building as the “Rat’s Nest of Neukölln”.

By early 2011, Harzer Straße 65 had become a shining example of Sinti-Roma non-integration. Fântânele’s Roma diaspora had landed in an anti-nirvana of nauseating filth, ruthless exploitation and spiritual poverty.

The hardened property evaluator made an on-the-spot decision. Firstly, to make a dash for the streets and fresh air. And secondly, to buy the Rat’s Nest. Roma, rats, rubbish and all.

The four-storey building’s German owner had discovered an El Dorado on his decomposing doorstep: a scam charging Fântânele’s Roma migrants €200 per month to sleep six or more to a room in his squalid flats. Plastic sheets replaced broken window panes. Cellars became dual-purpose facilities for storing rubbish and effluent pouring from broken drains. Head-high, maggot-infested heaps of rubbish graced the inner courtyard. Rats swarmed.

Yet for 800-odd Fântânele Roma and a band of hardcore German boozers and battlers, the Rat’s Nest was “home”.

Berlin’s usually fussy health inspectors turned a blind eye to the place. Officially it was hands-off and strictly off-limits. The only official visits the Rat’s Nest ever got were regular ones from Neukölln’s police to make arrests or serve warrants. Day and night.

Scarcely had the 2011 New Year’s celebrations died down when Harzer Straße 65’s Fagin-esque owner abandoned ship, dumping the Rat’s Nest and its motley crew on Berlin’s unsuspecting property market (he didn’t pay his bills). The world’s worst piece of real estate was up for sale.


Not surprisingly, potential investors turned up their noses at the prospect of adding Neukölln’s stinking Rat’s Nest to their investment portfolios. Enter Benjamin Marx. The chief project manager for the Catholic-owned-and-run Aachener Siedlungs- und Wohnungsbaugesellschaft (Aachener Housing Association) had been sent up from Cologne to evaluate the building’s investment potential.

Punctually at 11am on Thursday, May 5, 2011, Marx entered the Rat’s Nest. Ten minutes later, he was back out on the street in a state of shock. A robust, barrel-chested man, Marx thought he’d seen everything in his 20-plus years as project manager. But nothing could have prepared him for this.

“It’s impossible to describe the stench that hit you when you walked in,” recalls Marx, his large, round Prussian-blue eyes bulging and his face pinching up in horror as he mentally revisits his first impression on that spring morning. “The cellars were overflowing with old mattresses and rotting rubbish all festering in a sea of effluent. It was impossible to get near them, let alone enter them.”

But most galling of all for the 59-year-old devout Catholic was the scene being played out in the Rat’s Nest’s courtyard. “There were two little Roma girls playing in the head-high piles of stinking rubbish while rats crawled around them.” Marx had seen enough. He didn’t need to inspect the Rat’s Nest’s squalid flats.

The hardened property evaluator made an on-the-spot decision. Firstly, to make a dash for the streets and fresh air. And secondly, to buy the Rat’s Nest. Roma, rats, rubbish and all.

“It all happened in 10 minutes. If I’d thought any longer about it, I would never have done it. Too many doubts would have entered my head – and I had plenty of them,” recalls Marx.

His managers at Aachener headquarters back in Cologne braced themselves for yet another of “Mad” Marx’s moments of madness. But there was a method to it. Where others saw darkness, Marx saw light. Where his contemporaries saw a gypsy ghetto, Marx saw human potential. Where others practised stage exits, Marx practised brotherly love, a legacy of his deeply Catholic education.

His religious instruction teacher at school was Father Arnold Fortuin – the Sinti and Roma’s Oscar Schindler of WWII. Father Fortuin had famously smuggled hundreds of Roma away from Hitler’s Germany thanks to an “underground railway into France”. Marx would give them a home in Berlin.

A long, solo two-hour walk in Neukölln’s migrant-packed streets followed. Marx needed time to grapple with the scope of his multi-million-euro purchase of the Rat’s Nest. In the Roma’s 600-year European history, Marx’s snap decision marked a watershed moment. It also marked one for Marx. Until then, he had been a property developer. Now he was a revolutionary pioneer hell-bent on Sinti and Roma integration.

During Marx’s introspective stroll, he realised his Aachener managers in Cologne would be demanding explanations about the soundness of his quixotic call to purchase this open cesspit. Marx knew he was sailing dangerous, uncharted waters. He would need to forge a master plan. And quickly. In the end, his plan was as simple as it was ingenious: none. He would tackle each hurdle as it came.

Marx’s first “no-plan” plan was to engage a professional rat catcher. “They caught over 2000 rats,” says Marx in his deadpan way. Rubbish removalists, armed with gas masks, protective gloves and overalls, fought their way into the cellars, courtyard and stairwells, filling over 50 industrial-sized skips with festering filth. “I warned them to report any bodies they found immediately to the police,” recalls Marx. Fortunately, the Rat’s Nest’s harboured no skeletons in its closets.

Then Marx enlisted an army of tradesmen to gut and renovate the Rat’s Nest with the Roma employed as off-siders. In little more than a year, Marx transformed the four buildings hugging the corners of Harzer Straße and Treptowerstraße into a first-class ensemble of classic, high-ceilinged Berlin apartments for families of up to 10 children at user-friendly rates of €300-500 per flat per month.

Marx’s multi-million-euro investment began turning a profit. The Rat’s Nest, now re-christened the Arnold-Fortuin-Haus, had lost none of its former stand-out status. Instead, its neighbours now looked rather drab in comparison.

No problems, only situations

Faced with huge language barriers, Marx and the Roma threatened to pass like two ships in the night. The largely illiterate Roma spoke little German and understood even less of German culture. Marx spoke zero Romanian, let alone the Roma’s Romani mother tongue, not to mention not even having the faintest idea about the Roma’s secret sign language used for tough situations.

His first recruiting coup was German-speaking Romanian Ana Maria Berger. Just three months after the cellars had been emptied and disinfected, Marx interviewed Berger in one of the Rat’s Nest’s former cesspits, now a Persil-white conference room.

“As a native Romanian I was brought up with negative attitudes to Sinti and Roma. After the first interview with Herr Marx, I thought, oh my God, what have I got myself into?” says Berger without a hint of understatement. Berger’s battles with the Rat’s Nest’s German drug addicts and alcoholics, racist Turks and Arabs, neo-Nazi house invasions and conflicts with Roma upset at losing social rank with the advent of Marx drove her to the edge of a nervous breakdown. Some experiences were so underground and off the radar that Berger could only come to grips with them by treating them as bad dreams rather than reality.

Now, after three tumultuous years, Berger is Marx’s first officer and chief troubleshooter. “Herr Marx delegates the decision-making. First and foremost we have to find the solutions ourselves. We only call Herr Marx as a last resort.”

She’s assisted by two full-time social workers from the Catholic-run Caritas charity housed in the building. “Herr Marx’s Roma integration concept works. It’s a Sisyphean task, but I am convinced it’s the only way forward.” As a fully-fledged convert to Marxism of the Roma kind, the small yet heroic Berger intends to play a leading hand in Marx’s future Roma integration projects.

Marx runs a strict ship. He keeps the rules simple and deals with the Roma on an equal footing. Respect is the operative word. Words such as “problems” do not exist in Marx’s vocabulary; rather, they’re “situations”.

Skipping class at the Hans Fallada school – just 50 metres away up Harzer Straße – is not tolerated, as education is the keel plate on which the Roma children will build their German futures. Marx initiated a drive to hire German-speaking, Romanian-born teachers for the school. German classes are also compulsory for all those on board “Marx’s Ark”, young and old.

For Fântânele’s downtrodden Roma, Marx is the Messiah. “Marx” has also become a common name at Roma christenings. “They call me the Father of the Roma,” says Marx.

And like the captain of any good ship, Marx maintains a respectful distance from his crew in order to avoid feelings of envy and favouritism arising among the ranks. His home in Cologne provides the necessary aloofness. “My chief aim is to make myself redundant,” says Marx. He nearly is. Alas, Marx is a lone voice in the wilderness of Roma integration.

Death threats

‘Gratitude’ for Marx’s bold Neukölln Roma initiative flooded in via emails and letters – anonymous death threats. “I was shocked at first. But as they were anonymous, I didn’t take much notice. Once they realised I wasn’t intimidated, the death threats stopped too,” says Marx.

His efforts to bring locals and Roma together at round-table gatherings to get to know one another and sort out problems – “Situations,” corrects Marx – suffered an equally quick death. No Germans turned up. The solitary German lady who lent a hand to her new Roma neighbours got the cold shoulder treatment.

“Children shit on the stairways and they go stealing,” complains Arnold-Fortuin-Haus co-caretaker Detlef Kupke. “The fathers take their belts off and give the kids a hiding. What sort of treatment is that?” Kupke is one of the 30 Germans still living in the building – their numbers rapidly dwindling.

Former bar owner Klaus Winkelmann was born and bred in Harzer Straße. He spent his complete 55-year working life as the owner of Sturmecke, a pub on the Rat’s Nest’s corner, soon to be re-opened as an art centre. “The Roma men have nothing to do except to bonk their wives and trade cars to Romania to earn a buck on the side. On the weekends, the park’s overrun with Roma families all living on our tax money. It’s a complete disaster,” complains Winkelmann.

Marx dismisses the claims. “You know what? Roma are people too, not angels. I have never and would never claim that. In a group of 500 people there are certainly going to be all types of human characters present, both good and bad as in any human group. But, no, the kids don’t shit on the stairways and Roma fathers don’t belt their children.”

His only supporters, counter-intuitively, are Neukölln’s police. “They’re our best friends,” says Marx proudly. Despite the sharp spike in Roma numbers, the district police are positive they haven’t recorded any increase in crime levels.

Marx’s critics wonder why the Roma can’t be helped in their home countries with a model along the lines of Marx’s Ark. A good question. To this day, neither the Romanian nor the Bulgarian ambassadors have set foot in the Arnold-Fortuin-Haus. “A couple of under-secretaries appeared and then disappeared just as quickly as they had arrived,” says Marx dryly. Obviously no reports have ever reached home.

“It’s true that Neukölln is no bed of roses for the Roma, but the outlook for them at home is even worse.”

The view from Fântânele

Last year, Marx undertook the 36-hour bus ride south to assess the on-ground situation in Fântânele. Unpaved streets, no sewerage, chaotic planning, run-down buildings and poor educational standards highlighted an almost complete lack of government or local council infrastructure. Romania’s Roma have the highest levels of unemployment and illiteracy in the country.

Although Romanian ambassador Lazăr Comănescu assured us that things were improving rapidly, from 2000 to 2010, little of the EU’s €300 million set aside for integration projects filtered down to its 1.6 million Sinti and Roma because of Romania’s rampant corruption – in 2010, Romania was reported to have spent less than 2 percent of EU funds allocated for Roma integration.

Conditions for Romania’s and Bulgaria’s entry into the EU in 2007 included establishing an office for Sinti and Roma integration as well as engaging an anti-discrimination officer, but “when I was in Romania, the anti-discrimination officer told me that he was just there for the window dressing,” says Marx.

Just moments before Marx’s scheduled meeting with Romanian President Victor Ponta, the meeting was cancelled because of “an urgent conference with EU finance ministers”. The time after that, in January 2014, it was a snowstorm.

German cynics accuse the Romanian government of deliberately neglecting their Sinti and Roma populations in the hope they will pack their bags and trek north. It is an accusation the Romanian government certainly does nothing to allay.

Despite all the EU’s hype about integrating Europe’s 12.6 million Roma – a ‘minority’ larger than the entire population of Belgium – Brussels-based bureaucrats continue to sit on their hands too. Marx’s Ark seems to sail alone in an ocean of empty rhetoric. “Up till now, we haven’t received one cent in funding from the EU or Romania,” says Marx.

Support from Germany’s Central Council for Sinti and Roma has also been nonexistent. “Finally we’ve got its chairman Romani Rose on board, but first we had to make him realise that he is not just representing Germany’s Roma but those from other countries as well. It’s taken a long time,” says Marx, who proudly reports that Rose congratulated him for “achieving virtually overnight what the Central Council had been fighting about for decades” – to show Roma integration works, as simply as that.

“That is exactly what makes the politicians keep quiet about the project, be they German, European or Romanian. We’ve thrown a spanner in the works and they’re unhappy about it. They just want to pigeonhole us away and forget the matter, but it won’t happen because the media keeps knocking at our door,” says Marx. More recent support came in the person of new foreign minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier, who singled out Arnold-Fortuin-Haus as a model integration project.

For Fântânele’s impoverished Roma, the project offers a chance to escape a vicious circle of marginalisation and exclusion. Under dictator Nicolae Ceaușescu, life in the Romania wasn’t great, and since the collapse of socialism, Roma existence went from bad to worse with Pentecostalist missionaries circling like vultures over post-communist Europe, eyeing easy prey. By converting from the Romanian Orthodox church to Pentecostalism, Fântânele’s Roma slipped from outcasts to untouchables.

On the plus side, after the Roma’s baptism by the Holy Spirit in a ritual featuring speaking in tongues, Fântânele’s Pentecostal Roma no longer drink nor smoke. For them, the 10 Commandments are God’s literal word: no stealing, no killing, no adultery.

Roma are people too, not angels. In a group of 500 people there are certainly going to be all types of human characters, both good and bad. But, no, the kids don’t shit on the stairways and Roma fathers don’t belt their children.

Birth control, however, is not one of them, as attested by their typically large families. Heading north means a better future for Roma children, but conservative politicians point to another reality: thanks to Germany’s generous welfare, it is also a state-sponsored life for the parents.

No benefit tourism here

Roma families in Germany are entitled to child support allowances of up to 20 times more than the miserable €100 they receive in Fântânele. First and second children receive €184, third children €190 and each child after that €215. “It’s all legal. They’re entitled to it,” defends Marx. The UK drastically tightened its welfare laws to discourage migrants from Romania and Bulgaria.

Germany’s outgoing Interior Minister Hans-Peter Friedrich has called for a conference of EU ministers to stem poverty migration and social welfare abuse – in-speak for Sinti and Roma. To Marx, it’s all classic knee-jerk thinking. “They’ve got the wrong end of the stick. Rather than seek its cause, they think knocking the effect on its head will solve it,” he says.

Berger further dismisses the claim of so-called benefit tourism, at least among the residents of Harzer Straße 65. Before January 2014, Berlin Roma got around laws limiting their legal right to work by applying for work permits as self-employed entrepreneurs, generally scrap metal dealing or cleaning. Since January they’re entitled to work legally and use welfare to supplement their earnings.

“In almost all families, there is at least one parent who is working. Only two or three families live off welfare only. Many have temporary jobs, like cleaning for a few nights at a fashion fair”

According to Berger, getting Hartz-IV has always been a problem, thanks to what Germany sees as a non-obligation to pay EU migrants the same benefits as German nationals – the families that receive benefits had to take the Jobcenter to court, with the help of pro-bono legal aid.

The next wave

The litmus test for Marx’s Ark lies ahead when the next wave of Roma migrants washes up on Berlin’s and Germany’s shores. As of January, Romanians and Bulgarians are legally able to work in Germany, meaning that many more of Fântânele’s Roma will certainly be heading north in 2014. Just how many remains uncertain.

“Most of them will be everyday Romanian and Bulgarian battlers,” predicts Marx, fencing off the question. He has counter plans – he intends to turn Fântânele into a holiday camp for German students so they can see where their Roma neighbours come from. The first camp is planned for summer 2014.

Marek Kraft, manager of Obeka Electrical Supplies directly opposite the former Rat’s Nest, witnessed the migration of Fântânele Roma to Neukölln turn viral. “The first thing I noticed was the mounting rubbish. Then the Roma in increasing numbers. Finally there were so many of them, it became impossible not to see them,” says Kraft.

The cause was the tightly-knit Roma clan structure. Once one family member had established himself in the Rat’s Nest, the rest of the family followed. Brothers- and sisters-in-law and their huge families followed suit. Then cousins and friends jumped on the bandwagon. Overnight the building became a Fântânele satellite. “It’s horrific,” mumbles Kraft’s assistant in the background. There is no reason Fântânele’s Roma migration could not turn viral again.

Meanwhile, like every other Wednesday morning, Marx clambers aboard his landlocked Ark to iron out the folds and creases in the Roma’s everyday life. He organises jobs, flats, social welfare and German courses for his flock.

In 2014, Marx intends to extend a helping hand to Roma living on Scharnweberstraße in north Berlin. And he’s now working on setting up a similar integration project in Romania. Undoubtedly he will be facing many new and unexpected “situations”. But if anyone is capable of navigating these dangerous waters, it’s Benjamin Marx and his edict that there are no impossible situations, just people who can or can’t deal with them. Marx will.

At the bus stop in front of Arnold-Fortuin-Haus, three Roma young boys stand laughing among themselves, probably happy to be away from the confines of home and parents. “What are you laughing at?” snaps an overweight, middle-aged German woman with three children. Marx is right. Humanity is an assortment of all sorts of characters, good and bad.

Originally published in issue #125, March 2014.