BERLIN—Melitta Martens was in fourth grade and having a bad day. Other kids giggled when her teacher handed out diagrams of the body in a sex education class but she declared that it made her feel sick and walked out of the room.
A few months later, her whole family was in the news and adult men were talking earnestly on YouTube about how brave they thought she was.
That was some five years ago when and Melitta’s father, Eugen, a furniture maker and devout Christian, flatly refused to pay a €150 fine (about $200 at the time) after his daughter skipped two more compulsory sex education classes at her primary school in the small town of Eslohe-Reiste. After multiple reminders in the mail, he had to spend a night in jail.
That’s a standard penalty for minor infractions that go unresolved in Germany. It can happen to you if you get caught riding the subway without a ticket. But unlike all the juvenile fare jumpers, when Eugen Martens walked out of jail after his short stint in custody he was greeted by an amateur camera team and about 20 protesters, including his wife Luisa and their 10 children. The kids—some holding hands, others holding signs—were neatly lined up in front of the adults. A young boy wore a T-shirt with a crossed-out Playboy bunny on it.
“How does it feel to be free?” a fresh-faced TV presenter asked Martens.
“Um, free-er,” the latter replied. Meanwhile, the grown-ups in the background chanted: “For how long will the political establishment remain silent about this scandal?”
The Martens kids don’t go to school in Eslohe-Reiste anymore. Today, the family is living in the southern Russian town of Stavropol, in a three-story house that belongs to Vladimir Poluboyarenko, a former local official and entrepreneur who once led a campaign against a food business because its unlicensed products were giving local school kids acute intestinal disease.
Poluboyarenko still spends his time getting involved in local court cases. And when an acquaintance in Vienna, a middle-aged man with a law degree named Garri Mourei, sent him an article from the Russian newspaper Moskovskij Komsomolets that was written about the family last year, he felt he had to take action.
The article detailed the plight of the “sex refugees”—i.e., the Martens family—who fled from what they perceived as the forced “porn education” of their kids in Germany to go live in a rural Siberian village in December 2016. (Despite a growing HIV epidemic, the Russian government does not offer any sex education in schools.) The Martens were ethnic Russians and thought that in Siberia they could take up farming, but they left after just two months. And they had no place to return to in Germany, given that they sold their house there.
Poluboyarenko wanted to “correct the mistake” of the Russian officials who did not take care of the German asylum seekers in Siberia, he told a reporter last November. So last year he offered the family a place in his home. But ex-law student Mourei, who now heads a fairly unknown organization with a serious name, the European Information Center for Human Rights, and who first got in touch with Eugen Martens after seeing him quoted saying “Germany is an occupied country,” is still not satisfied:
“What this family has been through is like something out of a Spielberg movie,” Mourei told The Daily Beast. But despite his efforts to make the latest twist in their saga a big story, he’s been frustrated. “The German press reported on the family coming back, they made fun of them; but did you read a single article about the Martens moving back to Russia?” he asks, his voice speeding up. “Nein. NEIN!”
Of course, there have always been people who worry that their kids will be steered toward promiscuity if they sit in a classroom and learn about how babies are made.
But four years ago German states started asking schools to teach kids to accept sexual and gender diversity (in addition to handing out the standard “where do I come from” brochures). And around the country, various fringe conservative groups freaked out about worksheets that would challenge students to open their minds with questions like, “Is it possible that your heterosexuality is just a phase and that you will overcome this phase?”
One of the conspicuous figures in the protests was Matthias Ebert, 29, who tried, none too successfully, to soften the homophobic image of the anti-sex-ed activists.
“Come over to us, we have nothing against gay people!” Ebert shouted at counter-demonstrators holding up rainbow flags as he spoke to a rally four years ago in Cologne against “early sexualization in kindergartens and schools.” Sniffling with a cold, he warned parents about things that were simply not true—that new lesson plans include make-believe business tasks with dildos and handcuffs, for example. And that it all starts in kindergarten, too.
Finally, Ebert expressed his great concern for the “injustice being done against the Martens family,” who were standing nearby. Ebert called for Eugen Martens to come and join him on stage, joking, “Let’s see what the dangerous criminals who go to jail in Germany look like.”
In the years since, Ebert has added music to his screeds, performing at the annual congress held by Ivo Sasek, a trained car mechanic based in Switzerland who is the leader of a religious cult called the Organische Christen Generation. Eugene Martens and his family belong to this movement as well.
Ebert has been filmed doing funky song and dance (and rap!) numbers on a variety of subjects, whether God or vaccinations, usually with his backup band, “Familie Ebert.” At one event, his wife sang a song called “Wake Up,” because, she explained, “programming kids so that they no longer function” is “child murder.”
Encouraging all-round paranoia is a textbook way for a cult leader like Sasek to keep his people faithful. So is preaching doomsday scenarios. Sasek himself insists that the devil is trying to stop the birth of a god-like generation with sex education, abortions, and parents who don’t discipline their kids enough.
When we reached Sasek for comment, he seemed cross. “Why has there been no outrage in the media against the criminal paedophile-ring that is behind the early sexualisation of our children?” he wrote, “Perhaps because many of you are part of it?”
Ebert’s performances at Sasek’s conferences were captured by Klagemauer TV, one of Sasek’s many media platforms, which also covered Eugen Marten’s earlier incarceration. Klagemauer TV is less about showcasing God than it is about current events via the lens of conspiracy theorists. The intention, as one former believer put it, is to attract people, who “like to think against the current.”
For example, there are people like Garri Mourei, the self-proclaimed human rights activist. He, for one, is a fan of Klagemauer TV: “Of course I don’t watch it for the Christian stuff, I watch it for the political news,” he tells us, chuckling.
When the Martens family abruptly left their small town in Siberia last year, they did not say goodbye to any of the villagers, some of whom had donated groceries and warm clothes—winter boots and rabbit fur hats—to the Germans when they arrived with tales of a lesbian school teacher and toddlers being made to play “doctor” games.
One journalist, Rostislav Aliyev, who gifted Eugen Martens with his mother’s desk, tells us that he was disappointed that it didn’t work out (“I am a big romantic and thought the Martens would win over the climate”). But other locals were not really surprised that the asylum seekers had changed their minds and decided to return home so quickly; “They recommended [the Martens] move to a region where there are more Germans and where the climate is warmer,” Aliyev says.
The house in the village had been abandoned for 20 years before the Martens moved in, with peeling walls and a leaking roof. There was no bathroom. To get water, you have to go to a pump down the street.
The government program to resettle ethnic Russians from abroad in Russia, which Eugen and his wife Luisa both applied to, provided him with a one-time cash allowance of 130,000 rubles ($2,200 dollars). That’s barely twice the monthly child support that the Martens family was entitled to in Germany.
But for an activist like Garri Mourei, that shouldn’t matter, which is why he called up his friend Vladimir Poluboyarenko to give the family a better deal. “What about the soul?” he asks. “There is bread in Germany,” he says, but in his eyes “there is no freedom, no future for the family.”