Citizen Times, Asheville
By Jonathan Walczak • March 14, 2010

The Holocaust. Hitler. A spray of machine gun bullets in World War II.

Hal Marienthal survived them all. Now, the 86-year-old faces a new challenge: an internal growth that may kill him.

Some days, when he finds himself staring at the walls in his Asheville house, drained of energy, he thinks back to his childhood.

As a 6-year-old boy, he survived on his own in the dark woods of Nazi Germany, living off the kindness of strangers and often falling asleep on the forest floor.

The experience prepped him for a lifetime of pain- the death of his father in a concentration camp, watching a machine gun rip apart his close friend in World War II, and now cancer.

“I’m a survivor,” he says, and there may not be any more appropriate word to describe him.

Marienthal should be drained. He should be depressed. He should be dead.

But even as he battles two types of cancer with a grueling regimen of chemotherapy and radiation, he continues to teach screenwriting workshops at UNC Asheville. And on sunny days, he makes his way to the golf course, where he puts on a small, knit cap to shield his bald head from the sun and brisk winter breeze.

He may be losing hair, he says, but he isn’t losing hope. “One of these days, I’ll say, ‘That’s enough.’ But that time is not yet,” he says. “I’ve got a lot of stuff left to do.”

As Hitler spoke above, Marienthal hid in sewer

The little boy darted through the deserted streets of Nazi Germany, ducking behind cars as cheers thundered in the distance.

A Jew and the son of a Communist, he raced towards a sewer, where he planned to hide as Hitler spoke blocks away. Reaching his destination, Marienthal dropped into the dark, subterranean confines of Dortmund, an industrial city about 300 miles west of Berlin.

It was 1934, and Nazi soldiers had imprisoned his father, Oskar, so Marienthal fled, in search of a place to hide until Hitler left town. “I could have given up,” he says. “I sat in a sewer, with stinking sludge coming down, Hitler up above, my father in [prison], hungry, miserable, friendless. The thought occurred to me, ‘What for?”


Marienthal’s mother died during childbirth in 1929. His father, a propagandist and writer for the German Communist Party, felt overwhelmed by Marienthal and his sister, Lieselotte, so he dropped them off at an orphanage. “They didn’t know about babysitters in those days, and he didn’t want his 8-year-old daughter babysitting for her 6-year-old brother. He was stuck, so he dumped us,” Marienthal says.

After several miserable months — the food was horrible, the kids cruel, and he couldn’t stop wetting his bed — Marienthal decided to run away. “I started getting mean and hitting people. They wanted to send me back to my father. They wanted to get rid of me, so I ran,” he says.

Until he returned to live with his father three years later, Marienthal slept in the woods, stayed with friendly locals and spent some nights in barns. The women often took pity on the bone thin, dirty little boy who showed up on their doorsteps. “They saw a little kid. They didn’t know what had happened to him, but by 1929, 1930 and 1931, people understood who I was. They knew I was on the lam,” he says.

First lymphoma, now bladder cancer too

“How bad is your pain on a scale of one to 10?” nurse Robyn Warnell asks Marienthal as he sits in a small examination room in Mission Hospital.

“About four and three-quarters,” he says, laughing. “I’m going to have to round that up to five, OK?” Warnell says, glancing up at Marienthal as they continue several minutes of banter.

Life is never too hard for humor, Marienthal says.

In November, Marienthal began a regimen of chemotherapy and radiation to treat his lymphoma, which he’s had for nine years. Though he previously underwent several surgeries, Marienthal for years resisted more intensive treatment until he was diagnosed last fall with bladder cancer too. Now, the treatment for his lymphoma relatively successful, Marienthal is embarking on a new regimen to fight his bladder cancer. “After five weeks, I’m declared cancer-free, and then I’m ready to get pneumonia!” he jokes.

Warnell looks up again. "Why, are you bored?” she asked.

Marienthal, a successful author, has become a member of the family on the bottom floor of Mission, where many employees have read his books and hug him as he walks down the hall.

The day Marienthal found out he had bladder cancer, his radiation oncologist, Matthew Hull, was set to be his caddy in a charity golf tournament. They never made it onto the green.

“He’s become more than a patient — he’s become a friend,” says Hull.

Hull and Wieslawa Pekal, Marienthal’s other oncologist, are using targeted radiation and a cocktail of drugs to battle his cancer. Marienthal has more stamina than many of his older patients, Hull says. “Amazing, for a guy who’s 86 years old, he got chemotherapy that would knock out a 50-year-old, and he just kept going and working,” he says.

Escape from Nazi Germany

Sitting in the dimly lighted den of his Asheville home, his raspy voice echoing off the walls, Marienthal grimaces with pain from an old injury as he raises his left arm to point at photos and awards.

“Some [expletive] Nazi kid of the Hitler Youth caught me with his buddies, laid me on a tree stump and broke my arms,” he says. “What can I tell you about that? That’s the act of an animal, right?”

In December of 1935, Marienthal began a three-month odyssey to escape Germany.

Only 12, he parted with his father, as the man who left him on his own once before did so again. But this time, Marienthal had something better than an orphanage waiting on the other end of his journey: a warm bed with family friends in Chicago. He just needed to make it out of the country.

“We sat in a frozen car. We drove to a little stone bridge,” he says. “It was winter, and I walked into the snow.”

The Nazis were looking for him, and Marienthal barely made it to Hamburg to board a ship for New York City.

A woman who worked for the shipping company discovered his true identity, but gave him a place to sleep and didn’t impede his escape.

“She was a true Christian, in the best sense of that word,” Marienthal says. “She took pity on me.

‘Students are my lifeblood’

As a professor, Marienthal is an electric presence, but his class is not for the thin-skinned. He applies the same constructive criticism to his students as he does to modern-day Hollywood.

Tom Cruise movies are “crap,” he says. (“He made one good picture. What’s the one with the Faberge egg?”)

His opinions are strong and his larger-than-life presence sometimes intimidating, but Marienthal’s class is a moving experience some say changed their lives.

“He has been a huge influence on me,” says Kevin Payne, a current student. “He’s taught me a lot about the craft, and even helped me get an assignment writing a screenplay for a published author.”

Marienthal cares deeply about his students, sending them long, detailed e-mails at all hours, even as he battles for energy to stay awake.

Despite cutting dozens of adjunct professors this year because of state budget cuts, UNCA preserved his position.

“His availability to and caring for our students has become legend,” Provost Jane Fernandes wrote in an e-mail. “Hal has been generous with his time, his energy and his professional connections, helping our students long after their graduations.”

As Marienthal taught seven students in his advanced screenwriting workshop last week, he paused about two hours into class, exhausted and unable to continue.

“I’m tired,” he said.

Yet his day didn’t end there. Once home, Marienthal reviewed work from students in California he teaches over the Internet, and from two prisoners he’s mentoring. His students are, in part, the reason he is still alive, Marienthal says.

“My students are my lifeblood. I’m very passionate about them,” he says. “I’ve got some good kids right now, and they’re working hard.

Findings His Father

After he arrived in the United States, the last word Marienthal received from his father came from Belgium.

One day, as he settled into his new life, Marienthal received a single postcard. “I’m trying to get passage,” his father wrote. And then nothing.

More than 40 years after fleeing Germany, Marienthal made a trip to Buchenwald, the notorious concentration camp where tens of thousands were killed.

At the end of his visit, Marienthal walked into a bookstore and found a book with photos of Jews entering the gates of another camp, Auschwitz.

“And I opened this book, and there in the middle of the book was my father going into the camp,” Marienthal said.

“It’s the first I ever knew that he died at Auschwitz,” he says. “It was kind of a blow, as you can imagine — a picture of my father with this little satchel walking in.”

From Hitler to the Himalayas

At the beginning of World War II, Marienthal signed up for the U.S. Navy and was part of a bomber squadron in the Pacific that lost half its people, he says, including his friend Leon.

“We were attacked by a squad of Zeros who closed in on the tail and literally blew up my buddy in front of me, blew him up, pieces,” he says.

After the war, Marienthal spent much of his life working in the entertainment industry in California, writing for television shows, teaching screenwriting and running a small production company.

His first marriage, to a woman Marienthal says brought him great happiness, but also great misery, lasted 25 years and produced five children.

In 1978, he met his current wife, Sabine, in Germany. The striking blonde, who is 26 years younger than her husband and works as a Realtor here, says Marienthal’s capacity for joy is one of the things she most loves.

Asked to describe how they fell in love, she smiles.

“Well, he’s irresistible, so that was easy,” she says.

At age 60, not long after he met Sabine, Marienthal climbed 20,000 feet up mountains and glaciers in the shadow of Mount Everest, he says.

In the intervening years, he became a grandfather.

Eli Marienthal, one of his grandchildren, was a successful actor who appeared in many films, including “American Pie.” In “Confessions of a Teenage Drama Queen,” he played Lindsay Lohan’s love interest and starred alongside “Transformers” star Megan Fox.

“He’s one of my favorite people in the world,” Marienthal says of his grandson, who recently graduated from Brown University.

Moving forward

Though treatment for Marienthal’s lymphoma was successful, there’s no guarantee of success as doctors treat his bladder cancer.

“That will be a little bit more difficult. Hopefully, we will get a good response again, but it’s hard to predict and I am worried,” says Hull, Marienthal’s radiation oncologist.

Yet, even as he juggles treatment, teaching and time spent baking challah with his wife, Marienthal continues to work on a new book.

“Ill give you the title: It’s called, ‘Oh, To Be 80 Again!” he says, his face adorned with a wide, toothy grin. “It’s a satire, kind of. … It has to do with health, attitudes, my own experiences and attitudes.”

Marienthal knows he could die tomorrow, but he’s not afraid. He figures he has five or six years left, and he doesn’t want to spend them worrying about death.

For now, he lives.





Asheville, NC


What: Public Reading and Book Signing - Hal Marienthal’s New Novel
Nicholas Icarus or The Man Who Flew


Where: Malaprop’s Bookstore/Cafe


 Nicholas Icarus or The Man Who Flew.

After working as a nighttime janitor for seventeen years at a Chicago technical institute, thirty-seven-year-old Nicholas "Nick" Stolarski senses something unusual about this particular evening. When he investigates a strange sound coming from a laboratory, his first impulse is to stop the irritating noise by any means possible. By flipping switches and turning on gadgets, Nick unleashes a secret Pentagon experiment that alters the structure of his body. Suddenly, Nick has the amazing ability to fly.

It’s not long before a hotshot reporter breaks the news to the outside world and the Pentagon catches wind of the story. Nick becomes a national phenomenon, rousing the imagination of the advertising industry and ushering in a pushy Hollywood talent agent. Entrepreneurs view him as an economic opportunity as Nick catapults to celebrity status.

Nick’s rise to international notoriety brings fame and fortune, but it comes at a cost to his family relationships. Now, Nick must determine what is truly important in his life before he loses all that he loves.

Nicholas Icarus Or The Man Who Flew explores the lasting impact of fame in today’s society as it traces one man’s incredible journey from ordinary human being to extraordinary star.


“An exciting and entertaining read that made me smile from beginning to end.”                                                      

                   Walter Wells

                   Author of “Silent Theater: The Art of Edward Hopper