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.
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,”
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
more than a patient — he’s become a friend,” says 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
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.
[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?”
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
“We sat in a
frozen car. We drove to a little stone bridge,” he says. “It was
winter, and I walked into the snow.”
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’
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.
movies are “crap,” he says. (“He made one good picture. What’s the
one with the Faberge egg?”)
are strong and his larger-than-life presence sometimes intimidating,
but Marienthal’s class is a moving experience some say changed their
“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.”
cares deeply about his students, sending them long, detailed e-mails
at all hours, even as he battles for energy to stay awake.
cutting dozens of adjunct professors this year because of state
budget cuts, UNCA preserved his position.
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.”
taught seven students in his advanced screenwriting workshop last
week, he paused about two hours into class, exhausted and unable to
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.
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
arrived in the United States, the last word Marienthal received from
his father came from Belgium.
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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
describe how they fell in love, she smiles.
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.
intervening years, he became a grandfather.
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.
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.”
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
For now, he