He was born in Berlin as the youngest son of a family with scholarly and cultural interests. When he was still a small child, he left Germany with his mother and oldest brother just in time in 1939 – for China were he spent the best part of his childhood. Two of his siblings remained in Germany. His godmother, whom he was not to see for many years, was a Waldorf teacher in Marburg.
His father, Walter Liebenthal (1886–1982), was a well known Chinese scholar and had gone ahead as early as 1933 and a year later obtained a research post in the Sino-Indian Institute of Yanjing Universität in Beijing. Walter’s mother and her two sons arrived in China in Kunming. Walter went to school in various Chinese cities and learnt Chinese more thoroughly than most Chinese can speak and write it today.
It was a difficult time so Walter’s mother did sewing and embroidery work to earn some extra money. For as long as it was still possible, she grew vegetables in a small garden. Liebenthal’s childhood was not easy. In a short autobiography he reported about the arbitrary executions he witnesses as a small child. Thus he wrote: “Now the marching music blaring from the large loudspeakers was repeatedly interrupted by the executions of the traitors. One could hear the parents of the accused, the screams and tears, which ended with a shot; then the next person was brought forward to be shot. This carried on for the whole year. I never went to the place of execution but on the way to school there were constant wagons with soldiers with bayonets and a tied up person with a sign over their head which had their crime written on it.”
In 1949, Liebenthal started studying Chinese painting with one of the most famous masters, also acquired solid skills in the sword dance and created an intensive bond with Chinese culture. His childhood and youth were shaped by China’s rich cultural heritage as much as by the difficult food situation and the rampages of the Red Guards. The family left Communist China in 1951 because they could no longer bear the growing number of arrests – including professors who were colleagues of his father.
Later on, Liebenthal produced the first Chinese translations of some of Rudolf Steiner’s works but they remained little known. Back in Europe, he initially travelled to Vienna where his sister Hanna had survived. He subsequently studied eurythmy in Stuttgart and England. There was, however, nothing to keep him in Europe and so he moved to his brothers in Argentina. There he became acquainted with Erwin Kovács, the priest of the Christian Community in Buenos Aires, and his wife Leonora and through them came into contact again with anthroposophy and Waldorf education.
His love of Chinese culture created a bond with Leonora Kovács because, although born in Berlin, she was half Chinese and had grown up in Shanghai during the Nazi period where she met her husband Erwin Kovács. Liebenthal worked for a short time at the Waldorf school in Buenos Aires and was also involved in the performances of the Oberufer Christmas plays. But he did not want to stay there permanently and decided to “unravel the pullover and knit a new one”.
He finally travelled to Colombia where he first settled in Medellin at the invitation of Benedikta zur Nieden to work at the Waldorf school she had founded there. But that was not yet the place where he wanted to stay permanently either. In 1975, Liebenthal moved on to Cali from where he had been asked to teach eurythmy during a one-year teacher training course. The intention was to establish a kindergarten and school there. The pioneer teachers Carmenza Baena and Susana Rubio sought children, went from house to house and spoke about the new kindergarten. This started on 11 September 1977 in a private house which had in the meantime been rented by the Luis Horacio Gomez Foundation.
The next teacher to join was Tomasa Rivas. Liebenthal finally decided to remain in Cali and became the next teacher. He taught not only eurythmy but also music and crafts and took on a great variety of tasks. He built the first furniture for the kindergarten, for example. He lived in the school grounds of the Colegio Luis Horacio Gomez until his marriage. He retained his links to the Colegio until his death in 2011 and shaped Waldorf education in Colombia in his quiet, original and always searching nuanced way.
It seems that Liebenthal pursued concrete plans in the late 1980s to work as a lecturer at the Goethe Institute in Beijing to revise his translations into Chinese with native Chinese speakers. But the events of 3 and 4 June 1989 on Tiananmen Square put an end to his plans and he remained in Colombia. All the Chinese manuscripts prepared by Liebenthal came into the possession of Astrid Schröter in 2012 through the intervention of Leonora Kovács († 2014) and she found an interested publisher to publish them and make them available to the growing Waldorf movement in China.